Brexit brings challenges and opportunities for the sheep sector, but farmers who keep doing what they have always done will not survive the big changes ahead, says Phil Stocker, chief executive of the NSA.
The Brexit blame game has started, and I would bet on there being a lot more to come.
Farmers blamed even more than usual for damaging the environment, for our air quality, and for not caring for the welfare of their animals; Defra Secretary Michael Gove blamed for not recognising the importance of food; farmers blaming an increasingly vocal anti-farming movement, and of course the anti-farming groups are just experts at blame.
But wait until some of the actual decisions are made – it is likely that we have not seen anything yet.
Blame is unhelpful. When someone throws rocks at you, the natural response is to throw rocks back, and any chance of constructive dialogue is usually lost.
It is naïve to even think it, but we would be in a much better place if there was some honesty and understanding, with positions based on ‘what is right’ rather than just aiming for everything and being prepared to negotiate to ‘somewhere in-between’.
But this is a pipe dream and the fact is views are highly polarised and entrenched, with everyone out to get the best deal they can.
So much for health and harmony, but I for one take my hat off to Michael Gove for trying, even if there have been some big gaps and a lack of realism in the Health and Harmony consultation and other Brexit-related consultations too.
Changes to what we have become used to are on their way.
Remember, a majority voted for it, some big decisions will be made and there will be some unhappy people.
The NSA, along with most other organisations, is spending a lot of time making sure our industry is understood and defending practices which are wrongly criticised and poorly understood.
A time like this exposes some of the gaps in research and yet again shows it is difficult to get practical/anecdotal/unmeasurable things accepted.
Carbon footprinting and life cycle assessments are a good example where the results are dangerously skewed because no one quite understands the entire life cycle.
There is a real danger that decisions will be made on information which is incomplete, even though it might be the best we have got.
The wider public – our marketplace – is another area where we may not be thinking things through as clearly as we might.
Name me another primary industry which makes so much effort to get understood and to get closer, but then so often does not want to listen.
Step aside from the confusion around Brexit and it is not entirely unclear where our political masters want to see agriculture go.
It is no accident that we saw a new 25-Year Environment Plan agreed and launched before the consultation on farming.
Environmentally, the direction was already decided. Note the full title of the consultation which will set the future direction of farming: ‘Health and Harmony; the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’.
This will lead to the drafting of a new Agriculture Bill, for England, and is also likely to heavily influence future agricultural policy across the whole UK.
The likelihood is we may see a draft Bill just before, or possibly just after, the summer recess which will need to be finalised and on our statute books by the end of March 2019.
To say this could be the most influential piece of farming-related legislation for over five decades is no exaggeration.
The Government’s Industrial Strategy is reputed to be the home for a new food plan for Britain, but is still largely a mystery.
While there are real risks ahead for our sheep sector – our trading relationship with the EU is one, given that some 96 per cent of our exports head in that direction – there is opportunity too, and I can argue sheep farming could fit the future well. But we may need to think hard about our future measures of success.
With such strong messages of optimising efficiency and productivity while also ensuring high welfare and environmental standards, there are concerns over further erosion of ‘the industry’ and predictions that this is the end for ‘commercial livestock production’.
I can see this from all sides of the debate, but it is not helpful or realistic to think of extremes and there are ways to reconcile these views.
I know many farmers operating to high standards who are already into premium markets and are very commercial in their approach. They know their unit costs and understand the difference between income and margin.
I know a good number who have reduced sheep numbers and costs and in doing so have improved margin, too.
But I also know many who have increased numbers to spread fixed costs over a larger enterprise. All these approaches can be successful, but the common factor is they do not simply do what they have always done.
Quite what will become of it all is far too important to simply say it will be interesting.
It may be necessary to remind ourselves of the criticisms of our current frameworks, and as individuals it will certainly be sensible to do whatever is in our grasp to make our own businesses as lean as possible.
Remember the legacy left by the dinosaurs – survival comes not through being the biggest or the strongest but from an ability to adapt to change.