Mark Tufnell says many farmers are reluctant to trust government as changes to subsidy payments loom
Farmers are anxiously awaiting further detail from the government on imminent changes to their subsidy payments, with many reluctant to trust the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to manage the transition, the leader of one of the UK’s biggest farming organisations has said.
“Quite a few have said to me: ‘Well, we’re not at all clear what Defra is doing,’” Mark Tufnell, the recently installed president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), told the Guardian. “[They say:] ‘We don’t think that Defra know what they’re doing,’ and ask me: ‘What do you know?’”
The CLA represents about 28,000 farmers and owners of rural businesses in England and Wales, including some of the biggest landowners and a large number of smaller ones, with about 18,000 members farming less than 300 acres. Members are hoping for more details of post-Brexit support for farmers at the organisation’s conference on Thursday, where the environment secretary, George Eustice, will set out what support farmers can expect when their basic farm payments are cut by between 5% and 25% this year before being phased out entirely over the next six years.
Further details on government plans could not come soon enough for farmers, said Tufnell. Brexit was one of the biggest upheavals in agriculture since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, he noted. “And of course after the Corn Law repeal we then went into an agricultural depression that lasted all the way from the late 1800s through into the 1900s and the war period.”
Brexit means the UK has left the EU’s common agricultural policy, under which farmers received about £3bn a year in payments allocated based on the amount of land they farmed. In future, there will be payments of “public money for public goods” – that is, farmers taking measures to restore nature, nurture the soil, improve air and water quality, and provide habitats for wildlife, in return for taxpayer-funded support under a system of environmental land management contracts, or ELMs.
Tufnell said the future of farming was more than ever in the hands of the government, with trade deals, problems with the planning system, and the new system of ELMs. “We may end up with more people claiming from a limited pot, meaning that the individual will end up receiving less,” he said.
Farmers are generally supportive about the move to a new payment system. Surveys by the CLA of its membership have found most farmers in favour, but many are still concerned about the detail, as only scant information has been available on how the ELMs will work.
The basic payment will be reduced on a sliding scale, with those who have historically received most taking the steepest cuts, but even the lowest scale of reductions of about 5% this year would bring difficulties for many people, according to Tufnell.
There are further huge risks if the government gets it wrong in the next few years as the old subsidies are phased out, he says. “If the government doesn’t come forward with the type of support that it’s talking about … it makes it much more difficult for those farmers who are in the less profitable category, the bottom 25% or even 50%, who have their basic payments cut, so they’ll only get about 25% of what they originally had.
“They will find it very difficult to continue their farming business. They’ll need to look to other sources of income and I think they’ll find it quite difficult, particularly if they don’t get support in selling their product overseas.”
Trade deals are another bone of contention. Until recently, the UK had only two agri-food attaches in embassies around the world to promote British farming and farm produce, even though food is one of the UK’s biggest export industries for goods, and the government is aiming to strike trade deals with dozens of countries in the aftermath of Brexit.
On Tuesday, Defra announced a further eight agri-food attaches would be appointed. Tufnell said the increase was far too small to give the representation needed. Farmers fear they will be swamped by cheap food from abroad under new trade deals – such as that forged this year with Australia – details of which are signed in secret, without parliamentary scrutiny.
At the least, farmers were hoping the government would help them promote UK farm produce abroad, but with only 10 globally that seems hard to achieve, says Tufnell. “Ten attaches is nowhere near enough. If the government is serious about promoting our world-class produce and ensuring British farmers are not undercut, then we need far more. Quite understandably, government wants to promote its free trade credentials, but seems reluctant to provide adequate resources to getting the job done properly. This leaves not just British farmers, but all of British industry vulnerable.”
Higher prices for many staples, from wheat and barley to rapeseed, beef and lamb, would cushion the blow for many this year at least, said Tufnell. But some sectors would suffer more, he said, such as pig farmers, many of whom were unable to send animals to slaughter due to labour shortages last month, a subject joked about by the prime minister, Boris Johnson.
Brexit has also meant supply and export issues with Europe. Tufnell said he ran into problems trying to export linseed to Belgium, as the lorryloads would normally have gone through France, but that would have involved even more paperwork. Eventually, it was sent by ship.
Covid has also thrown a spotlight on rural infrastructure, with more people trying to work from home or considering a permanent move to the countryside, but hampered by the lack of broadband connectivity. “There is this great disparity between the urban and the rural [in connectivity],” he said, noting that the fine print of the autumn budget showed rural areas losing out by about £315m in the shared prosperity fund for levelling up.
“We don’t really feel that fits with a levelling up agenda – it’s almost a levelling down.”