I GREW up in a farming family in Cornwall and worked in the family business for 10 years after leaving school. One of the issues that drove me to get involved in politics was seeing how British farming had become smothered with the sometimes pointless paperwork and administration associated with the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy.
In my time as Farming Minister, I have seen close up just how debilitating and restrictive EU policy frameworks can be. It is one of the reasons I chose, in the end, to campaign to leave the EU. As we leave the European Union and re-establish control of domestic policy, we have a once in a generation opportunity to design an agriculture policy that really works for the UK.
For the first time in half a century, we can start from first principles and try innovative new ideas that really deliver for farming, the environment and animal welfare. This week, we published our plans on future agriculture policy with the Government’s new Command Paper. It sets out our ambition for farming in the future, gradually moving away from “direct payments” or subsidies and instead putting in place a framework of incentives and rewards for the delivery of public goods.
The CAP has driven up the cost of land and rents, making it harder for young farmers to enter the industry and impeding innovation, productivity and growth. Despite this, I have seen first-hand some of the brilliant achievements of farmers. The winner of the first ever Meurig Raymond Award at this year’s NFU Conference was Richard Bramley, a farmer from North Yorkshire who I had the pleasure of meeting last year.
On a visit to his farm, Richard showed me how he plants cover crops to enhance soil quality and creates hedgerows as a habitat for farmland birds. Richard’s passion for farming in an environmentally-friendly way is an attitude we want to incentivise in a new agriculture policy for the UK.
Our consultation paper sets out our vision and ambitions for a thriving farming sector outside the CAP and, over the next 10 weeks, we want to hear the farming community’s views on how we make this a reality.
There are certain things that my own time in farming taught me, for instance understanding the importance of healthy and fertile soils. The soil cannot be mined, it must be farmed and it must be cared for.
However, in recent years, we have seen growing specialisation on farms leading to more problems with soil erosion, the build-up of pests and disease and the loss of organic matter, or humus, from the soil because not enough farmyard manure is being used on arable farms. We envisage that the cornerstone of our future farming policy will be a new system of financial incentives and rewards for environmentally sensitive farming and promoting good soil husbandry will be a key plank in that policy.
We want to help farmers become more profitable; to help the next generation of farmers secure land and get on; to help farmers invest in new equipment and deploy new technology; and to support farmers coming together in a collaborative way to fund research and development or to strengthen their position in the supply chain.
Many farmers today tell me that they do not want subsidies. All they really want is the ability to get a fairer share of the value chain and help to invest so they can reduce their costs and improve their productivity. We want our future policy to support them in that aim.
Our paper recognises that we will not achieve these things overnight. There is a dependency on direct payments at the moment and so we propose to phase them out gradually over a number of years, alongside rolling out a new, improved policy. However, the vision for the end state is an exciting one and I hope that farmers will help us to build it.
George Eustice is a Conservative MP and the Farming Minister.