The government’s bold ambition for the countryside threatens to put farmers out of business, says Fen Tiger
The word sustainable is used so often these days that we often overlook its original meaning: to maintain something at a certain level or indefinitely.
Today, though, it is a word that has many meanings, depending on your context. This includes the Path to Sustainable Farming recently announced by Defra secretary George Eustice. It’s a document which seems to mention food only briefly.
Coming into effect from 1 January, the Path to Sustainable Farming is the government’s roadmap to a new system of farm support. It includes the phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme and the introduction of support based on environmental measures.
Rather than receiving an annual direct payment, the Environmental Land Management Scheme will require farmers to undertake environmental work on their land in return for financial support. It’s a system known as “public money for public goods”.
It is clear though that the Path to Sustainable Farming is a document written by bureaucrats who have never faced the tough reality of making a living from the land. They appear to see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to change British agriculture.
It is true that the system of farm support we are leaving behind has its faults. It is, in many instances, wasteful and expensive. But direct payments are also a simple and effective way of helping farmers ride out difficult and volatile times.
The new system – which the government is able to implement now the UK has left the European Union – will require farmers to do much more in return for financial support. And many people will argue that is exactly how it should be.
If you listen to environmental groups, change is needed to reverse a decline in farmland bird numbers, hedgerows and other wildlife habitats. It’s also needed to reverse pesticide and nitrate pollution.
Battle for survival
The mantra is “No more money for nothing”. The gravy train is over. Farmers will no longer be rewarded simply for owning land.
But how many farming families will be able to survive the change? It’s an important question that needs to be addressed. After all, some 60% of farms rely on the basic payment to stay in business.
Without farmers, who will feed the nation? It’s already hard enough to make a living from agriculture. Today, people spend much less of their income than they did just a generation ago. And people expect food to be cheap – or at least affordable.
In launching his Path to Sustainable Farming, George Eustice should have made clear that people must pay a fair price for food if they want the best value for money and a countryside to be proud of.
British farmers already have some of the highest food standards in the world. Cheap food only serves to undermine those standards – which is why we must keep out cut-price imports of food produced using methods that would be illegal here.
No cliff edge
The government argues that there will be no cliff edge. It has announced a seven-year transition period which, it says, will give farmers time to adapt as the old system is phased out and the new system is phased in,
Seven years seems a long time. But it isn’t – not when policy-makers remain unsure themselves of the best way to introduce the ELM scheme. Farming is long-term business. It is hard enough to plan for the future without added uncertainty.
We all came into this industry to produce food. We have all done so – despite the sometimes insurmountable challenge of trying to make a profit in the process. As a result, we have often managed our farms for meagre reward.
It is not only farmers who must adapt to the new system. So too must the Rural Payments Agency. Over the years, it has shown how difficult this can be, with late payments to farmers all too common.
In my experience, farmers are the gatekeepers of the countryside. As food producers, we have delivered – and mostly funded – nature for free. A profitable farmer is a good conservationist. But a poor one is not. The government should take note.