Tim Breitmeyer: Farmers need to know the lie of land over Brexit

THE Government has outlined its approach to land use and agricultural policy post-Brexit. It comes in the guise of the cuddly-named 'Health and Harmony' consultation.

Can Brexit help fix farming policy?
Can Brexit help fix farming policy?

Among grandiose statements come stark messages about the future of economic support for the farming sector. The intention is to phase out the basic payment while future landowner payments will be directly linked to “public goods” delivered, chief being environmental land management.

This was not a surprise, but it is sobering nonetheless for an industry already running on empty, and its publication heralds the next phase of intensive engagement for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

One issue glaringly stands out and that is the superficial, and almost naive, way in which the Government addresses the fundamental challenge of how to handle a “transition” from the current system to a new policy and trading environment.

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    Transition is the key issue in our view because the end vision is the right one. The CLA is a supporter of payment for public goods. We do not want subsidy. We want to run profitable farming businesses that stand on their own two feet.

    Rewarding farmers in a businesslike-way for delivering these public goods, such as environmental land management, meeting the highest standards of animal health and welfare and many others, is the right model for the future. It is transparent, accountable and justifiable in a way that direct payments are not. We call this the Land Management Contract.

    So, it is because of our commitment to the public goods model that we can, and will be, absolutely candid with Michael Gove and his colleagues, as we discuss these issues with them. Our message is that we share his ambition, and that we can deliver it supported by an innovative new policy framework, but it will only work if it is built on the foundation of a profitable farming sector.

    It’s an important message because the Defra Secretary has not shied away in his critique of how little the basic payment has done for productivity in agriculture. This premise is laid bare in this document, which concludes there is “clear evidence that the scope for productivity improvement would enable farms, on average, to remain profitable following a withdrawal of basic payment”.

    This is a bold and unsubstantiated assertion and one that should ring serious alarm bells.

    First, the Government should not generalise for an industry made up of distinct sectors with very different business models. Relying on average figures obscures and simplifies this reality. Government must show that it has more than a superficial grasp of the reality of farming if it is to manage this policy change effectively.

    Second, let us be clear: behind this benign sounding analysis about dramatic productivity growth are some pretty brutal assumptions about likely business failures, and ambitious thinking about how investment and skills training can rapidly change the industry.

    These assumptions are vague and there is little detailed thought on how the Government might support the industry through these changes.

    The CLA must provide a reality check. The implementation of this policy won’t happen on a spreadsheet, or in a Whitehall meeting room. It will happen on farms the length and breadth of the land, and will have consequences for businesses, communities and the countryside. There are some big, bold ambitions set out in this consultation. It asks farmers to make a step change in their contribution to the environment and public goods on the one hand, but deliver a transformational growth in productivity on the other. It must not collapse under the weight of its contradictions.

    I do believe that the twin objectives are right and that they are achievable. There are many examples of farmers that are showing the way. The main risk is plunging ahead when crucial questions remain unanswered. The first is the trade environment farmers will operate in post-Brexit. Whether we have tariff-free and undisrupted access to our main EU export market is something we need to know before we can make plans.

    The second is a clear statement of intent from the Government that supporting productive farming is an objective that it will back with positive action and real investment. Getting these things clear should be the priority and should come before the start of a transition out of the current system to something better.

    Tim Breitmeyer is president of the Country Land and Business Association.