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BREXIT: Arable farmers must not lose out in deal

In the latest of our round-table debates on farming post-Brexit, Ben Briggs met with arable farmers near York to discuss their hopes and aspirations for agriculture once the UK leaves the European Union.


Pesticide regulations, GM crops rulings and environmental standards from the EU have all added to the pressures faced by arable farmers in the UK. But while Brexit gives the UK a chance to change its position on these issues, it could also create problems with migrant labour, export tariffs and cheap imports. With so much at stake, FG’s panel of farmers had plenty to say.

The round-table panel

  • Will Atkinson, Catterick Mixed farm with 500ha (1,235 acres) of arable and 300ha (741 acres) of grass
  • Joe Barrowman, Leeds Oilseed rape, spring barley, cattle and part of a machinery ring
  • David Blacker, Shipton Winter wheat, OSR and spring beans
  • Ben Sykes, Tadcaster Potatoes, sugar beet and OSR
  • Peter Trickett, Harewood Wheat, barley and OSR

What are your hopes and fears for farming as Brexit negotiations start?

JB: I voted to stay in the EU as I worry the budget will go back to the Treasury during the Brexit negotiations and other sectors, such as the NHS, will take priority over agriculture. The likes of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have a bigger membership than our representative bodies and this could also mean they have a greater say in how money should be spent. France and Germany have more clout and were putting on a lot of pressure for a good Common Agricultural Policy deal, but now we face having to strike deals with individual countries. If tariffs come in, it could help us out and keep imported wheat away. But the flip-side is chemicals and fertilisers will cost more and we will end up with higher costs. If we lose subsidies, a lot of farmers will go out of business.


PT: The likelihood is subsidies will reduce and rents and land prices will come down. However, my concern is about tariffs. The EU will put tariffs up against us but our import tariffs will not increase as it will put the price of food up and Government will not put farming above food price stability.


BS: I am a young person and I do not believe we should underpin big estates. A lot of subsidy money goes to people who do not reinvest it in agriculture. Some big estates take this money and just go shooting or raising grouse. They are not helping the circle of farming.


JB: I do not believe we should have subsidies. Instead, we should allow economics to take place and let the market work.


PT: Nobody would have subsidies in an ideal world, but the truth is our competitors will have them and we, potentially, will not. This is concerning.


DB: We will not get a level playing field where subsidies are concerned. The problem is Government does not have a clue what it is going to do after Brexit. We will get Government infighting and it could end up being a big, ugly mess. Free trade globally would be dangerous as we would have to compete with Argentinian beef and the scale they have. The problem is this does not provide food security for the UK.


PT: We need to keep food security high on the agenda. Security of food is a major concern for many and we must keep it in their eye line.

How important is access to labour?

BS: Labour is a big part of my business and while there is a lot you can do with automation, potato grading at farm level is demanding in terms of manpower. We rely heavily on foreign labour and have seven to eight Latvian members of staff who are engaged in communities and have been here for a long time but are not English citizens. It is essential those types of people can stay.


We have tried to use local labour but they are not at that level. The modern upbringing, with its computer games, is not putting them out into the world with the ability to do what we are asking and we have to constantly tell them what to do. Many also have ‘Friday night syndrome’, meaning they go out and do not want to come back in on a Saturday.


The foreign lads will work when you need them to.


WA: I am technology oriented so when I look at immigration I look at the transition towards automation and those roles being filled elsewhere.





Will payments be environmentally geared?

WA: We are working on the premise subsidies will disappear, but there is a real possibility a new environmental scheme could punish us even more. We have reached this level of environmental success but the funding will go or drop like a stone. It seems a shame to waste what we have done and achieved.


PT: It is difficult for Government to sell direct payment but it is easier for them to say they are pushing environmental goods. It might be about sheep on the hills, but if we cannot get rid of hedges and create huge prairies then we should be compensated for it.


JB: It might evolve on a regional basis and some will choose to go in to the schemes, or it might be the case the [Yorkshire] Dales and uplands are favoured in this region. It might be the case highly productive farms opt not to sign up to environmental schemes and run on a purely business basis.


DB: Every farm will have areas which are unproductive for arable crops, but might be productive for the environment, but putting in a grass margin is a waste of time.

Will there be a bonfire of regulation?

BD: Government will just keep what it has at the moment.


PT: Our Government loves regulation more than the EU and they gold-plate it. Brussels can provide regulation which is just two sheets of A4 long and by the time our lot have finished with it it can cover 200.


JB: The British Government is so scared of doing something wrong it does nothing at all. There is a blame culture so the fear of making a mistake just increases.


DB: Things are bound to change. A hazard-based approach to chemical approval is too hard but a risk-based one is too soft. Look at glyphosate and other fungicides, if we lose all of them then trying to grow OSR would become so hard.


WA: Glyphosate is one of my major concerns. At the moment we try to rely on new technology but there is nothing to replace pesticide use. Does Government want cheap GM crops or something which is not grown under the correct regulations?


PT: We need science-based decisions and I hope the Government will be strong on this.


BS: Consumers go to Aldi and buy the cheapest thing, which goes against the idea they want to buy British. In years gone by the proportion of household income spent on food was higher but now they have flatscreens with Sky TV, so where do their priorities lie?


PT: Consumers say they want the best quality, but then they buy the cheapest. Morrisons has shown with milk that people will pay more if it goes back to the farmer, but it has to be promoted right.

Post-Brexit priorities

  • Will Atkinson: Research and marketing. We need to make it and sell it but we need quality controls
  • Joe Barrowman: We need to be treated fairly. Agriculture will be a sacrificial cow in the regulatory battle and they will bring in tariffs which will be a nightmare
  • David Blacker: I would like tariffs above free trade. Free trade could be damaging as we cannot compete
  • Ben Sykes: My focus is labour. We are hugely reliant on foreign staff as a sector and we must protect this
  • Peter Trickett: We have to keep pressure on Government to ensure our high standards are not undermined by imports coming in. Farming can deliver for Britain, but we need a cando attitude in this new era
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