Farmers must grasp last chance to respond to Defra policy consultation
- Credit: Nick Butcher
East Anglia's farmers have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to influence the new policies which will shape this vital industry outside the EU. And with the clock ticking on Defra's consultation deadline, now is the time for farming's voice to be heard, writes EDP agricultural editor CHRIS HILL.
Three days – that's all the time East Anglia's farmers have left to get involved in the debate that will shape their industry for generations.
May 8 is the final deadline for responses to Defra's consultation on its 'Health and Harmony' command paper, which outlines proposals for a new domestic agricultural policy when Britain leaves the EU, and the confines of its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
And it's hard to over-state the impact all of this could have on the region's farmers.
The importance of this moment was captured by Ben Underwood, the East regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, who said: 'If you are going to read one policy document and contribute to one government consultation in your lifetime, it should be this one. It has the potential to define our industry for generations to come.'
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For the first time in 45 years, the Treasury will have access to the £3bn which Brussels currently distributes to British farmers in direct payment subsidies.
So farmers will have to make their case to justify the continued investment of that sum in the countryside, against the competing voices of health, education, defence and other government departments.
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And even if the same level of support for agriculture remains, the way it is earned is likely to change radically.
Environment secretary Michael Gove has made no secret of his ambition to phase out the EU's 'unjust' system of land-based subsidies, in favour of a new scheme which rewards farmers for providing 'public goods' as part of his much-vaunted Green Brexit.
Those public goods have been defined under five categories: environmental enhancement; animal and plant health and welfare; public access; productivity and competitiveness; and resilience, traditional farming and uplands.
In response, the National Farmers' Union was 'deeply concerned at the apparent lack of Defra focus' on the economic importance of domestic food production – and the need for profitable farms which can deliver environmental goods.
That thought was echoed by the manager of one of the region's largest farms, Andrew Francis at the Elveden Estate, who said: 'Part of the money we receive is all turned back into looking after the environment, but it also relies on very commercial and productive farming system to provide the rest of the money to provide that standard of husbandry and management. If we lose the direct payment, then where does the money come from?
'Some of the rhetoric is quite contradictory. They say they are going to target the receivers of the biggest area payment cheques, but at the same time we want enhanced and improved environmental standards across the piece. But it is our scale that helps us to manage the landscape. Big shouldn't be a bad word.'
Charlie MacNicol, of the Stody Estate in north Norfolk, was one of several conservation-minded landowners who said a focus on rewarding ecological improvements in the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) could unfairly penalise progressive farmers who have already achieved these goals through agri-environment and stewardship schemes, leaving them with no headroom for further improvement.
And Louis Baugh, who runs a mixed arable and livestock venture in the Broads, questioned why upland farms had been highlighted for potential support, but not the important lowland grazing marshes in East Anglia.
'Farm business surveys have shown that lowland grazing struggles to be as profitable as upland,' he said. 'Michael Gove focuses myopically on the uplands because he can justify it socio-environmentally, but in East Norfolk he should acknowledge that grazed beef and sheep are going to find it very difficult post-Brexit.
'Environmental schemes have evolved here from the first Environmentally Sensitive Area (which was established in the Broads in 1987) and we have got a very strong case for lowland grazing. I don't want to be divisive, but we need for lowland grazing to be given equal treatment.'
Defra's command paper suggests three options for weaning farmers off land-based subsidies, which are currently paid via the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and distributed in the UK through the Basic Payment Scheme.
The first is 'progressive reductions in payments' depending on the size of the claim, similar to income tax banding.
The second is a hard 'cap', for example at £100,000, to reduce payments for the largest recipients first. The cap would reduce every year until no farm receives any gets any direct payments.
Option three is a hybrid of options one and two.
During an 'agricultural transition', the funds would be re-directed towards trials of a new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) based on the principal of public money for public goods, as well as animal welfare and productivity schemes.
Critics of a payment cap include the Country Land and Business Association, which argues that payment reductions should be in 'manageable increments spread across the farming industry, not through arbitrary caps that will put larger farming operations at serious business risk'.