Farming Minister Victoria Prentis talks about her ties to Yorkshire and how the new 'public money for public goods' system will work

Victoria Prentis represents an Oxfordshire constituency, but her heart is evidently in Yorkshire.

Victoria Prentis has strong ties to Yorkshire

“Widdale is the most beautiful place in the world,” she said of her favourite, regular holiday destination, a notably wet and wild place near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales.

“I married a Yorkshireman 24 years ago. His family were foresters originally in the Bolton Abbey estate. He thinks that I ruined his life by making him come and live near my family farm in Oxfordshire.

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“Who knows whether I ruined his life but we have spent a lot of our holidays in Yorkshire and weekends ever since because it’s where he feels happiest.

“There’s no question that learning about forestry and sheep farming in Yorkshire has been good for my education generally in farming terms. I am very, very keen that our future farming policies work for the whole of our nation.”

On Monday, the Government published its first update since February on the direction it intends to take agriculture in England from next year.

It announced that the amount of money handed to farmers via the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), the legacy EU payment based on area of land farmed, will be halved between now and 2024.

The £820m saved will be “repurposed” by being paid out instead through a dozen new schemes, chief among them the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).

In the Commons, Huddersfield Labour MP Barry Sheerman called the plan a “charter for spivs” that would drive traditional small farms out of business.

Ms Prentis told The Yorkshire Post there had in fact been a “fairly good reaction” from individual farmers, organisations such as the NFU and CLA, and the wider public.

“There is a lot in this for the smaller family farmer I would say. There will be livestock schemes, arable schemes, upland schemes, lowland schemes, you name it, there’s almost going to be a menu of different things to sign up for.

“It will look quite different from the schemes we’re all used to in the Common Agricultural Policy. This is going to be a much more whole farm approach.

“The idea is going to be you have a trusted adviser who comes and actually walks your land, gets the measure of you, is a repeat visitor, and comes and sits at your kitchen table. The winners will be people who are willing to sign up to sustainable farming.”

Of particular concern for some is the plight of upland farmers, most of whom rely on BPS for the lion’s share of their profits.

Asked whether they would have the capacity to bring in as much through ELMs as through BPS, Ms Prentis said they would, as long as they “engaged properly with the environmental schemes”.

She said: “The hill farmer has enormous potential for environmental gains, including water management and flood alleviation, which is something we certainly know something about in Hawes and in lots of other places. The hill farmer can help with peat and carbon capture – not all, it obviously depends on your land – and the hill farmer can help by keeping native breeds, which is something else I feel quite passionately about.

“Carefully managed, those hillsides are a real national asset. And I think because there is a tradition in the Dales and in fact across Yorkshire of working together with the National Parks, with areas of outstanding natural beauty, I think there are going to be real opportunities for hill farmers to go into the higher level tiers we’ve started to outline and work together to apply for the schemes which have more money attached to them. The big money comes in working together.

“There may well be an animal welfare scheme. That’s been a particularly challenging thing to do because we have very high animal welfare standards that we’re very proud of in this country and you don’t want to pay people to get up to baseline – you want to always push that up.

“There are lots of other diversification ways of making money on farms as well. In Hawes, there’s a big tourist industry. There’s a big shooting industry.”

ELMs is proposed to have three connected tiers – or ‘components’ – named on Monday as the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery and landscape recovery.

Ms Prentis said she didn’t know yet which component would have the biggest budget, but she had always viewed them as “equal-ish partners”.

Uncertainties such as this are liable to cause frustration among farmers. Farming leaders have all responded to this week’s announcement by calling for greater clarity and more detail.

Ms Prentis said: “People are bound to want to know more and I don’t blame them for that. What I would say is we are going to do a lot of work in the next few months and a lot more information will be coming out.”

This is a Farming Minister who by her own admission loves to talk about farming. Her family farm on the Oxfordshire/Northamptonshire border runs to 450 acres and has a herd of South Devon cows.

Prentis on the EU

The creation of an agriculture policy for England has been made possible by the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Ms Prentis said: “We are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy, which has been both a blessing and a curse for farming, if we’re honest.

“It’s been a comfort blanket in that we’ve known that we will get subsidy every year but it’s also held back really good environmental delivery that we as a nation, I think, are now ready to provide.

“What we are going to have to do as farmers is make our case for subsidy now in a way that we haven’t really had to for 50 years.

“ ‘Public money for public goods’ is a message we have to get out there and I think the public is willing to receive it.

“I think this year because of the pandemic there’s a wider understanding of where food comes from, perhaps in a way there hasn’t been for the last 20 years. And I think that’s really important too. We have to make our case.”

She added that the quality of food on offer in Yorkshire was second to none. “People are very, very proud of the lamb – rightly – and the beer, say, indeed right across the range. It’s really as good as it gets.”

The Common Agricultural Policy is the agricultural policy of the European Union. It implements a system of agricultural subsidies and other programmes. It was introduced in 1962 and has undergone several changes since then to reduce the cost and to also consider rural development in its aims.

Prentis on Lump Sum Exit

According to the plans published this week, in 2022 farmers will be able to take a lump sum payment on condition that they leave the sector.

The lump sum would replace the Basic Payment Scheme subsidies the farmer might otherwise receive if they kept on farming until 2027, when the scheme ends.

Ms Prentis said some farmers were unlikely to want to adapt to the new agriculture policy.

“We are going to provide an exit scheme, basically for farmers who are not enjoying themselves, and who don’t think this is for them. I think there will be a group of farmers who are on the edge anyway. They might be older and ready to think about retiring in any event.”

She said it wasn’t clear yet how many farmers would take up the offer. “We’ve done quite a lot of modelling on this but this is not a finished policy yet. We will be consulting on it next year. Obviously, farmers aren’t stupid; it’ll depend on how generous the scheme is and how things are going with prices.

“People will make their own business decisions. But what we did want to do is not have the type of clinger-on – you know, farms that just tick over and cling on – if there was a better way of helping people to exit with dignity.

“In turn, of course, this will free up land for new entrants, whether that’s owners or tenants. It is very hard for young people who don’t have access to land to get in to this industry. Land prices are high, rent prices are high. This may be a way of rejigging that a bit.”

Prentis on the ELMS Pilots

Ms Prentis said sustainable farming had two aspects, environmental and financial.

She said: “Sustainable farming means we leave the land in a better shape than we found it. It’s quite a basic definition, but it’ll do. But it also means economically sustainable. Farming is a business. And it is, we hope, a profitable business. It’s important that the whole rural community sustainability is in that piece as well.”

She stressed that the new agriculture policy remained a work in progress and that detail would come in time, as lessons were learned from the 68 ELMs ‘tests and trials’ currently taking place in England.

“It’s difficult because you don’t want to overwhelm people. But you do want to get the facts out there, so we’re trying to do this in a staggered way.

“The other reason we can’t set everything out at the beginning is because we are genuinely going to learn from the tests and trials that we’re doing. We’ve got about 3,000 farmers involved at the moment. We’re going to almost double that in the next three years.

“So a lot of people in the industry will be touched by it or will be involved in the production of the scheme in one way or another. We’re also running a really enormous amount of outreach and webinars.

“Obviously the pandemic hasn’t helped us have farm meetings, but it has meant in a funny sort of way that we could reach more people in more diverse areas than we probably would have done otherwise.”