Farming poll: In or out – where do you stand on the EU debate?

Britain's relationship with the EU. Source: NFU

Britain's relationship with the EU. Source: NFU - Credit: Archant

The EU referendum could fundamentally change the way our food is produced, how farms are subsidised and regulated, and how they access labour and trade links. As politicians and lobbyists prepare their campaigns, we asked East Anglian farmers how they were likely to vote.

IN: Ed Wharton farms 1,200 acres at Stokesby, near Acle, including cereals, sugar beet, potatoes and blackcurrants – the last two of which are labour-intensive operations.

He said: 'I'm pretty sure we are better in than out. The EU is the world's largest agricultural trader, with exports of 122bn Euros in 2014. It is a massive exporter and it has secured international trade agreements which have doubled the value of UK food exports over the last decade. Why would you not want to be a part of that?

'I don't think being an island is any benefit to us at all. If we stood alone outside of Europe, I cannot see how we would be perceived as a more attractive place to do business. Why would somewhere like China think that to trade with Britain individually was more attractive than as part of the EU?

'We grow some very labour-intensive crops, so the access to non-UK labour is important to us, because of the difficulty of recruiting a domestic workforce. We are not 100pc reliant on eastern European workers, but they have been a great help to us over the last 10 years.


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'The financial support for us is also essential. The Basic Payment Scheme helps us comply with the high quality standards required by the EU. We have a higher cost of production to achieve those standards, so the direct payments are crucial.

We don't know what a British government would do to those payments if we were to leave the EU. But we do know that past governments have always looked to reduce the value of our direct payments.

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'Most farmers would agree that for the family farm to be viable there is a requirement to have that subsidy if our production is to be environmentally sustainable.

'All the red tape irritates me as much as anyone, but I still think it is a small price to pay for being an EU member.

OUT: Emily Norton runs a dairy farm at Frettenham, near Norwich.

She said: 'Being part of the EU club means signing up to the principle of an 'ever-closer union'. If you don't want that, you need to be outside the club, or in a different organisation like EFTA (European Free Trade Association)

'The juggernaut of legislation, which is needed to justify the employment of 20,000 in the commission, can only be achieved by finding other aspects of life to legislate on – and they do that on the justification of the ever-closer union. The only way to stop that is to get out of it.

'Thirdly, it is a bad cultural fit. We talk about the playing field being level between Britain and the single market, but already it is not level. The UK has the highest welfare standards in the world, but the EU rules are not properly enforced in other countries

'There are very different attitudes to animal welfare on the continent and it means we cannot differentiate ourselves from other European countries with different cultural approaches. It gives them an unfair advantage.

'It is often said that being independent of the EU would mean UK agriculture would be unsupported. That's not true. We could still support British agriculture in the same way we did before we joined the EU, but rather than giving money directly to the landowner, it gives the industry the opportunity to create a food system that we really want, a food policy which benefits consumer health and the environment as well as agriculture.

'We cannot do that at the moment because health is a UK competence and agriculture is an EU competence, so we cannot create a system where food is seen as nutrition rather than a commodity.'

UNDECIDED: Tony Bambridge is managing director of contract farmers and seed potato producers B&C Farming in Marsham, near Aylsham.

He said: 'I think the key driver for me is the market. A market with 500m customers is something you definitely want to be a part of. And they are 500m of the most affluent customers in the world, who are more than happy to spend their hard-earned Euros on the excellent products we produce. There is a lot of hype about China, but Ireland is one of the biggest customers we trade with.

'Yes, we could come out of the EU and still serve that market, but for sure it is going to be more difficult, and we won't really reduce the red tape. If you look at Norway, those guys have to go over just as many hurdles as we do.

'We have got to ask the people who think they are going to take us out about farm subsidies, and what they are going to do to protect the market.

'The UK government has been very strong on rural development and they are also very keen on the environment, so that will come to farmers, but I think they would pay us a lot less than Europe would. So with the market and the subsidies we have got two arguments leaning towards staying in Europe.

'The negativity is that the green politics in Europe has a profound impact on us. I think the British public would have a much more rational debate about things like pesticides and GM (genetically modified crops), in terms of basing their decisions on science and not emotion. No-one can deny that a precautionary principle is correct, but it is how you apply it which is important. 'I believe that if our deal (with the EU) can be renegotiated where member states are allowed to manage their own affairs on how they want to react on things like this, that would be better. We don't want to progress further down the road of federalism. There are issues we need to deal with on our own taxation and our own economy.'

Farming industry's key questions

Farming leaders said a full evaluation of the benefits and disadvantages of EU membership for British farmers is impossible until there is more clarity on what kind of agricultural policy the British government would pursue if we were to leave. These are the National Farmers' Union's key questions:

If we were to leave the EU:

• Would we have access to the European market, and under what conditions?

• What would a future British agricultural policy look like, particularly for direct support?

• If we continue to have access to the EU's single market, but take a different approach on support to farmers, how will fair competition for our farmers be ensured?

• Would Britain be more or less open to imports?

• What immigration policy would the government pursue and how would it affect our access to labour?

If we stay in the EU:

• What will you do to ensure the European Commission has a strategy to make European agriculture more productive and globally competitive?

• How would you ensure the CAP remains a common policy and that British farmers have a level playing field to compete upon? • In or out of EU, how are we going to achieve better regulation?

• How are we going to ensure that all decisions are based on science?

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