The Government’s post-Brexit agriculture reforms provide an opportunity for farms to become more prosperous, but those who resist the push to become ‘park keepers’ risk being the first to go out of business, says independent consultant Derrick Wilkinson.
After 47 years in the debilitating Common Agricultural Policy, British farming now has the opportunity to develop the policies and set the direction for the industry to survive and thrive.
UK farming income has halved in real terms since joining, and many thousands of farms have been left wholly dependent on Government payments and income from non-farming sources to pay the bills.
This cannot continue, and farmers now have a golden opportunity to build a new, more prosperous future.
Changes will be difficult, and not all of them will be welcomed by farmers, but those who want to survive need to heed the words of Charles Darwin, who reportedly said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
A new British trade policy, the replacement of current farm payments, and restricted availability of labour all provide catalysts for structural change in British farming.
Around 20,000 farm business are at serious risk of failure over the next few years, while most of the rest will need to restructure their businesses.
Watering down or resisting these changes will do more harm to the industry than help.
Farming leaders need to dial back on the anger and outrage, stop calling for somebody in Government to do ‘something’, and take some ownership of the changes the industry so desperately needs.
Setting a target to be carbon neutral is fine, but does little to help farmers now.
UK farmers do produce some of the very best food in the world, and do so using some of the best production standards.
If we want that to continue – and I certainly do – more hard detailed technical work will be needed.
Photo-ops and hashtag slogans are inadequate.
But, frankly, I just don’t see that work being done on anything like the scale the challenge demands.
Farmers are also rightly proud of the multifunctional nature of their industry, providing, as it does, many valuable non-food outputs, including habitat and landscape management.
The new Agriculture Bill provides an excellent opportunity for many smaller and marginal farms to provide the new environmental goods and services the public want.
Those who reply with the old retort, “I’m a farmer, not a park keeper”, risk being among the first to go out of business.
Structural adjustment is the elephant in the room nobody dares talk about, but that needs to change.
More work needs to be done urgently to help new farmers enter the industry, support others to exit, and to ‘repurpose’ land.
Financial help and training is needed to help many restructure their businesses.
And substantial new resources need to be available to facilitate the technical and technological changes, including robotics, AI, and plant and animal improvements, which will underpin the sustainable and profitable industry of the future.
Derrick can be found tweeting at @DGWilkinson