Henry Gent: 'Is it time we all had a good look at farming's use of migrant labour?'


I have just got back from the annual Organic Producers’ Conference. It is always a great chance to meet up with organic farmers from around the country and hear about the latest science and innovative farming. But this year it was the policy strand of the conference which I followed most closely.


It is now or never to have some input in the post-Brexit world. It seems likely our organic rules will shadow the EU rules, but it remains to be seen whether we will have tariff-free access to their market. Probably not.


No wonder the NFU has trade as the first priority, closely followed by labour in our wishlist to Government in forthcoming negotiations. The third priority is the system of subsidies and regulations, but the current view seems to be there is not much point in planning for carpets until we know if the house will have a weatherproof roof.


Nevertheless, we do need some vision of the future we want, if only to tell Government what to hold dear in the inevitable trade-offs. They might give more heed to the forces of darkness than the farmers, but at least we will have spoken up when we got the chance.


And time is not on our side, with the possibility of a Governmental Green Paper before summer. A commission seems appropriate. We are experiencing and anticipating far greater change than our darkest fears when Sir Donald Curry presided and we faced decoupling. Too much to hope?


The NFU is highlighting labour as so many businesses will be damaged by the loss of their European staff and some hope freedom to work will be replaced by seasonal work permits (both for EU and non-EU people). In social terms, this could be worse, in some respects and I feel we need a fundamental enquiry into the state of farming, with the question of why so much of British farming is staffed by migrants right at the top of the agenda.


If we are to leave the Single Market then we may have the opportunity to take unilateral measures to move away from subsidies and loopholes which drive up rents and land and instead take measures to support the value, affordability, and reward of a job, or a life, in farming.

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