Farming subsidies? Chlorinated chicken? How will Brexit hit the countryside? The Countryfile experts offer the Environment Secretary their advice…
My advice to Michael Gove would be, ‘Communicate, communicate, communicate’ with all of our producers and growers. He must listen to what they are saying because they have an enormous amount of experience to share. The biggest issue is the the relation between the price we pay for our food and how much it costs to produce.
Good-quality, ethical food costs money. We need to find ways of informing consumers about what they are buying and eating, and why it costs what it does. I think when people start to understand that, they will get behind it.
Michael Gove has got an enormous challenge on his hands, not least because nobody really knows what’s next for Brexit. It could be a massive opportunity from a conservation point of view, and I hope it is seen as that. It could be a chance for us to rethink how we manage our land, how we pay for it and so on. The hand of man is present everywhere.
In many places, our national parks don’t look all that different to the next piece of land. The Highlands is probably where it feels the wildest, Northumberland next, then maybe parts of Wales. But Bodmin, for instance, has been managed to such an extent that it has no trees. There should be trees there. There must be a way to make the countryside pay for these wild places, like the big American national parks. It could be an opportunity to be quite radical.
What I’d like from Mr Gove is certainty. In farming, crops are planted and harvested on an annual basis, so we are in the lap of the gods with diseases, the weather, exchange rates and commodity prices. Farmers need a really clear and common agricultural policy that gives them some kind of certainty. I think opening markets worldwide is a really good thing – China, the Americas, Canada, Indonesia, etc – but how we trade with Europe is a guessing game.
At the moment, a lot of our food goes into Europe, but that might become unviable if they start putting a cap on it. That said, I haven’t come across anybody who is really scared by the prospect of Brexit. A lot of us have learnt to manage our businesses and solve problems when they come along. We’re just getting on with it and waiting.
It’s not necessarily that Brexit is bad at all, it’s just that Europe is the skeleton for so many things in the countryside – and if you take that skeleton away, you have to think how you’re going to replace it. Farmers, environmentalists, the food industry and supermarkets are worried the Government will pay more attention to banking or the car industry during negotiations. When the PM is doing her late-night deals with Merkel and Macron, she mustn’t trade away something to do with farming in exchange for something about banking.
I think everybody knows what the biggest issue is – what’s going to happen to the grants to the farmers and environmental laws that we introduced through Europe? Nobody knows. In general, however, I think the future is bright for farming. For a long time it seemed to be unfashionable but a lot of young people who aren’t from a farming background are getting into the business now.
Certainly when there was a big recession in 2007, a lot of people parked their principles for a while because they couldn’t afford to buy organic or locally produced food, but I think that’s changed. Supermarkets label food more clearly now and people are happy to spend a bit more on their food. Dairy farming is still in big trouble, but I think more and more supermarkets are paying a decent price for their milk, so there is hope.
Farming and the countryside are very Europe-facing. Europe is our biggest export market. But even farmers who are Remainers recognise it as an opportunity to write a new agricultural policy that is British. It’s going to be a challenging time, but it’s a fantastic opportunity in many ways.
I am President of the National Young Farmers’ Club and so I would also say there are issues for young people that need addressing, including affordable housing, rural isolation and connectivity, which is still very much an issue in the countryside. There is a lot for Mr Gove to think about, but it’s a brilliant job he’s got. There is nothing more important than what is on your plate and the environment you live and work in.