Substituting the plough, power harrow, sub-soiler and cultivator for a one-pass machine makes sense for any farm. Creating a soil environment which allows nature to do the hard work is, as we all know, beneficial to farm profitability, farming lives, greenhouse gas emissions, birds and bees. These benefits fit with the thinking of Defra minister George Eustice, the current incumbent of a job which has been one for sprinters rather than stayers.
He followed Theresa Villiers, minister for 7 months, preceded by Michael Gove (2 years 1 month), Andrea Leadsom (11 months), Liz Truss (2 years), and Owen Paterson (1 year 10 months). Gove called for the Agriculture Bill creating the slogan ‘public money for public good’, and Eustice has the task of making this happen. Though from a Cornish fruit farming family, Eustice is a politician through and through. Having served a five year stint in Defra he described the EU Common Agricultural Policy as “a basket case”, and it is clear that the move to a better system which rewards environmental work is a priority, but not straightforward.
There remains a lack of detail on what qualifies as public goods. A recent article in Politics Home magazine The House (March 9, 2021) explained ‘…post-Brexit the (UK) government wants to see sustainable, subsidy-free farming, that only rewards people financially for improving so-called ‘public goods’. This means reward for improving the environment, animal health and welfare, and reducing carbon emissions.’ Author Kate Proctor says the majority of farmers in England will see a 5% reduction in income in 2021/22. Basic Payment is being phased out and ELMs phased in.
The CLA sees a gap in the middle, which they are calling a ‘valley of death’. The newly created Sustainable Farming Incentive aims to reduce the impact. Eustice is wanting older farmers out so new blood can come in, saying we have to design future farm policies for the farmers of tomorrow. Incentives to get the oldsters out sounds logical, but has the danger of inflicting damage by loading young people with debt. Buying the farm from the older generation is far more expensive than inheriting it once they have passed on, thanks to Agricultural Property Relief. The minister appears to associate farm progress with technology and data – the province of young minds – whereas the really exciting revolution is the substitution of farming with chemicals to doing the job by biology, something that is understood by older and young farmers to an equal degree. Eustice (49) must be careful not to become too ageist.
Defra has yet to set practical goals and outcomes; has yet to determine a farmer extension or education policy; remains unclear about cropping and many other issues that farmers have to decide on. Matching these to the environmental outcomes set for the industry to meet targets needs the involvement of many different stakeholders, and I include publications such as Direct Driller which I believe is one of the most important environmental publications in Britain. The value of diversity and the dangers of a one-size-fits-all farming policy to food production need remembering. The Covid pandemic shows that biblical events are ready to strike. These might include the potato famine, the failure of the groundnut scheme in East Africa or collective farming in Russia and its satellites. The variability of UK farming methods, and the choice of individual farmers to do what they see best, is something to be applauded and maintained.