FARMERS dealing with uncertainty in the wake of the vote to leave the EU require clarity from the Government and support from the Church, chaplains said this week.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) has warned that, if the financial support given to farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was removed overnight, many family farms in the UK would not be viable. But it has also reported “widespread frustration” with EU regulation.
The Bishop of Ripon, the Rt Revd James Bell, was among five bishops who talked to farmers at the Great Yorkshire Show this month. His impression was that they were “probably even divided” on the referendum question, and that the current uncertainty was matched by a “real determination to make the best of the future”. There was a hope for less regulation, he said, but also a recognition that high standards of production and animal care were “one of our biggest selling points”.
He highlighted the part played by charities including the Farming Community Network (FCN) in supporting the welfare of farmers, who were battling isolation and mental illness, and “real hardship because of the failure of payments and pressures on the dairy industry”. One in ten dairy farms across the country have closed in the past three years, including 89 in North Yorkshire. Food security, a significant issue given global population growth, was “not at the forefront of our attention” he warned.
The chief executive of the FCN, Charles Smith, said this week that it was “concerned that not enough attention will be given to the human cost of political and legislative decisions in the inevitable changes that will occur as policies and legislation are refashioned”.
A farmer and agricultural chaplain for the Borderlands rural chaplaincy, David Gwatkin, said that he had experienced “first-hand the additional effects Brexit has had on further unsettling my industry. Many of us are apprehensive about what the future now holds. It really is a waiting game to see what new farm policy our government will come up with.”
Pointing to an “all-time high” in reports of mental-health issues, and prices “on the whole at an all-time low”, he said that the Church had “much work to do pastorally on the ground, as well as giving voice to the farming community’s issues and helping to lobby appropriately.” It should pray for both farmers and those tasked with developing policy.
The rural life officer in the diocese of St Asaph,the Revd Heather Fenton, spoke of the uncertainty surrounding the future of subsidies.
“Payments from Brussels have been very important for the economy, and I don’t think anyone is terribly worried about where they come from so much as their arrival,” she said. The need to negotiate new trade deals with countries outside the EU and the impact of losing financial rewards for conservation were also issues. The EU currently provides UK farmers with “stewardship payments” and financial incentives to comply with “greening measures”, such as helping to preserve wildlife in borders around their fields.
Under the CAP, British farmers receive £3 billion a year in subsidies. Latest figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that 55 per cent of total income from farming comes from CAP support payments.
The NFU’s council, currently embarking on the “biggest consultation in a generation”, has already agreed the principles of a domestic farming policy. These include “the best possible access to markets in the rest of Europe”, a requirement that “we are not open to imports which are produced to lower standards”, support for farmers “on a par” with that given to those in the EU, and “visa-restricted access to labour from anywhere in the world”.
In a debate in the House of Lords on Thursday, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, warned of "substantial challenges ahead" for the agricultural sector, which would "inevitably require a degree of government support and protection".
After highlighting the high environmental and welfare standards of the sector, he argued that, "while it is important that post-Brexit Britain is open to trade and exports, a policy of trade liberalisation across the board cannot be the answer." The Government should cultivate a "culture of appreciation" towards British farming, and encourage public sector organisations including schools and the NHS to purchase British produce. "Improving our reliance on domestic supply is not just good for farmers but good for us all."
This week, at the Royal Welsh Show, the farming minister, George Eustice, told the BBC that he could not guarantee that support for agriculture will be as generous as current subsidies provided by the EU: "I can't do it at the moment, but it doesn't mean it won't happen." He had previously said that Welsh farmers would get "as much support" as currently, if the UK left.
In response to the debate, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner, spoke of the Government's desire to increase exports of food and drink, particularly to non-EU countries, and to ensure that Britain’s farming sector had a "vibrant future".