I think there will be powerful political pressure to stop the basic payment scheme (BPS) soon, stop subsidising production or land ownership and I think we should welcome this. But we should make the deal with the government that farmers do deserve generous support for delivering public goods.
Dropping the BPS should reduce land prices and rents to make farms more affordable to rent or buy. It would also make land less attractive to big industrial investors who have little interest in the land, farming or the environment and merely invest in prime land to diversify their portfolios, reduce their tax burden and inflation proof their cash. Growing corn simply cannot produce a dividend from land valued at £8,000 or more per acre on the current margins. That money is almost better under the mattress!
Small family farms, particularly upland farms, that are so crucial to maintaining the fabric of rural society and the variety of the countryside should reasonably keep an acreage grant in return for an agreed minimum environmental delivery and perhaps some permitted public access. There would probably need to be an upper acreage limit somewhere between 250 and 500 acres for lowland farms but higher for hill farms. There could also be a tapered grant up to a ceiling, and acres above the agreed limit would receive no grant while farms above a viable threshold of, say, 1,500 lowland acres would receive no area grant at all.
Big agribusinesses should require no public support for growing their produce. This will certainly adversely affect trade with the rest of Europe that remains subsidised but, as the Brexiteers promise, we can trade with the rest of the world and New Zealand copes well. The fall in the pound will help unless it is overwhelmed by the rise in input costs bought in dollars.
Our planet is faced with global warming and its consequent weather changes. Flash floods are becoming commonplace with devastating consequences. Soil quality is deteriorating along with the numbers and variety of plants, insects, birds and mammals. We protest that we are the best stewards of the countryside but we have not yet delivered. Yes we produce cheap product but with collateral damage. The yield of wild farmland birds remains pathetic even if the sharp decline from the 1970s has leveled off at a pitiably low level. Of course there are some startling, wonderful, ecologically rich oases around the country where things are as good as the seventies but they are too few.
Now is the chance to put these matters right by returning our farms to living systems and not just sterile factory floors. The public wants and needs it. The current stewardship schemes are overly bureaucratic, hair splitting, box ticking, discouraging affairs which assume farmers will fiddle the books and measurements have to be accurate to two decimal places! They are governed by process and not yield, something totally alien to farmers.
The list of things that farmers could and should receive a grant to provide is long. Improving river catchment and upland water retention to reduce flooding is crucial and depends upon farmers. Natural woodland regeneration, peat preservation, damming streams and slowing the passage of water off the hills that draw precipitation are crucial to flood management. If this means reducing upland sheep numbers and keeping them off certain parts, then the upland farmers deserve generous public support on top of maintaining traditional walls, scenery and so on. Reverting the uplands to natural regeneration may well not be the right answer but fencing off enough area from sheep would still need farm management and thus support.
In lowland areas, biodiversity should be the aim. All organic farmers should receive support simply because they greatly increase ecological diversity and raise species yield. The data is incontrovertible and I am not an organic farmer! Organic farming however is not for all so those others fortunate enough to farm the best most productive land could be persuaded, with sound support, to take the more difficult areas out of production and manage them productively for wildlife. Nicholas Watts of Vine House Farm Lincolnshire is a splendid example.
Those of us farming poorer land could take more land out of normal production and plant more hedges, grow more birdseed plots, increase cover and revert marginal arable land to species rich grassland. Winter supplementary feeding with tailings and drier residues has dramatic effects on maintaining bird numbers but takes time and effort. Measures like these and many others are deserving of taxpayers’ money and should be encouraged with generous support and backed up by evidence of yield.
The flip side of positive support is that when we pollute our rivers, or anything else, the penalties should be costly for they are nearly always preventable. No inputs should find their way into rivers. It is both wasteful and damaging. It really is scandalous that we regularly pollute water supplies with metaldehyde, which must then be removed at taxpayers’ expense.
Support requires targeting. Areas that are not farmed or deliver a public good should not be supported. Growing crops for fuel is environmental nonsense and not carbon neutral, so again should not be supported. Bio-digestion to produce fuel should be reserved for fermentable waste and could receive grants or generous product prices, but not when using grown crops. Moors used for grouse shooting should also attract no taxpayer support unless they can demonstrate a commensurate and significant non selective biodiversity. Pheasant shoots present a difficult problem. There is some species gain from the feed and cover belts used by shoots but one must question the collateral damage caused by adding 40 to 50 million big alien birds to the environment, of which less than 60% are “harvested.” What is the knock on effect of 20,000,000 free meals available to predators and scavengers? Furthermore there is no pressing need for the taxpayer to subsidise a recreation.
Farm production ought to manage without public support but where we provide a public good, we deserve the taxpayer’s recognition. Dotting the Is and crossing Ts will be difficult but the framework is already there in the countryside stewardship scheme and flood management schemes. Hard work and sensitive application can deliver something the country will be proud of and something farmers can live with, thrive on and enjoy.
Pictured: Mike Kettlewell