With Brexit set to dominate political discussions this year, Ben Briggs met with English and Welsh sheep farmers to discuss the UK’s position in global trade at a round-table debate in Herefordshire.
As part of our Shape Your Farming Future campaign, Farmers Guardian spoke to a panel of five sheep farmers to gauge their hopes and fears for farming and agricultural policy post-Brexit. In the coming weeks, FG will be talking to farmers from other sectors, getting their views before putting them to the people who will shape UK farm policy.
KH: My main concern is there are bigger lobbying groups which speak louder than farmers. I am not against environmental concerns, but they will take it down the wrong route if we let them. You then have the issue of imports. Michael Gove said Brexit was a huge opportunity for cheap food imports, but this threatens the UK’s food security in the long-term.
JA: From a Welsh perspective, protected geographical indication [PGI] Welsh Lamb is so important for us as it is a global brand and, if we were to lose this, then I would be concerned about what replaces it.
JL: If we lose market access to the EU and are then flooded with cheap Australian lamb because of a trade deal with them, then we face a double whammy. I believe we will retain PGI status Welsh Lamb.
PW: They kept saying a third of the public wants a better environment, 30 per cent are not bothered about the environment and a third want environmentally sensitive farming. We have had 30 years of environmental schemes and we were doing it for decades before but never got the credit. There is a lack of public recognition about what has been done for the environment by farmers.
BG: I believe most farmers want to produce food from environmentally friendly landscapes. If we want to continue to receive support payments then we have to recognise the public’s concerns and address them. A tiered system which incentivises food production and environmental management would allow us to mix the two.
KH: The problem is many of the green lobby and environmentalists exist in a social media echo chamber of their own anti-farming views. Why so many people listen to them is odd, but they do and we have to combat this as an industry.
BG: We want to keep producing food and I believe there will be an environmental incentive as well.
PW: New Zealand has a different way of farming, but it has an image of green grass all year round. We are doing the same, but not promoting it. They are good at marketing, but we need to show our product is just as good, if not better. We do not seem to do this. We also need to dispel the myth wherever there are sheep there are too many, especially in the hills.
KH: There is a perception sheep can be bad for the environment.
BG: The sheep industry is unique as a lot of people keep sheep for fun. Nobody milks a cow for fun. Sheep farmers will carry on regardless.
KH: China would be the main market for us to access, but Government will be having discussions with scores of countries. AHDB needs to get a plan for us and act as the link.
BG: The EU is the number one market but we must also look for others.
JA: Will the EU still be number one in 20 years? A lot of people in their 30s like me are looking longer term and thinking 30-40 years ahead. Many of my friends see this as a huge chance to get a foot on the ladder, take over farms which others cannot make pay and really shake things up. They feel people have been able to sit on the land for too long and now is the time for change. It is all well having a new entrants scheme, such as the one we have in Wales, but we need something which genuinely enables people to get started. I voted out of the EU as I believe we should be targeting markets such as India and China and allow the market to support us in the long run.
PW: You also have to consider how difficult it is to retire at the moment. How do we get off the treadmill? There is a generation which wants to get a foot on the ladder and a generation which wants to get off, but the taxation systems and other issues work against this transition. Maybe now is the time to revisit this.
KH: It is time for regulations governing the industry to be scaled back. We need to decide what we want and be able to answer the questions fired at us in terms of regulation and trade.
JL: We could end up with different policies and different systems of regulation across the devolved nations which will not help in terms of red tape. It is essential we are not sidelined when discussions get difficult regarding regulations because Jacob’s generation just wants to be able to make money off sheep and let the market pay.
JA: Being able to make money from sheep is all I want to do. We have to look to the future. I would take short-term pain for long-term trading and economic gain. We have to talk about the opportunities Brexit provides and not just focus on the negatives.
PW: People know what they do not want in terms of regulation and trade, but they have not yet decided what they do want. There is no point sitting here and being happy the Basic Payment Scheme will stay until 2020 but not planning for once it has gone.
JL: The level of support will drop but at what point do farmers stop applying for it and revert to the law of the land?
JL: On the Monday after the referendum, Neil Hamilton, the UKIP leader in Wales, asked what Carwyn Jones would do and he said agriculture was devolved and they would make the most of it. My worry is what happens across the border and if you farm into England then there could be real problems because of the different systems. In the end we cannot be too far away from what happens in England as we have a long border. I did not vote for devolution.
JA: I would rather be run from Westminster as the Government there is more in tune with farming than the Labour Government in Wales.
The discussion was organised with help from the National Sheep Association. For more information, visit www.nationalsheep.org.uk