It feels ungrateful to criticise Government plans to support the sheep sector in a no-deal Brexit, but we can do better than headage payments on breeding ewes, says Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association.
It’s impossible right now to know what is going to happen with Brexit and it’s become a bit like a film which has had one sequel too many.
The spectre of no deal fades away and then seems to return as a distinct possibility, but the risks such an outcome holds, for sheep farming particularly, are still very real.
Even so, there is no shortage of farmers who would still prefer to leave, and you can only find comfort that the benefits are considered worth taking the risk for.
Although it’s not comfortable listening, whatever finally happens there are actions farmers can take to help protect themselves.
There are also undoubtedly decisions we will need our politicians to make.
Success for the future of agriculture in Britain will be a joint effort, and while farming is undoubtedly important to farmers, we need to make sure it’s important to politicians and to society too.
Although Defra Secretary Michael Gove has received criticism for his focus on the environment, he has also been very clear that one of our aims must be to increase agricultural productivity.
If anything, this has increased criticism further with many scoffing at the thought we could possibly increase productivity and raise environmental outcomes at the same time.
Maybe it’s an unfortunate choice of words, maybe it’s just taken a bit of time to work out, or maybe its been pretty poor communication, but in this context ‘productivity’ is not a measure of production levels but a measure of efficiency – the rate inputs are converted to outputs.
It’s perfectly possible to reduce production volumes but at the same time increase productivity, and you don’t have to think hard to realise increasing outputs over inputs also increases profitability.
But to achieve this is difficult without measuring, recording and comparing.
Benchmarking is what we’ve ended up calling it, and it’s not flavour of the month, but it is difficult to see how we will improve productivity and profitability without more farms making use of it.
Taking steps to improve productivity is one thing, but Britain’s farms will also need Government to provide protection and our sheep industry has received such promises.
The UK tariff schedules recognise the sensitivity and value of sheep farming and its vulnerability, and in theory offer some protection.
But this doesn’t affect existing TRQ volumes, and if our exports are damaged and an oversupply causes prices to fall, it will still take some time for nations exporting to the UK to divert products elsewhere.
Protection through standards equivalence in new trade deals may help, but we are a long way from clarity on this - although a standards commission which will start this process has been promised.
But if things really go wrong and sheep meat prices fall significantly, the Government has committed financial support.
Discussions have started as to the most effective way of doing this and Mr Gove has recently said this may be a payment based on breeding ewe numbers.
The Secretary of State’s comments indicate an intention to rescue things once they have gone wrong.
While any support is welcome, I believe it would be far more effective to step in early and underpin the market, holding prices up and only coming into play if prices fell.
Anyone old enough to remember the Variable Premium Scheme of the 1980s will by now be smiling about there never being anything new, but a scheme that held prices of finished lambs up would surely have every chance of also holding up store and breeding stock prices, and of course it would all only have to come into play if prices fell.
It feels almost ungrateful to be making criticisms about plans to support our industry, but most sheep farmers want to be able to rely on market prices and I would far rather invest in making our markets work than rescue things when they have gone wrong.