A recent national survey shows that the overwhelming majority of UK farmers intend to vote for BREXIT in this month’s referendum: 58% “leave,” 31% “remain” and 11% “undecided.”
But hidden within those headline figures is evidence of an even more Eurosceptic subset of farmers: those under the age of 44. Seventy percent of farmers aged under 35 wish to leave the European Union (with only 23% in favour of remaining in) while a truly astonishing 75% of farmers between the ages of 35 and 44 also intend to vote for Brexit (with only 13% intending to vote “remain.”)
I recently spoke at an EU referendum conference for agricultural consultants in central England and, true to form, the youngest attendee was the most strident about Britain leaving the EU. He was easy to spot in the room: polo shirt and fleece top (rather than shirt tie and jacket) and he had a laptop open in front of him (rather than a pen and notebook).
When it came to a show of hands at the end of the conference he was the only one present still determined to vote “leave.” The chairman of the session was curious to know why and he replied that what he simply wanted was the ability to farm “free from EU bureaucracy.”
But is that really what is driving his apparent Euroscepticism? It struck me as he spoke that what younger farmers like him are really frustrated about is not EU bureaucracy but the system of subsidy that we now have. Since 2005, farmers have been incentivised to occupy land to claim area payments but not necessarily to farm their land particularly actively or even, in some cases, at all.
To younger farmers this must look grotesque. How frustrating must it be to find themselves outbid for tenancies when the suspicion is that older farmers are using hefty basic payment scheme receipts rather than productive farming to fund those bids? (It was not for nothing that some christened the single farm payment the “sensible farmers’ pension.”)
Even younger farmers’ tendency to don workwear at quite formal professional gatherings is a clue to their frustration at being denied the opportunity to engage in productive farming. Brimming with knowledge about the latest farming techniques from their university degrees or agricultural college diplomas they instinctively dress in clothes that reflect what they have been trained and are ready to do: produce food.
Younger farmers are forecast to march en masse into their voting booths to vote for Brexit later this month. But my hunch is that they don’t particularly want to come out of the EU. I think they would like to see a change in the farm subsidy system that would encourage an older generation of farmers off the land and out of their way.