The days are shrinking fast now. The skies are full dark before six, and the shorter working hours spent out in the fields mean I venture homeward earlier each day. The post-supper stroll out into the barley, the lingering to admire the burgundy coats of my Sussex cattle glowing ruby red in the dying rays of the sun – both are things of the past. Each evening finds me staring into the flames of a snapping log fire, contemplating the passing of the farming year and musing about the months that lie ahead…
Mind you, the less time spent thinking about the washout that was harvest 2020 the better. Instead, I sit here trying to figure out a strategy for my arable acres as we head into the brave new post-Brexit world of the UK as an independent trading nation, free of EU rules and regulations.
Just how ‘free’ we will be is still not clear. At the time of writing, the UK government is still locked into acrimonious talks about the terms of our departure beyond the transition period. As far as arable farmers are concerned, we don’t know whether we will still enjoy access to the EU’s internal market with our food exports after 1 January. What will happen, I wonder, to the 250,000 tonnes of malting barley we send across the Channel each year, much of which is grown in this area?
Asking for access to the EU’s internal market while escaping its rules and regulations seems rather like refusing to pay one’s subscription to the golf club then expecting to nip in for a swift round and an evening at the 19th hole. But, like any farmer, I have to try and plan a way ahead for my farm, however strange the times we live in.
Whatever deal the UK does or doesn’t get for withdrawing from the EU, post-Brexit arable farmers face a whole series of big issues. These include the withdrawal of the BPS and the introduction of ELMS to replace it (only one in ten UK arable farms currently shows a trading profit when the BPS is removed from the bottom line of their annual trading accounts). What import tariffs, if any, will be introduced to keep out cheap imports of arable commodities? Will we be able to grow GM crops? Can we abandon the EU’s tight regulation of what pesticides we can use on our fields?
As I listen of an evening to the wind wailing down my chimney, I can’t help but think that Brexit will bring arable farmers a chill blast. Ideologically, many of those in the Cabinet of our current government have no time for a subsidised, protected agriculture and would doubtless prefer a free trade, cheap food policy. They have clearly demonstrated this in their determination to see the Internal Market Bill through Parliament, rejecting the amendments that would have ensured that no food could be imported that did not meet British production standards.
But I try not to be too gloomy. After all, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of farming under the benign auspices of the CAP for the first 40 years of my farming career. Increasingly, I find myself thinking: ‘Come on Brexit. Do your worst!’ As if it is a welcome opportunity to prove my commercial resilience as a farmer. But then again, perhaps this is just the wine talking.