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With BPS on the way out, farmers must take steps now to survive the Brexit transition

With BPS on the way out, and Defra not yet ready to offer support which fills the gap, farmers must take steps now to survive the Brexit transition, says Dr Julia Aglionby, executive director at the FCL and chairwoman of the Uplands Alliance.

Uncertainty is stressful. You don’t need to know all the answers. Just breathe deeply and take small steps. – Karen Salmansohn

 

What a fortnight it has been for those, like me, slightly obsessed about the future of Defra support to farmers in England.

 

And all when in parallel the Deal – No Deal vacillation is a constant refrain in the press.

 

It is rather like doing a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces changing shape each day.

 

Monday, November 30 saw the release of the long awaited Agricultural Transition Plan – a 66-page document that provides the skeleton of what support will be available to English farmers from now until 2028.

 

Substance

 

When people ask me what I think my initial quip is; ‘Long on words, short on substance.’

 

And Defra realise this.

 

Janet Hughes, the Defra director of future farming, acknowledged the skeleton still needs muscles, skin and clothes.

 

So how can individual businesses move forward when only one side of the coin has been minted?

 

It is clear from the minted face of the coin that BPS will be at least halved by 2024 and gone by 2028.

 

Flip

 

But flip the coin over, and what is being asked from us for the future?

 

The coin design remains to be agreed and pressed.

 

I’m going to get the bad news out of my system first.

 

Bad News Piece One is on average, grazing livestock farms will have lost approximately 40 per cent of their Farm Business Income before the full Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme is rolled out in 2024/25.

 

Negative

 

This means approximately 20 per cent of these businesses will have a negative FBI by 2024.

 

Defra’s statistics tell us there are 45,400 grazing livestock farms in England – 53 per cent of all BPS claimants.

 

Bad News Piece Two is we have no details on the options and payment rates for any of the ELM components; either the Sustainable Farm Incentive, the Local Nature Recovery or the Landscape Recovery schemes.

 

Bad News Piece Three is the Government will be using income foregone plus costs for paying for ELM until they come up with something better.

 

Alternative

 

Despite commissioning ‘learned reports’ on alternative approaches, including the natural capital approach, there has been no agreement between Treasury and Defra for an alternative.

 

This is a major barrier to ramping up the delivery of high value natural capital in areas where returns from current agricultural production are low.

 

Common land and upland farms are two such systems. Pegging future ELM income to current uneconomic grazing systems is illogical on many grounds.

 

What these announcements make me conclude is that waiting for Defra to provide a solution is probably unwise.

 

Neutral

 

The Government appears neutral as to whether any individual farm survives, or even to keeping the structure of multiple family farms and the fabric of rural England as we know it.

 

I therefore suggest each and every business focuses on what we can do.

 

And for those who farm collectively on commons and in other joint ventures the same advice applies.

 

Let’s see what we can do; the baby steps that can make all the difference.

 

I mentally divide the baby steps into two groups.

 

Resilience

 

First is building in resilience to reducing BPS income by forensically examining and then cutting both variable and fixed costs.

 

Second is assessing strategies for adaptation to the new world we find ourselves in. And here there are three key actions we can all take now.

 

Use this pause time wisely.

  • Assess, map and value your assets so you and your business partners can make informed decisions as soon as future options are known. We are helping groups of commoners do this across England through our Defra funded Test and Trial. Use an app such as LandApp to record all the natural capital; soil health, biodiversity, cultural heritage. But don’t forget your built assets and the skills and motivation you, your partners and neighbours have.
  • Determine the sustainable productive capacity of your farm. Which inputs turn a profit? Which inputs are pouring good money after bad even if they produce good quality stock? Adjust current farming practices to respond to the changing climate and increase in extreme weather events.
  • Talk with your neighbours to share your knowledge and challenges, maybe a monthly gathering of farmers in your parish. This may lead to collaboration for reducing costs and increasing income from ELM by delivering at scale, or it may remain a looser group that offers an equally valuable supportive and questioning group of colleagues to test ideas.

There is lots of positive action we can take now and it is less scary if broken into bite size chunks.

 

Through my involvement with the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, we are starting to test with the many Farmer Networks across England how we can Farm Smarter.

 

We would love to hear your ideas too.

 

Keep breathing…

 

Julia can be found tweeting at @edenswimmer

 

This article contains her own personal views, not those of the Foundation for Common Land or Uplands Alliance


Read More

Defra’s agricultural transition plan: Everything you need to knowDefra’s agricultural transition plan: Everything you need to know
‘Major hardship’ warning as Defra chief confirms income foregone ELMs payments‘Major hardship’ warning as Defra chief confirms income foregone ELMs payments

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