Ever since the Corn Laws, governments have been telling farmers what to do. Membership of the EU is no exception. With the EU referendum result last June, could this be an opportunity to make a change in farming practices for the better?
For example, nearly half of all hill-farmers’ income comes from EU CAP subsidies. For them it’s the foundation of what still amounts to scraping by; they really are just about managing. Ministers guaranteed during the recent EU referendum campaign that this financial support would be honoured until 2020. Beyond that there are no guarantees.
But this begs the question should our farmers be trying to farm this sort of land at all?
Rather than trying to grow crops on high ground that is unsuitable for doing so, would it not make a better mixed, deciduous woodland where native species such as beech, birch, holly and oak grow?
From spring to autumn our hills and dales are full with holidaymakers enjoying the countryside. Should our farmers be looking to accommodate these families? Nearly half of the population of England lives within an hour’s drive of a national park. They love coming, they stay, and the local economy benefits.
Governments cannot strike out in new directions as suddenly as individuals. Further, it is accepted that farmers and local businesses who have invested their whole lives in what they do, cannot take on too much with uncertainty about the future. Nor should we advocate the English countryside become just a forest, or a leisure park.
But sometimes an opportunity arises to tweak policy gently but decisively in a different direction, so that things begin to change, and given time, people change too. Could Brexit help us take back control of farming at last? Could this be Britain’s opportunity to lead the way in sustainable land-stewardship and compassion towards farm animals and encourage new ways to underwrite our rural economy.
Why, post-CAP, should we despoil East Anglia and plunder Treasury coffers for fear of relying on wheat or sugar from other parts of the world? Is it anti-British to take a long-term view on the type of rural Britain we want to sponsor, the size, type and location of the farms we want to support, the agriculture we want to see, and the land we think could be put to better use than inefficient crop farming?
EU subsidies have not just witnessed lower food prices and greater food security, but also overseen the removal of the copse and the hedgerow in order to do so.
Those whose livelihoods depend upon the land may take a different view about encouraging butterflies and stewardship. However, if post Brexit Britain wants to foster a more benevolent view of its farmers then we need to take a long hard look at what the EU has left us with. Large farm factories, and industrial scale farmers do not foster high regard for our countryside and those working in it.
Taking back control of how we want to farm Britain shouldn’t be left to UK ministers and those in Brussels. Brexit may offer Britain’s farmers the opportunity to lead the way.