Brexit dividends a disappointment for upland farmers

Jane Bassett sounded excited about England’s post Brexit farm payments. Jane Bassett, a third-generation farmer, takes pride in the meadows that are rich in species — a playground of hares — at her Peak District livestock farm. The new scheme replaces EU subsidies and cash for environmental work.

Bassett is not only unsure if she will participate, but she also considers leaving farming entirely. Bassett stated that the income prospects for the family farm are now so bleak under the new funding regime. She also said that all options are available, even selling.

She said, “It’s a tough year for many farmers, us included.”

Bassett and other farmers on the upland are at the center of the concerns about the new environmental payments system. It is almost seven years since the Brexit vote gave the UK an opportunity to leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. After the vote, the shift to green initiatives was widely supported.

Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, warned that the progress in developing the scheme was slow and incomplete and that there is a worrying lack transparency about how it is spent.

Rural communities are beginning to feel that Brexit has brought more risk than it has provided benefits. Farmers are being hit hard by the funding shift. EU-style payments have been cut year after year. These payments are based on land surface and are expected to be at least 35% lower in 2023 than they were pre-Brexit.

Thomas Binns, farmer, was applauded when he invited Therese Coffey, environment minister to “look at [the payments scheme] in detail and see where we could ease the pain for upland farm owners”.

Particularly hill farmers are receiving payment rates that are lower than those offered by the EU. This is putting their finances at risk and pushing them to increase livestock production rather than to restore nature.

James Rebanks, a Lake District farmer, and author of The Shepherd’s Life said that “farmers like me are completely dismayed at what is being offered.”

“We were led into believing that we would lose the subsidy which, although not thought to be a great idea, propped up upland agriculture — but that we would receive an enlightened and progressive system that could produce public benefits to compensate some or all that income. . . We’re getting a cheap, nasty and cost-saving version.

The rampant inflation of cost is also taking its toll. Official data last week showed that the average English uplands grazing livestock farm will see a decline in farm income, a measure of net profits, of almost two-thirds in this financial year, to PS16,000.

Julia Aglionby (Professor of Practice at the University of Cumbria’s Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas) projects that income will rebound to PS22.900 in two years, before plummeting to PS16.700 — just over a third of its 2021-22 level.

The crux of the squeeze on government payments lies in the decision to calculate payments based on “income foregone plus costs”. This means that payments will be calculated on the basis of green improvements and rates which are intended to compensate farmers for the fall in their agricultural income. Batters stated that the pilot stage was not economically feasible for some farms.

Because they produce less food than lowland farms, upland farms are more affected. They are therefore considered to have “foregone” less income. For managing grassland without fertiliser, most farmers will receive PS151 per hectare, while those who do the same work in “severely deserving areas” or upland farms will only be paid PS98.

Aglionby stated that “biodiversity, carbon stored in uplands is as valuable as in the lowerlands.” She also said that the government should target them for attempts to “level down” regional income disparities. The green economy is a great tool to achieve that, but the way government shapes post-CAP policy is not.

Rebanks, a proponent of eco-friendly regenerative agriculture, stated that many of his neighbors were interested in intensifying their livestock production. “Every farmer I have spoken to over the past two weeks has said that. . . “If they offer me less money than they used, I must earn my money through production and sweat more. Or I can’t pay my bills.”

This trend is particularly concerning because England’s hills, like those in Wales and Scotland, offer a huge opportunity for positive ecological changes. The government-commissioned National Food Strategy, issued in 2021, highlighted data showing uplands were well-suited to capturing carbon and fostering species diversity.

Rebanks’ projects range from the restoration of a peatbog to “rewiggling” a river to letting grassland rest in order to improve soil quality. He has also written about greener farming that brings back species like barn owls.

Farmers are also anxious about the views of some environmentalists like George Monbiot (author of Regenesis), that less fertile uplands should all be returned to nature. Farmers who believe that hundreds of years worth of cattle and sheep grazing have created beautiful landscapes for local communities and visitors are against this view are anathema.

Monbiot’s view is not supported by Westminster, but campaigners argue that a lack clear post-Brexit direction has increased farmers’ fear.

Rob Percival of the Soil Association, head of food policies, stated that “the Welsh sustainable farming program has very clearly stressed the need to take into consideration the cultural significance of agriculture.” “This is something we haven’t seen in the context of [England’s post-Brexit] scheme’s ‘public goods’ foundation. Rural communities may feel somewhat under siege. . . Farmers are still trying to figure out their true role.

Rebanks, Batters and other representatives agree that the PS2.4bn in annual funding pledged during the current parliament — a amount rapidly shrinking real terms — won’t be enough to allow the food system reach goals like net zero carbon by 2050.

According to the government, the CAP “disproportionately rewarded large landowners and held back small farmers while delivering little for the environment or food production.” Our new farming policies . . . Sustainable food production and environmental protection must go hand in hand.

Bassett is making green changes to her farm by planting trees and working with farmers nearby. The 58-year old is still uncertain whether she will sign up for the environmental payments scheme. If her family sells, Bassett might want to increase livestock production and “undo all the work you’ve done”.

She would rather stay on the farm with her family. She warns that if the government undervalues what we do, they might lose what they are trying protect.”

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