Farmers need to be the nation’s park keepers

“We are today an overwhelmingly urban nation. This means that we think little about the countryside, save as scenery. We should pay more attention now, however, because exit from the European Union also means departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This has underpinned our 136,000 farms by an average of £27,000 a year. Subsidy alone makes many holdings economically viable.”

(Max Hastings is a former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England)
The oilseed rape in the field opposite our house was cut last week. Once upon a time, the land would soon afterwards have been ploughed. As a farm worker in school holidays 60 years ago, I was not a bad ploughman myself, though hopeless at hand-milking. Today, however, like so many other old practices, deep ploughing has declined.Across many areas, including ours, it is being replaced by light tillage-disc-harrowing just sufficiently to make the land receptive to reseeding. Fuel costs are lower; the impact on the soil is thought to be more benign, though plenty of unease persists about the use of weedkilling sprays.

We are today an overwhelmingly urban nation. This means that we think little about the countryside, save as scenery. We should pay more attention now, however, because exit from the European Union also means departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This has underpinned our 136,000 farms by an average of £27,000 a year. Subsidy alone makes many holdings economically viable.

Whatever our Brexit views, we should welcome quitting the CAP. It delivers cash in accordance with acreage, so that the biggest landowners are the largest beneficiaries. The government says that future subsidy will instead be decided on environmental, social and public access criteria. In principle, this is smart. However, so vague is the guidance thus far that it is obvious ministers have little idea how a new dispensation will work.

Most of us like to imagine farmers as rosy-cheeked sons and daughters of the soil, chewing a straw while tending their own beasts and acres. Unfortunately, well-meaning tax exemptions, to enable farming fathers to pass on their land to the next generation, have distorted the picture. Large areas of rural Britain are being bought up by rich investors, including Sir James Dyson and several Scandinavian tycoons, partly because they see land as a limited resource that must increase in value; and partly to spare their children the nuisance of inheritance tax. A Saudi prince has just bought some farmland near us.

Agriculture nowadays generates little income, except on the best land and a large scale. Smallish practitioners must do it for love … or the possibility of a capital gain. A west Berkshire place where I occasionally worked as a boy was owned by a near-peasant farmer, who lived extremely modestly. In the 1970s, however, when Newbury expanded, he sold out for a stupendous sum: the development opportunity made his sons rich men. That is not a romantic story, but is more like the real-life Archers than the modern programme is.

Reading the above, a Cumbrian or Cornish farmer would snort that he grazes his beasts on no such green goldmine. One of the many difficulties in devising a new subsidy regime is the diversity of local circumstances. Who will decide what is an appropriate level of support to keep people on the land in thinly populated areas?

I often hear hill farmers say fiercely: “We don’t want to be park keepers.” But this is what many must indeed become. Instead of signs saying “No Camping”, they should be proclaiming “Campers Welcome”. Their unprofitable if decorative sheep will have to take a back seat — no, a back field — to providing amenity, which will become ever-bigger business in our overcrowded island, especially as meat-eating continues to decline.

Another serious issue looms: the implications of the US trade deal which the government is desperately seeking. America has never done Britain a bilateral trading favour, and will not start now. It has been obvious to most of us since before the 2016 referendum that Washington will insist upon access for its farm products. These have lower production costs and animal welfare standards, chlorinated chicken being the least. The National Farmers’ Union says its members cannot compete on price with such imports. Yet, without a US trade deal, where will Britain be? We shall hear much more about this thorny dispute, which can have no good outcome, only a least-bad one.

Farmers voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, and thus they accept the need to bear their share of the pain from it. But the public should participate in a wider debate, about what sort of countryside and farming industry we should aspire to, once the British government has “taken back control”.

It seems important for the social welfare of rural areas that the tax provisions for farmland are reviewed, to halt its takeover by people who treat ownership simply as an inheritance wheeze. Subsidy has to continue, but farmers must recognise that their park-keeping function will expand. They cannot receive public subsidy while grudging public access, except on industrial safety grounds.

Like many of my generation, I shed a tear for the way of farming that I knew as a child, when cows had horns, corn was sheaved and stooked, and those who worked on the land were intimately entwined with every rural community.

Rationally, however, we know how harsh was the old way of life. Change in agriculture is inescapable. The challenge is to manage our landscape sensitively. Those who live and work in its midst deserve respect and sympathy: some smaller farmers should probably receive more cash from the subsidy pot than they get. The billionaires who merely speculate with the countryside, however, should be induced to stick to oil futures and vacuum cleaners.

 

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