February is a relatively quiet month on British farms. Some animals will be out on permanent pasture or stubble turnips despite the appalling weather, but the majority will be housed. Last summer was a particularly good one for hay and silage making so there should be plenty of fodder stocks to last until spring.
Now that the shooting season is over, this is a good time for arable farmers to take a holiday, to the ski slopes of Europe or the sunshine of the Caribbean. Time to think and plan for the future, especially essential considering the major challenges facing them at present.
The first major concern is short term. Assuming that those crops that were sown last autumn survive the waterlogged winter, what should be done with the vast area that was too wet to plant? To some extent, that depends upon when the soil dries out enough to work. On some heavy land that may come too late for a successful spring crop, in which case the only answer is to fallow or grow a short term green manure/cover crop. On lighter land, the most obvious answer is spring barley but there is already talk of surplus and depressed prices.
Spring wheat may be an option if there is seed available or spring beans or peas which have the added advantage of boosting soil fertility. Whatever the outcome, it seems inevitable that the very wet autumn and winter will take a heavy toll on profitability and have an impact on crop rotations for future years.
However that dilemma might focus the mind on the short term, it is the longer term that is the more challenging. What farm policy will replace the Common Agricultural Policy and how should farmers prepare for the major restructuring that is bound to follow? The original Agriculture Bill that was introduced in the last Parliament was lost in the political turmoil of last year culminating in the General Election held before Christmas.
A revised version was put before the House of Commons last month and received its second reading a couple of weeks ago. The original was heavily criticised for its lack of detail and for the fact that farming itself had too little emphasis. It was stressed that this was the first piece of legislation since World War II in which ensuring a fair standard of living for farmers is not a priority. From the Agriculture Act 1947 through the Treaty of Rome, a prime objective of rural policy has been that farming should be profitable to ensure an adequate supply of wholesome home-grown food.
Some of those criticisms have been addressed in the current version. It remains a framework for changes to farm policy giving the Government powers to implement measures that are not spelt out in the Bill. The Government has committed to maintain the overall budget for farming and the environment at the current level for the lifetime of this Government but makes no commitment beyond that.
The Basic Payment will be phased out by 2027 and be largely replaced by the Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which gives public money for public goods, although public goods are not mentioned by name in the Bill. However, the scheme will not be fully operational until 2024 leaving a huge gap of uncertainty. The Basic Payment will continue as at present for this year then the transition will start next year. The Government has suggested what changes will take place in the first year of transition, 2021, but that has not been confirmed and there are no proposals for subsequent years.
One change to the Bill to counter criticism is that it commits the Government to report on the nation’s food security every five years. This should flag up issues of changes to food production although whether that leads to any action is not clear. There is reference to developing new forms of financial assistance in which the Government will be obliged to ‘take regard to the need to encourage the production of food by producers in England and its production by them in an environmentally sustainable way.’
There is very little detail of what might constitute public goods for which grants will be paid. It is assumed that options in the current Countryside Stewardship will be continued in some form but ELMS will be wider than that. There is reference to measures to improve soil health and fertility which will be very welcome if farmers can get grants to grow restorative crops that are otherwise not economically viable.
Of course, the huge elephant in the room is international trade. Farming will be devastated if trade with the EU reverts to WTO rules for the lack of a free trade deal. Even worse would be free trade deals with countries like the USA if that involved importing food products that are produced at standards lower than ours, such as hormone fed beef and chicken washed in chlorinated water. The Government has consistently pledged not to allow such imports but has resolutely refused to enshrine that in law.
Farming has long cycles and farmers plan for years ahead, yet there is no certainty about future policy. There are reports of a large trend towards further diversification as farmers have little confidence that their farming activities will show a profit as the Basic Payment is withdrawn. There is no doubt that there will be great opportunities in years to come for those able to adapt but others will be less fortunate.