Brexit means Brexit, and we now can be sure that it means a pretty stiff Brexit if not a hard one. This isn’t what most British farmers wanted but it’s what they are going to get. And it is going to be tough for them.
I remember talking to a local sheep farmer about a year ago and him telling me that he was emotionally keen on getting out of the EU with all its annoying red tape and regulation but his head told him that he was better off in a gang where the French and German governments had farmers at the front of their minds rather than relying on British politicians who didn’t have a clue. I wonder what he thinks now.
Farming will be hit by the loss of the single market and an increased ability for cheap food from across the world to enter the UK. Labour costs may also rise if your average Fenland farmer has to employ Kevin the teenager down the road to work in his fields rather an eastern European who is prepared for a few months of living in a caravan in return for what his earnings will buy him back home.
Land prices may fall as a result, and they may fall further as an English agriculture policy (other national agriculture policies will be available) strips away untargetted income support to farming as the NHS draws more sympathy-gaining headlines than barley barons.
It seems that farmers’ so-called leaders are looking for a silver lining from TM the PM’s speech this week but have failed to find one. The response of the NFU is particularly weak and the organisation appears to be as confused as a rabbit in the tractor headlights.
Over the years, the NFU has been taken over by the agri-farming business at the expense of most normal farmers – and that is the responsibility of farmers because they do vote for the people who run the NFU, theoretically on their behalves. Have a look at this Ethical Consumer report about the NFU which has a lot of good stuff in it but even though it was published last week it looks a bit dated now with the Brexit direction set as it is for a pretty hard outcome.
The fact of the matter is that those who have been running the NFU have been personally and ideologically wedded to free trade and have been encouraged in that direction by agri-business whereas the majority of normal farmers would be better off and distinctly more comfortable with the CAP. It’s not surprising that Welsh sheep farmers aren’t wildly enthusiastic about hard Brexit.
Maybe the NFU will now tear itself apart – because outside of the EU it is no longer obvious that the different agricultural sectors have more in common than divides them. Milk and cereals – completely different businesses, particularly out of a common CAP. Different farming sectors have different friends and foes, and it would be good for them to realise that the public should be a friend, and that other sectors of farming might be more often foes. Just because a barley baron and my local sheep farmer both live in buildings in the countryside called farmhouses doesn’t mean that their business interests coincide, and nor necessarily do their world views of what farming is all about.
I’d like to see the NFU fall apart. For long it has been, in my eyes, an anti-environment organisation (see here, here and here). It would be far easier for environmentalists inside and outside government to forge much closer links with smaller, more sectoral, farming unions where the relationship could address more of the practical issues and fewer of the high-flown international policy issues.