By Ben Eagle, thinkingcountry.com and Meet the Farmers podcast
A year is a long time in farming. Last year Amanda and I teamed up to write guest posts on each other’s blogs about the state of agriculture in each of our countries – Amanda in the US and me in the UK. We thought it was high time we did an update and so here is my snapshot of farming in Britain at the moment. Prepare yourself though, it’s not too rosy.
As a brief intro, my name’s Ben; my family farms around 700 acres of land on the east coast of England. That’s about 350 acres of cropped land (wheat, barley, canola, beans, peas, linseed sometimes) and 350 acres of permanent grass which is grazed by sheep all year round and cattle during the summer. I also do some communications work, write a blog, produce a podcast and run a couple of start up businesses (it’s good to keep busy right?!).
Brexit and Trade
The headlines for farming in the UK at the moment are still heavily influenced by Brexit and Britain’s exit from the European Union. It has been quite a few years as Britain has hopscotched its way through the bureaucracy and negotiations and finally implemented Brexit. It has split the country in the mean time, right the way down to family members. The challenge for the current Prime Minister, who has a massive majority, is to unify everybody once again. Not a small challenge.
Lots of questions remain as to the exact nature of future trade policy with the European Union and related to this our trade relations with the rest of the world. There are also questions relating to migration and the ability of British farmers to source labour from abroad. Recent tradition has meant the fruit and horticulture sectors have been reliant on Eastern European labour for harvesting. Other sectors have also been reliant. Debates are lively at the moment relating to Britain’s identity as a country that prides itself on high environmental and animal welfare standards. However, British farmers argue that they need to be supported financially for this (whether through the markets or by policy makers) in order to compete with producers from abroad.
As a member of the European Union Britain was subject to the Common Agricultural Policy and as a consequence farmers have been paid a subsidy payment based on land area. This is set to change and over the next seven years a ‘transition period’ will take place in the UK with all landowners received a reduction in subsidy payment to wean themselves off. Instead of having money for owning land payments will be given for ‘environmental goods’ such as planting trees or undertaking conservation work and soil conservation. However, it remains very uncertain as to how this will pan out in practice. Farmers hate uncertainty and that is what they have at the moment. It will get better but we’re not quite sure when.
UK farmers were blessed with near perfect harvesting conditions last summer. However, this all changed as the autumn came and record levels of rain in many places prevented autumn drilling of crops. It has remained horrendously wet since then with much of the west of the UK experiencing flooding of a near Biblical scale. Farmers will be praying for a dry March to be able to drill spring crops. There will likely be lots of spring barley and wheat in the UK this year (so long as it can be planted!).
Diversification is the name of the game at the moment with nearly all farmers trying their hand at something else other than farming to bring in extra income to see them through the difficult financial days ahead. From glamping to farm retail, events and even paintballing – farmers have it covered. It’s set to be quite a creative decade ahead.
Veganism and Plant Based ‘Alternative’ products
Even though veganism remains small in the UK in terms of the proportion of the nation eating a vegan diet all the time, it is an influence on the country and a growing number of plant based ‘alternative’ ‘milks’ and ‘meat products’ are being seen on supermarket shelves.
This is just a whistle stop tour through some of the issues faced by British farmers at the moment. There is surely more to come. Times are changing. The environment is likely to feature strongly in the coming years in Britain. Subsidy payments are changing. There are big questions relating to trade and labour – some of the core aspects of agri-business structures. It’s daunting, but it’s also exciting. Watch this space.
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on agriculture in the UK at the moment. If you can I’d really appreciate it if you could subscribe to the Meet the Farmers podcast (on apple podcasts, spotify, soundcloud and other providers) and thinkingcountry blog – lots more info available on what’s happening in the UK and wider.
I also really suggest you take a look at eatfarmnow.com .
Take care everyone.
About Ben: Ben writes about farming, conservation, the countryside and sustainability on his blog Thinking Country and produces the Meet the Farmers podcast which can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud and most other podcast providers. He is also a farmer, entrepreneur and communicator.