An op-ed in the Times titled “Time to Cut Our Greedy Farmers Down to Size” (full article here) has my Twitter feed venting bile like a dyspeptic volcano. According to Ms Duncan, Brexit and consequent independence from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) means that “The vast majority of British people will benefit. That’s not just because the money that now goes into farmers pockets (in terms of subsidies) can go into the NHS instead, but also because Britons will pay lower food prices.” Cutting subsidies is seen as a positive because “…farming will shrink and land prices will fall” allowing housing to be provided where it’s desperately required. As one Twitter friend commented, I bet there’s millions longing to have the opportunity to move to a new housing estate halfway up a Welsh mountain.
It’s relatively easy to sit at a desk and earn a living using nothing but your brain and a laptop. Waitrose is fully-stocked with quinoa; the barista at your local Starbucks starts your skinny vanilla latte as soon as you walk in; and if your op-ed doesn’t get picked up by the broadsheets, well, there’s always another day. The maintenance costs for your business are low, there’s no need for specialised housing, feed, veterinary care or staff for your laptop, and a single unproductive day doesn’t have an immediate and knock-on effect on the viability of your business. Compare that to farming, where missing a difficult calving; not being able to harvest due to torrential rain or having two staff off sick could wipe out a week’s potential (potential being the operative word) profits and it’s less easy to sit and mock.
Do inefficient farms, propped up by subsidies exist? Yes. Could British agriculture exist without them? Absolutely. However, these don’t represent the majority of producers. Milk prices dropped by 15.1% in the past year – an average 3.64 pence per litre decrease. At present, costs of producing milk (25-33 pence per litre) outweigh the returns for most producers. Not surprisingly perhaps, AHDB data shows that the number of dairy producers in the UK has fallen from ~14,600 in 2005 to 9,538 in 2016 – a 35% decrease. A proportion of that can be allocated to natural wastage conferred by a combination of an aging farmer population and herds being consolidated into larger operations, but the frequency with which herd dispersal sales are advertised in the farming press is frightening. In an industry where farms are often supported or kept in existence by one or more owners having off-farm employment, the hackneyed image of rich farmers spending all their time shooting pheasants and barrelling around country lanes in brand-new 4x4s needs a sharp shock from a cattle prod.
Nobody yet can predict the full economic impacts of Brexit, though I predict we’ll going to have an even greater drop in dairy farm numbers by next year. However, the implication that we’re going to be returned to a sunny bucolic Britain where poppies bloom amongst the wheat, maize is forgone in favour of rewilding and farmers only graze one ewe per 50 acres is arrant nonsense. Yes, the countryside looked very different hundreds of years ago, but in 1900, when there were only 38 million people in the UK and the average lifespan was 47 years, it was easy to feed everybody (or rather those who had the income to buy food rather than poaching from estates) from an extensive, inefficient system.
Want cheaper food and don’t give a damn about British farmers? Be careful what you wish for, Ms Duncan. An island nation with an agricultural industry in decline is utterly reliant on food imports from overseas – is this really the (CAP) “independent” future that we want for our children?