Farming groups have largely welcomed Michael Gove’s commitment to maintaining farm subsidies post-Brexit in a speech which was peppered with detail on how a new agricultural policy could look outside the EU.
Mr Gove said while he would like to see the same level of support guaranteed after 2022, the amount would be subject to consultation but he would like to see a figure ’broadly the same as it is now’.
Speaking to journalists after his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, he said Defra’s intention was to phase out direct payments but that farmers would be given a five-year transition period (from Brexit in 2019) in which to adjust.
Those who wanted to move towards contracts based on environmental benefits and public good earlier would be permitted to do so.
CLA director of Policy Christopher Price said he was encouraged by Defra’s leaning towards a new policy based on rewarding farmers for the range of public benefits they deliver, in line with the CLA’s own vision for UK farming.
He said: “We are pleased the Secretary of State has listened to our concerns on this issue and extended the period of operation of the existing Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) to ensure a full and smooth transition.”
Mr Price said the association would be keeping a close eye on the forthcoming consultation on capping payments for large landowners.
He added: “The Secretary of State has been clear that businesses must be rewarded for what they do, not the amount of land they own. That will not be the case if a poorly thought through and rushed capping policy excludes and alienates businesses simply because of their size.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond said Mr Gove’s speech was a ‘positive signal’ for the farming industry, with nods to the importance of investing in technology, skills and rural resilience - all of which are public goods - along with nurturing the environment.
Gove: if farmers want to move away from direct payments and want to move to Environmental/public good contracts earlier we will facilitate that. We want to give people time to adjust but subsidies will be phased out #OFC18 pic.twitter.com/f6CsGhc0K3— Olivia Midgley (@FGoliviamidgley)
Gove: if farmers want to move away from direct payments and want to move to Environmental/public good contracts earlier we will facilitate that. We want to give people time to adjust but subsidies will be phased out #OFC18 pic.twitter.com/f6CsGhc0K3— Olivia Midgley (@FGoliviamidgley) January 4, 2018
He added: “A transition period that allows time to prepare properly for the introduction of a new agricultural policy is also welcome, during which an assessment can be made of the impact of Brexit on UK farming – on trade in the raw ingredients farmers produce, on farm businesses’ access to a competent and reliable workforce, and on the regulatory environment in which they operate.”
Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning said the clear timetable provided clarity for farmers, but called for more detail on future animal welfare systems, pesticide use, plus a plan to improve water quality restore soils.
She added: “The greatest test of this transition is whether the UK’s food and farming system measures up to the monumental challenges of public health, which was highlighted in the speech, and climate change, which received just two mentions.
"The Government must also make an ambitious and unambiguous commitment to organic and other agroecological approaches which are proven to deliver on animal welfare, biodiversity, soil health and climate change - both during and after 2024.”
Patrick Begg, National Trust rural enterprise director, said farmers and conservationists would now need certainty about the Government’s proposals in order to plan ahead.
Impressed by @michaelgove grasp of the issues in ag industry, both in speech and questions. Some positive ways forward but significant change is certain @oxfordfarming #EmbracingChange #ofc18 pic.twitter.com/mz2f2ts5UL— Kit Papworth (@farmerkit)
There was a word of warning from Gareth Williams, partner and head law firm Hewitsons agriculture and rural property team, who raised concerns on the necessity of building flexibility into business and legal contracts in the event of UK farmers experiencing a reduced income.
Mr Williams said: "For example if Farm Business tenancy rents are set assuming that the tenant will access payments at BPS levels, will the rent be sustainable under the new system?
"If not, should the FBT end before the new payment system comes into force; contain extraordinary rent review clauses or break clauses to allow the parties to re-negotiate. A lot is unknown and hopefully will become clearer when we see more of the proposed new scheme."
Jonathan Stiff, head of rural division, Cheffins, criticised Mr Gove for focusing on the replacement of BPS rather than focussing on new trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.
“Ultimately this will be what has a larger impact on the farming industry than the restructure of the funding system,” said Mr Stiff.
“Similarly, it is disappointing that he continues to focus on environmental measures without formulating any proposals for improving productivity, training or technological advancement.
“A shift towards purely environmental work will increase the UK’s reliance on imported food which will have its implications for farmers and growers across the country.”
Liberal Democrat Defra spokesman Tim Farron blasted Mr Gove for implying farm payments were a reward for ‘inefficiency’.
Mr Farron said: "British farmers are some of the most efficient and dynamic in the world. Farm payments compensate for the fact that the market is broken, because supermarkets and processors dominate the industry and exploit farmers.
"The overwhelming majority of livestock and dairy farmers would be in the red if it was not for direct farm payments.”