Farmers can’t just rely on renewed enthusiasm for ‘buying British’ after crisis is over

PUBLISHED: 08:55 28 April 2020 | UPDATED: 08:55 28 April 2020

Charlotte Webster, senior rural surveyor at Arnolds Keys.

Charlotte Webster, senior rural surveyor at Arnolds Keys.

Arnolds Keys

Food producers are enjoying some well-earned appreciation during the coronavirus outbreak – but farmers shouldn’t expect that supportive sentiment to be translated into government policy as soon as the crisis is over says Charlotte Webster, senior rural surveyor at Arnolds Keys – Irelands Agricultural.

Despite having to deal with typical rural Norfolk internet connection speeds, many of us have been able to set up shop at home and, for my colleagues and I, the focus remains on preparing the annual Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) applications ahead of the June 15 deadline.

This year’s round of Basic Payment applications will be the last at the full level of funding, with deductions to the annual payment scheduled to start in 2021. In coming years, farmers will need to adapt to life under a new financial regime, with the phasing out of the BPS in favour of the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs).

The timing of the Covid-19 outbreak sparks concern for the development of ELMs, which is in its infancy with much of the detail yet to be decided. One thing we do know is that in years to come, money is going to be in short supply.

No-one knows for sure what the economic impact of the current lockdown will be, but predictions of a 35pc drop in GDP are widely accepted, and the OBR reported recently that the 2020/21 deficit will exceed that experienced during the years of the Second World War. Public finances are facing a long squeeze, and Defra will not be immune.

In such a period of austerity, how will the government develop a new funding scheme, and what will the priorities be? Food production has shot to the top of the agenda in recent weeks, with the fragilities of the food supply system laid bare. It remains to be seen whether food production will be afforded a greater weight than it has previously in the development of UK agricultural policy, with an opportunity for a better balance to be struck against the focus on improving soil, water and air quality.

Covid-19 will inevitably have an impact on the development of policy, both in terms of its content and the timeframes within which it is delivered. ELMs is currently scheduled for launch in 2024, but given recent setbacks it is likely that more time will be required. At the same time it is unlikely that the deductions to Basic Payment will be delayed.

It would be too easy to ride the wave of a renewed enthusiasm for ‘buying British’. Farming is quite rightly enjoying some well-earned widespread appreciation and support. As much of the country pauses its economic activity, it is clear that farming is one of only a small number of activities which remains vital to our national survival.

While the sun is shining and there is work to be done, whether planting crops, spraying or lambing, it would be pleasant to hope that people’s attitudes towards the foods they eat and where it is sourced may change in the longer term, when the pandemic has passed.

But it is a long road to the translating of a sentiment stimulated by a crisis into political action and long-term policy.

The current subsidy accounts for around £220 per hectare of income, and this is going to have to be replaced somehow. It therefore remains vital for our farmers to take stock of what they have, and take the time to identify opportunities for generating additional income.

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