Farmers will be the subject of an increasingly furious battle for their hearts, minds and votes ahead of next week’s EU Referendum, which has potentially enormous implications for the sector.
The pundits and bookmakers all point to an incredibly tight race and with less than a week to go there was still everything to play for.
A poll of 2,337 farmers revealed at Cereals on Wednesday showed 38 per cent were in favour of staying within the EU, while 38 per cent wanted to leave and 28 per cent were still undecided.
A Map of Agriculture Group poll of its dairy farmers yielded similar results, however those with 300 or more cows and those with less than 100 had leaned towards the Leave side.
While wider national polls this week suggested momentum had swung in favour of Brexit, analysts said the closeness of the race meant every vote would count.
There was also a notable increase in the intensity of campaigning for the farming vote, with three issues dominating – trade, farm support and regulation.
Leading Brexit campaigner Farming Minister George Eustice said leaving the EU would mean farmers would no longer have to put up with the ‘nonsense’ of ‘all-pervasive’ EU legislation, with its ‘ruthless and draconian’ EU fines for both farmers and Government.
Mr Eustice also claimed it would be ‘very easy to agree a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and EU provided people behave rationally and not petulantly’, thereby retaining, with minimal additional cost, the two-way flow of food and farming goods.
While the UK exports £7.5 billion worth of food products to the EU, £18bn comes the other way, meaning the rest of the EU would ‘need a free trade deal’.
But Sir Peter Kendall, one of the leading farming voices for Remain, said this flew in the face of the position taken by key Leave figures Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who in recent interviews appeared to be moving towards shunning a free trade deal.
Such a deal could tie the UK to significant elements of EU regulation and the free movement of people.
Instead, highlighting the success of the likes of the US, China, India, New Zealand and Brazil in exporting to the EU, Mr Johnson appeared to suggest the UK could thrive under standard World Trade Organisation trading rules.
But, citing comments by Mr Gove, Sir Peter warned this could mean ‘tearing away tariffs and protection and running a cheap food policy’, which he warned would ‘decimate UK farming’.
The sides also clashed on funding, after 13 leading Leave figures published an open letter pledging farm support would be retained at current levels to 2020, although there was no commitment beyond that.
Speaking at the Cereals Event, NFU president Meurig Raymond said questions the union had been asking from the outset remained unanswered by both sides.