Farming after Brexit

The B-word was bound to come up at some point!

With only two weeks to go before we’re supposed to be leaving the EU, it seems a good time to have a brief look at some of the issues for farmers. This is just a snapshot of a couple of issues. The challenges are potentially huge.

DEAL OR NO DEAL?

Whether or not the UK agrees a withdrawal deal with the EU will largely determine the immediate impact on farming businesses.

If the UK agrees a deal, the present trading arrangements with the EU will carry on, with changes being discussed during the transition period which ends in December 2020.

If there is no deal, import tariffs will be imposed on food imports by the UK government to protect farmers from cheap foods coming into the country, many of which will be produced to lower food-safety and animal-welfare standards.

But because the UK would – overnight – be a non-EU country, farmers exporting goods to Europe would be faced with much higher tariffs. Import taxes in the EU for dairy are often 35% and for lamb 40%. Competing against zero tariffs for countries exporting within the EU – for example Ireland and France – means that British farmers would simply be squeezed out of the market, and many of their businesses would collapse.

SUBSIDY OR SURVIVAL?

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has been controversial for a long time, with the biggest subsidy payouts going to those with the greatest area of land, notably the Queen and the National Trust.

But it has also quite literally meant the difference between the ability to make a living or bankruptcy, for thousands of farmers. Many farm businesses simply wouldn’t have survived without it.

The UK government will keep the subsidies as they are until 2022, then they will gradually be changed to a different system,

The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed a radical change to the way subsidies are paid. In the future, farmers will be rewarded for ‘public goods’. These will be schemes to protect the environment, but nobody has yet spelled out exactly what they will entail. You can read more about it here.

Brexit is likely to cause a massive shake-up of British agriculture, possibly as a short-term shock or as a more gradual change to different priorities in food production and environment management. There will be winners and losers. Given that a third of UK farmers are aged 65 or over and fewer young people are going into the business, it’s likely that many small farms will cease to exist and the remaining farms will get bigger.

But farmers are a resilient lot. Given enough time and a fair system, they will manage the changes and survive, as they have done in the past.

As we need them to do.

Dairy firm pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050

The biggest dairy company in Europe, has pledged to make its operation carbon neutral by 2050.

Arla Foods, based in the UK, yesterday announced its ambitious goal – read the BBC report here.

This is a great move to show that the agriculture industry is willing to start rethinking and changing its practices. However, as pointed out in the report, one of the main by-products of cattle farming is methane, which also contributes massively to climate change.

So, while a welcome and positive indicator of things starting to move in the right direction, the agriculture industry has a huge mountain to climb in the next few years.

Rain at last!

 

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I know this may not be a popular view, but the recent heavy downpours have been brilliant.  A definite godsend for farmers.

Unfortunately, the rain arrived too late to help the harvest.

Because of the long spell of hot, dry weather, the oil-seed rape and the corn (wheat and barley) ripened early.  The combine harvesters started working in the fields two weeks before the usual time and they are still busy in many areas of the country.  But the harvest is not great.  The yield – the amount of grain produced – is below normal,  which means the price of milling (flour) wheat will go up, as well as the price of barley for animal feed.

Farmers are used to occasional poor harvests.  But before the rain came last week, desperation was beginning to set in for a different reason.  Farmers everywhere in Britain were wondering how they were going to grow enough grass to make hay for animal feed during the winter.

Now they can breathe a little easier – at least for a short time.  The grass here in Yorkshire, as elsewhere, is just beginning to grow again.

But the rain we’ve had is not nearly enough.  The UK needs much more rain over the next two months, to make sure enough grass grows for cutting in September, or even October. If farmers can make enough hay or silage before the grass stops growing, the winter won’t be as grim as it’s looking now.

I know that isn’t what everyone wants this autumn.  Sorry folks  – we need it.

I’m off to do my rain dance …

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A visit to a small agricultural show – Tockwith, North Yorkshire

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Around the country at this time of year, there are many agricultural shows, large and small.  All of them have the same aim – highlighting the best that farming has to offer. Exhibitors young and old take great pride in presenting their animals and their produce in the best way possible.  Most of the visitors to agricultural shows are not farming folk, and for them it’s simply a great, interesting day out.

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Tockwith Show last weekend was no exception.  And of course, the hot sunshine helped enormously.

One of the stands belonged to Ken Horner, a local man who started making walking sticks and shepherds’ crooks when he retired 20 years ago.

In that time, he has donated over £50,000 to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the MacMillan nursing service.  He’s still going strong.

 

Tockwith is a modest village and has only two documented claims to fame – the ‘petals’ of the amazing London 2012 Olympic cauldron were made here; and Oliver Cromwell stayed in the village on his way to the battle of Marston Moor.

To me, there is a third – its great annual agricultural show.

Farming flowers

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A new government scheme to help preserve habitats for birds and insects and to encourage the growth of rare species of wild flowers is being tested on farms in Wensleydale and Coverdale in North Yorkshire.

Natural meadows

The scheme, like similar ones before it, involves the farmer receiving a subsidy for leaving hay meadows unimproved – using no fertiliser or herbicides, and not mowing until the flowers have seeded. This not only helps to preserve many varieties of wild flowers, it also provides a natural habitat for many pollinating insects including bees.

But more flowers in the meadows means there is less grass, and therefore less winter feed for farm animals, which could threaten their survival. There are also strict regulations attached to the original scheme, such as limits on the number of animals that can be grazed and specific dates for mowing, which many farmers find it difficult to comply with.

 

Payments dependent on outcome

This pilot is different, however, because the farmers are paid by results and the regulations are less onerous.

Each farmer is given a scorecard on which to record the species of flowers he or she sees in the meadow. Some plants get a positive score, some a negative one. The more positive-scoring species and the fewer negative-scoring ones, the higher the payment received.

The scheme is also being piloted in three other areas of the UK.  So far, the nineteen Yorkshire farmers involved seem positive about it.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

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Summertime – and the living is uneasy

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This summer has become a big problem for all types of farming. A prolonged heatwave and no rain for months means grass everywhere in the UK has simply stopped growing. A lot of pasture land resembles the fields of the American mid-west – dry and dead.

 

Animals

Cattle and sheep have no fresh grass to eat, so farmers are having to feed them the winter supplies of hay. Quite a worry, as they will still need hay over the winter too.

And grass has now become expensive. Normally, a ton of hay (3 or 4 big round bales) costs about £80. At the moment, it’s about £120.

 

Crops

This year’s cereal crops – mainly wheat and barley – and rape-seed are not as plentiful as they should be. The drought means the grains haven’t fattened up enough, so the amount of grain harvested will be less, which in turn will increase the price. A lot of barley is used for cattle fodder – so feeding cows will become more expensive.

 

The sunshine and warmth are a wonderful change from our normal summer experience, perhaps especially here in the north, and definitely after the snow-laden ‘Beasts from the East’ earlier this year!

And of course, farmers love sunshine just as much as everyone else. But when your workplace is the great outdoors, too much of it can be a problem!

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