Back in 1978, when I grew my first crop, the wheat price was supported by intervention buying. This was stockpiled grain in gigantic central stores financed by the EU taxpayer. The price of wheat was guaranteed at harvest (about £110 per tonne, i.e. higher than today’s price). There was a monthly incremental increase in the price throughout the year so that by the end of the old crop storage season the price rose to about £120 per tonne.
Intervention grain was then exported outside the EU on to world markets. This was done through another taxpayer funded mechanism known as export restitutions, which made up the difference between the world market price for wheat and the price guaranteed to EU farmers.
Come the early 1990s and enter Irish EU agriculture commissioner Ray MacSharry with his integrated administration and control system. This paid an area payment for whatever crops we grew with the payments adjusted to encourage us to grow crops like linseed or oilseed rape that the EU still imported.
Finally fast forward to 2005 and the introduction of the single farm payment (SFP) which scrapped all production subsidies and replaced them with a single direct area payment whether we produced any grain or not.
All these policies turned out to be highly controversial with the public. Intervention buying of wheat created huge grain mountains that were then dumped on to world markets which in turn made life very difficult for any farmers beyond EU borders trying to produce grain without subsidy. MacSharry’s 1990s reforms failed to correct this, and set aside payments – which famously paid farmers to produce nothing – also got a bad press. A decoupled SFP was supposed to simplify the subsidy regime and stop incentivising farmers to produce surpluses – but that too proved controversial due to its complexity and cost.
It’s easy, therefore, to understand why the common agricultural policy (CAP) has never been very popular with the British taxpayer and it may even be that the CAP was an important part of what drove Britons to vote to leave the EU last month.
But what is not so easy to understand is why farmers voted by a margin of four to one to leave the EU. Why be so ungrateful for 50 years of unbroken subsidy? What treatment can they expect from Westminster with the protection of the continental farm lobby now gone?
Successive British governments of all colours have lobbied hard for reductions in CAP spending. Just last month this current Tory government advocated that beef should be included in EU tariff reforms (which the current EU farm commissioner ignored) which would have allowed Brazilian beef into the UK at a price that would have crashed farmgate prices here.
I make no secret that I voted Remain and I remain baffled that so many of my farming colleagues voted Leave.