In our latest round-table debate on farming post-Brexit, Abi Kay spoke to small-scale producers to discuss their hopes and fears for their businesses.
Brexit was seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make the subsidy system fairer and increase Britain’s food self-sufficiency.
But smaller farmers who took part in the discussion feared being overlooked by Defra as it continued to push for the UK to become a global player in agricultural trade.
PW: A system which supports the production of food. It also has to deliver value for money, so should not be given out wholesale to very large farmers. Crops which are needed should get the most subsidy. It needs to be carefully tailored, not just so much per acre with no limit to how many subsidies you get.
GM: We need to have funding which supports small farmers. If we did not have a bed and breakfast on-farm, we would find it difficult to survive. Payments should be targeted at the farm and helping the environment. A lot of money goes to big agribusinesses when it needs to be diverted to people who are struggling to make their living producing food. I would also like some funding directed towards Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) [a subscription farming scheme where customers become members of the farm and make a commitment to it over an entire season]. I think it is one of the main answers to feeding the country, because it supports the farm and is a wonderful way of building relationships between the community and the farmer.
EH: Using CSA, we are turning over £45,000 a year on six acres and employing two full-time workers because we sell direct to our members. We get 100 per cent of the pound. We have George Eustice saying anyone farming on less than five hectares is a hobby farmer, but we would like to show how you can be successful economically on a small-scale farm.As for policy, we need recognition that the current area-based payment model directly undermines the ability of small-scale producers to compete in the marketplace. Farms outside the subsidy model are automatically disadvantaged. We would like a replacement which targets support for production of high-quality produce and access to local and regional markets. Instead of an area-based system, it would be more like a points-based system, such as the ones used for agri-environmental schemes.
PW: We are going to disappear. A few clever people will hang on, they will find niche markets, but niche markets are getting scarcer, because as soon as somebody finds a way to produce something people want, somebody else finds out how to produce more of it and the price goes down.
GM: At the moment, prices are dominated by supermarkets, because they want to supply cheap food to the public. We need to stand our ground against supermarkets and work together with the aim of supplying locally.
PW: Small-scale farmers do not have any strong organisation to look after their interests. Environmental bodies have millions of members and unlimited cash, and big farmers have plenty of cash, but small-scale tenant farmers have no money or organisation to look after their interests, so we are not likely to get a very good deal.
GM: We need farmers to stick together. We have got to make our voice known to really be respected, otherwise we are going to disappear.
EH: We need to maintain the same profile in policymaking. Pressure groups give small farmers an equal voice at the EU negotiating table with Monsanto and Syngenta. Certainly, a lack of policymakers with first-hand experience of an alternative to sustainable intensification in Defra is one of the bigger challenges.
Another big challenge for small-scale producers is the lack of infrastructure to get our produce to market and process it. If a small-scale farmer has to travel three hours to get livestock to the abattoir, any margin you are making is automatically undercut.
There is no money under pillar two for small abattoirs or co-operative processing units, so those are a couple of things I would like to see funded, as well as support for farmers’ markets or milk vending machines which give small-scale producers immediate access to local communities.
GM: I think small farms can survive, but it is surviving by diversifying rather than producing food. The opportunity is to work together to market ourselves better locally. We have also got to try and change policy to support small farmers and change the face of farming. This is the opportunity in front of us now.
EH: I would like Defra to put together a long-term food strategy which replaces our imports with domestic production. There will always be demand for things we cannot produce in this country, but at the moment, we are exporting nearly 300,000 tonnes of pork meat and importing nearly exactly the same amount.
PW: Defra’s policy has always been to encourage small farmers to get bigger. Defra is not interested in getting a deal for small farmers.
GM: The powers that be will listen to bigger producers, so it is going to be difficult for us to get our voice heard, but there are ways we can do it. The answer is local food and local marketing, but we must fight for the small farmer and get our policy through.
EH: There are many intelligent civil servants in Defra, but the leadership is largely concerned with the agenda of sustainable intensification. There is a lot of potential for Defra to genuinely engage with the opportunities Brexit offers, but they just need to be exposed to economic arguments for why there is a case for more support for small-scale farmers.