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FARM BLOG: Arguments are still in favour of environmental schemes

Berkshire farmer and land agent Tom Bishop is an associate partner at BCM Rural Property Specialists at Sutton Scotney, near Winchester. He recently returned from an in-depth study tour of farming in New Zealand, to become better informed about farming without subsidies in a post-Brexit Britain.

FARM BLOG: Arguments are still in favour of environmental schemes

Tom Bishop

Some people never quite grasped that the farming policy espoused by Michael Gove in his role as environment secretary was only ever good to last for the life of the Government in which he served.

When Theresa May resigned as Conservative leader and Prime Minister on June 7, that Government effectively ended and with it, quite possibly, the agriculture policy we had been working towards adopting as an extreme.

Hopefully this will not be the case and we will instead see slight amendments to the original proposed policy released in 2018, but perhaps some farmers would like to see food production more heavily weighted in any new policy.

With Mr Gove having failed in his leadership bid for the Tory party, pundits predict Boris Johnson will become Prime Minister.

It’s widely reported that there’s long-standing acrimony between Johnson and Gove, so it could be possible Gove’s ideas will wither like they’ve had a good dose of glyphosate.

As I write this, the leadership outcome is unknown, but if Jeremy Hunt is successful then it’s just possible Mr Gove’s ideas will be revived.

Even if Article 50 is abandoned and we stay in the EU, the farming policy that will be imposed across the union is likely to have environmental policy at its core.

There has been a rise in the Green and centrist votes across the Continent in the recent EU elections, so support for policies sharing Mr Gove’s ideas on farm subsidies being paid for public good (environmental improvement) rather than produce output, and being paid to the farmer rather than the landowner, is likely.

At the same time, if we leave the EU and make trade deals around the world, what should UK farmers do?

We have very high animal welfare and arable production standards compared with the rest of the world, even if some campaigners disagree.

But it’s also obvious after President Trump’s state visit that trade deals will mean cheaper food produced in countries working to lower standards and even adopting policies than have long been eschewed in the UK, either on moral or legal grounds.

So, in the meantime, what route should farmers and business owners take?

As far as I’m concerned, the arguments are overwhelmingly in favour of environmental policies driving future thinking on farm payment schemes, so we have to carry on as if Mr Gove were still at the wheel of the political tractor, ploughing his environmental furrow which, incidentally, hardly ever cultivated a mention of food production.

With that in mind, I’m building on my plan of forming a cluster group? What is it, and how does it work?

It revolves around a group of owners with physically linked farms coming together to draw up plans for a wider, landscaped-based, environmental policy that fits with their farming methods and allows for a decent area to be dedicated to making improvements for biodiversity.

Everyone realises that standalone areas of improvement are not as beneficial as connected areas, which allow the vital corridors that permit species to pass from one area to another.

This is really of value for the pollinators that do so much unseen work in the process of growing and pollinating crops – their contribution to the national economy is said to be many hundreds of millions of pounds.

Combine this with the improvement of the water catchment areas, for example, vast in size, and emerging markets are created for private companies to pay groups to implement certain practices within farming businesses.

It is also believed that areas for wildlife encourage birds and small mammals that consume pests.

If a recent suggestion that black grass is becoming genetically resistant to glyphosate is proven to be true, we will want plenty of creatures about that are ready to eat blackgrass seeds and attack its root systems without damaging the crops that follow.

It’s complicated, but having a cluster group of individuals makes it easier to spread the load of research, grant applications and just carrying out the sheer hard work that’s involved.

It’s wrong to think that farmers don’t care about their surroundings.

Campaigning urban folk drive through it and show concern – we live in it and want our environment to be as healthy and vibrant as possible.

For that reason, I and my fellow farmers will press on with getting our cluster group into action and reviewing our environmental credentials across our farmland.

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