In the 1920s, the Corn Laws (which kept UK grain prices at artificially high levels) were repealed which quickly collapsed the price of wheat as Britain was flooded with imports from the United States.
Post Brexit, we face an equally disastrous prospect of losing the basic payments scheme (BPS) and being subjected to World Trade Organisation rules (which will make it possible for cheap grain producing countries to send their grain to the UK without quota restrictions or import tariffs).
My father was born in 1912 near Lewes in East Sussex so, as he grew up, he was ideally placed to observe the impact that the repeal of the Corn Laws had on my grandfather’s farm and a whole generation of Sussex downland arable farmers.
Remarkably, most of the downland grain producers of the 1920s made little or no attempt to adjust their farming system to cope with the losses they started to incur as grain prices collapsed. As cheap wheat from the US started to arrive in ever larger quantities most growers soldiered on in the hope that the slump would be short lived and everything would turn out all right.
By all accounts this set of farmers was a proud and exotic breed. They wore tall top hats and tailed black coats as they went about their farms. They rarely turned their hands to manual work and assumed the lifestyles of gentlemen (even though they were only tenant farmers). They rode to hounds twice a week, and shot at pheasants and partridge at every opportunity during the game season. Until they all went bust, that is.
I often wonder whether my father told me about those terrible years as a warning about how farmers must always be prepared to adapt to changing economic times. So will I change my farming and lifestyle in the wake of Brexit?
The omens so far are not good. It’s 12 years since subsidies were decoupled from production but I’m still growing loss making grain. I don’t need to grow any crops to claim the BPS but I cannot give you a logical explanation of why I’ve continued to produce grain except to say that, like the farmers of the 1920s, each year I hope that “next year things will get better.”
By the time you read this, Theresa May will almost certainly have triggered article 50 and Brexit will be upon us in less than two years. No doubt that means I should now be proposing to stop all grain production before the UK is flooded with cheap wheat from Brazil. I should also be selling Nellie, my faithful old hunter mare, and turning down all those invitations to show my renowned prowess at “high birds.”
As I have no intention of doing any of those things, I suppose it is true to say that, depressingly, this particular Sussex farmer differs little from the typical downland farmer of the 1920s.