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Defra’s post-Brexit ag scheme is well-intentioned, but still needs lots of work

Defra’s post-Brexit Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) has lots of positives, but there’s still plenty of work to be done to make sure it’s the best it can be, says Vicki Hird, head of farming at Sustain.

There is no getting away from the current hot mess of Brexit, Withdrawal Agreement votes and no deals. But let’s try.

How is the new farm payment scheme shaping up? This Environmental Land Management (ELMS) scheme will replace direct payments and agri-environment schemes after Brexit, and Defra are putting some effort into designing it.

 

As noted by Farmers Guardian, too little detail is available, but a ‘blueprint’ is promised shortly.

 

This may show how the new scheme design could work to deliver ‘public goods’ like habitat protection, natural flood management and carbon.

Pilot

 

Current tests and trials will be followed by a three-year pilot in 2021/2 and ELMS will replace the current set up by 2027.

 

Taking the time to get it right is a good thing. It’s a huge policy change, so farmers need to have confidence in the final design and society needs the public goods delivered.

 

The two are not mutually incompatible, as many farmers can demonstrate.

 

But as the ELMS introduction coincides with a new era of trading out of the relative safety of the EU bloc, it needs to make sense.

 

Neglected

 

No sector or farmer should be left behind and no public good neglected, especially tackling climate change.

 

And it does need to be accompanied with other measures, including those to ensure farmers get a fair deal in the marketplace.

 

This can be done through bringing in the measures in the new Unfair Trading Practices Directive and strengthening the Fair Dealing parts of the Agriculture Bill.


But back to ELMS – there are many elements to sort out, from design of the land management plan farmers will need to produce, to guidance and advice, how auditing will work, payment levels, spatial priorities and the fit with new mechanisms like net gain and conservation covenants.

 

Involved

 

Farmers and other stakeholders should get involved in development.

 

Apart from gaps in types of farms involved in the test and trials, like horticulture, pigs and peri-urban farms, our concerns include:

  • How the ‘outcomes versus system’ focus could mean whole-farm agro-ecological systems like organic or pasture-based lose out in favour of atomised delivery of specific nature or edge of field outcomes, having to itemise bits of their system to show contracted outcomes. Will seeking the ‘perfect and narrow’ obscure possible ‘good and broad’ outcomes?
  • No resources for training and business support, yet farmers may need to hire an expert, accredited adviser to help design the plan. How many smaller businesses have spare cash to do this? There are many great advisers, but enough out there?
  • Will the scheme, alongside other measures, be enough to stop a mass exodus of farmersand widespread farm amalgamations? Farm diversity is vital and if the ELMS design fails to encompass the variety of size type of farms, we may lose many valued features of our farming, landscape and rural communities.

Defra needs feedback. As the design emerges, it is crucial farmers engage individually as well as via their organisations.

 

Two final deal breakers are, inevitably, money and power.

 

Will there be enough budget to deliver this scheme, long term, for all who want to join and if not, who decides what and who gets the money?

 

Flexibility

 

Finally, powers exist in the Agriculture Bill to deliver significant outcomes, but no legal duties. It is a common approach and Mr Gove wants flexibility.

 

But farmers need certainty and the environmental and social objectives are vital, not optional, for a healthy and sustainable UK.

 

Parliamentarians in both houses need to put welly in the Bill with binding duties on Government. After March 29.

 

Vicki can be found tweeting at @vickihird

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