County farms offer new entrants a real opportunity to get a foot on the farming ladder, but their future existence is threatened by Government cuts to local authority funding, says Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman.
Brexit is now only nine months away, but farmers across the country are still waiting to find out what will happen when we leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Labour has argued from the start of the Brexit process that we must have a transition period, and this is particularly important for farming and horticulture if we are to avoid a ‘cliff edge’ catastrophe for the sector.
The Government’s ‘Health and Harmony’ consultation on what could replace the CAP focused heavily on the environment, but nowhere near enough on food security and production.
As the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) has said, we need absolute assurance that any new policy for agriculture will ensure delivery of high-quality food produced to exacting environmental, animal welfare and ethical standards at prices consumers can afford, and which deliver a sustainable return to primary producers to enable them to be profitable and allow for reinvestment.
I have written previously for Farmers Guardian about how we should seize the opportunity to extend the power and remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator (GCA) to help protect our producers.
But we also need to make sure any post-Brexit international trade deals do not undermine our industry standards, or allow imported goods to undercut our own prices.
The National Treatment Rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) allow members to apply the same rules to imported products and raw materials as they apply to their own.
In order to do that, we will need to agree our standards and enshrine them in law, so we can enforce them at our borders, at food processors and through retailers.
A transition period must also address the removal of public support for farmers. Replacing the current arrangements with a new deal could take longer than the five years currently suggested, so we should be exploring the possibility of a phased payment scheme beyond that period whilst new supply chain measures are agreed.
All of this will sound particularly daunting for new farmers, or those thinking about farming. For the UK farming industry to flourish, it is absolutely vital that we encourage new entrants into farming.
We must make sure there are opportunities and incentives, both for new entrants and for succession as older farmers retire.
Labour believes county farms are part of the solution, and traditionally they have been one of the main routes into farming for new entrants.
But over the last 30 years, we have lost over a third of the farmland once owned by county councils.
The situation is likely to worsen through cuts to Government funding for local authorities, but we must find a way to protect the remaining county farms – the future of farming in Britain could depend on it.