You don’t have to read between the lines of what our new DEFRA secretary Andrea Leadsom says about the future of British agriculture post-Brexit to know that English farmers now live in uncertain times.
(It is curious that Ms Leadsom pretends that she is in charge of “British agriculture” when farm policy within the UK is completely devolved to national governments and regional assemblies.)
She talks about Britain as a “truly great country that has always prospered on the world stage” and of the UK as a “leading economic power, opening markets and championing free trade across the world.” That might be true of the country generally but there is no evidence that British agriculture has ever “prospered on the world stage” under a free trade policy.
I have only ever produced grain within a highly protectionist European Union agricultural policy but my ancestors did farm through the period during which the UK last had a free trade food policy (between the two world wars of the twentieth century) and it wasn’t pretty.
My father started farming in his own right (having previously run a milk round selling my grandfather’s milk) in 1941 and saw first hand where 20 years of free trade in food had brought Sussex farming.
The 370 acres tenanted farm he took on that year was virtually derelict. The farmhouse was falling down and the arable land had been abandoned by the previous tenant so that the sole production on the farm had been run down to the milk from 25 dairy cows. To pay the rent and wages the previous farmer had organised his 23 employees to catch rabbits which he then sold to local butchers.
But with the U-boats at large and the panic introduction of a “dig for victory” farm policy, my father attempted to respond to the sudden demand for more home grown grain by ploughing up the abandoned arable fields.
To his astonishment, so run down had the land become that he found no soil in the fields but a thick mat of onion couch deeper than horse drawn ploughs would draw a furrow. Instead of growing a crop that first season he had the summer directing his men (and newly recruited land army girls) to plough and then rake up the couch with teams of horses into huge piles where the onion couch bulbs were dried and then burnt in huge smoking pyres. It took years to bring the land into full production despite such intensive work.
My father’s farm was not an isolated case. Great swathes of the South Downs were abandoned for farming during the 1930s such was the catastrophic impact of free trade on farm profitability.
Ms Leadsom is determined that all British farm subsidies “must be abolished” and it is certainly true that the idiotic basic payment scheme has been enough to give subsidised agriculture a bad name. I would therefore agree that direct payments need to be abandoned as soon as possible but the DEFRA secretary is either naive or simply misguided to think that she can abandon the taxpayer support of English farmers altogether.
By all means let’s devise a bespoke post Brexit English farm policy that makes our countryside both productive, scenic and a pleasant place in which to live. Let’s set out to favour new entrants into farming and smaller scale farmers who will need the most support. But the DEFRA secretary needs to drop her free trade rhetoric – unless it is the return of a thick mat of onion couch to my farm that she has in mind.