The farming community overwhelmingly voted for Brexit – polls conducted by Farmers’ Weekly, AgriChat and others consistently showed nearly 60% of farmers wanted to leave the EU, giving their main reason as wishing to ‘take back control’[i]. With 55% of total farm income in the UK coming from the EU single farm payment and other agri-environmental support schemes, that majority vote would seem to suggest farmers believe they can survive and thrive, producing goods for sale on the ‘free-market’, without any hand-outs.
Yet post Brexit, the agricultural press has been full of demands from the farming lobby that the UK Government – and so the British taxpayer – must continue to match the £3 billion currently provided annually to UK farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In similar apparent contradiction to the predominant concern raised by those who voted to leave the EU (‘uncontrolled immigration’), farmers’ leaders have also been demanding that the large proportion of migrant workers upon which UK farming is dependent, must continue to be available to them. UK farming’s reliance on EU labour is even greater than its underpinning by EU cash. Whereas UK businesses as a whole rely on 5% migrant labour, for agriculture that rises to 65% (and that’s excluding seasonal workers!) – amounting to over 34,500 non-UK citizens, mainly from EU Eastern European member states, toiling in the fields to fill supermarket shelves with ‘British grown’ strawberries and broccoli – and also as the mainstay of the intensive pig, poultry, dairy and associated abattoir and processing plants.
Many UK farmers seem to have at best an ambivalent, at worst a hypocritical, view when it comes the EU. They want ‘out’ from any constraints on their business and yet ‘in’ on holding onto the freedom to trade within Europe and the wider, world market – whilst still benefiting from cash hand-outs and cheap labour.
A rationale posted on an online farming forum by one producer reveals that for some ‘taking back control’ more accurately meant ‘removing controls’. His post pithily itemised the reasons for wanting to leave Europe:
‘1. Three-crop rule
What he is objecting to, or believes he is objecting to, are requirements or restrictions introduced by the EU on farming practice and on the use of certain agrochemicals. In fact, the ‘three crop rule’ was not something imposed on farmers by the EU, but agreed upon by elected MEPs and which only applies to farms above 30 hectares (c.75 acres and above). To put that in proportion, one of the farms managed by the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), which I do some work for, routinely has between nine to eleven different crops in the ground – adding hugely to the diversity of habitat for wildlife, whilst breaking the monotony of mono-cropping for the farmer. The three pesticides listed by the pro-Brexit farmer have been restricted or are proposed to be restricted due to scientific evidence of their negative impacts on the environment or human health. Whilst there are counter-claims (mainly coming from their manufacturers) as to any impacts being influenced by how the products are applied and what other, if any, mitigating measures individual farmers are or are not employing, when it comes to human health or that of the bees and other pollinating insects upon which most food production depends the precautionary principle (people and planet before product) should surely apply?
It is illuminating to see these objections expressed so bluntly, revealing that they, and the apparently contradictory views above, come from a corporate and solely commercial perspective, which regards the farmed landscape as merely another industrial resource from which profitable outputs can be extracted – assuming key inputs of capital, chemicals and cheap labour are applied.
This narrow perspective from UK Agribiz is not one that considers the wider, complex, living, working countryside. One which is farmed with wildlife in mind whilst seeking to produce good food, at a fair price to farmer and consumer without that being at the expense of human or environmental health. I do not believe that corporate perspective is representative of all farmers, certainly not the ones I work with. Brexit should provide an opportunity not for yet another ‘review of UK farming’, which has been conducted on several occasions by various ‘Commissions’ (generally composed of the usual suspects from the establishment farming bodies and almost equally unimaginative, mainstream conservation organisations), but for more thoughtful consideration of how we can develop systems of farming that produce decent sustainable food, jobs and sustain the ecological services that underpin those every bit as much and more than artificial inputs of agrochemicals.
Interestingly, one of the usually more establishment conservation bodies, The National Trust, and the largest landowner in the UK (excluding the Forestry Commission), has stirred things up by calling for an “ending to the system of Single Farm Payments”, whereby farmers and landowners get money simply by dint of owning land – the more you have, the more cash you get (Hence, the outrage at the NT’s proposals from big farmers and estate owners). The current system has clearly not been helping the type of farming and farmer that groups like the CRT seek to support – smaller, ‘family farms’, typically ranging from under 100 acres to a few hundred acres. Over the last decade, over 20,000 such family farms have gone out of business, amalgamated into bigger, ‘more efficient’ units, but which provide fewer livelihoods in a less diverse countryside.
The National Trust correctly notes that despite the £500 – 600 million annually paid to farmers in alleged agri-environment payments, numbers of farmland birds and other species have continued to crash – with a 60% decline in key species recorded over the past 50 years. Yet the NT and the other big conservation bodies (like the big farming bodies), seem to want to hold onto the basic framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, simply shifting the emphasis so payments are only given in return for delivering public and environmental goods. The Trust’s Six Principles are sound, but there is the same flaw in the proposed as the present system. Farmers, like the one above, who don’t want any controls on the practices or products they use, will simply farm outside any support system that the NT or anyone else comes up with. The result being a two-tier system of farming – corporate ‘hell-for-leather, sod soil or wildlife protection and animal welfare’, practised by agribiz on the most productive land with conservation farming holding on in the margins and only viable through public hand-outs. Exactly the bifurcated system, Sir Derek Barber advocated back in 1990, when he referred derogatorily to such conservation farming as “half-cock farming”, preferring what he termed “high pitched buzz farming”. He held no brief for the integration and balancing of commercial farming with wildlife everywhere, including the prairies of East Anglia, “Why clutter up such landscapes with thin green threads of new hedges? Why not let this type of highly efficient grain country get on with its job of producing a tonne of wheat at the very lowest cost?”[ii]
For all its failings, after decades of driving farming in the wrong direction of over-production, intensification and degradation of soil, water and wildlife, the CAP had been making adjustments to attempt to integrate farming with environmental considerations; finally recognising the role of healthy soils, clean water sources and diverse ecological systems in sustaining food security and human health. The last thing needed now is a return to Barber’s bifurcated vision of a farmed landscape dominated by featureless food prairies and factory farms, with Beatrix Potter theme farms preserved for urban day trippers at the margins.
The National Trust is right to state that farmers should only receive public money for delivering public goods and benefits – increasing wildlife on their farms, using their land to hold flood water, improving the structure of their soil so as to store even greater quantities of carbon etc. But like other big conservation bodies, the Trust seems to be forgetting something rather fundamental about farming – its primary purpose to feed us. The CAP must not morph simply into a ‘BAP’ – a Biodiversity Agricultural Policy – focused wholly on wildlife. We need a farming policy that strives to restore ecological complexity in our farmed landscapes because widespread presence and plethora of biodiversity are understood to be the foundations for building a resilient, sustainable farming system – one capable of feeding our Nation in the face of future shocks and challenges. We may no longer be blockaded by the U-boats as during WWII, but climate change, over-reliance on transporting food vast distances, and increasing numbers of hungry people in countries that currently export foodstuffs to us are real, long-term challenges to our food security.
[ii] Barber, D, Anatomy of a ‘Green’ Agriculture, Massey Ferguson Award, January 1990.
Just a few days after Britain initiated divorce proceedings against Europe, I got married and my wife & I then headed off on honeymoon to… Europe! Italy specifically, and to be more precise, Tuscany, to relax and recuperate following both events (Brexit and wedding) on an organic vineyard and olive farm.
It could not have been a more beautiful and calming place. Nor more apposite for contemplating the breaking off of relations with our European neighbours. For the farmhouse Locanda set high above the Arno valley hosted a microcosm of the European Community; with fellow guests coming from Denmark, Germany, Holland, and Italy – along with one other refugee family from the UK fleeing the pitiful post-Brexit internecine back stabbing occurring across all political parties.
The notable, predominant tone to all the inevitable Brexit conversations we had within our community was people’s sadness at our leaving. Not anger, nor resentment or even a hint of them turning their backs on a country that should now be left to lie in the messed-up post-marital bed it had unmade for itself. How different to the angry, divisive exchanges that were traded by our posturing politicians gambling the next generation’s wellbeing for their short-term political ambitions. The calm concern we were offered, made me even more ashamed of the coarse and vindictive vitriol Nigel Farage fog-horned out in the European Parliament the week after the vote. Ashamed that Farage, in his faux country gent’s loud tweed checks and covert coat, might be considered by our continental cousins as representative of the manners and mores of a typical English gentleman.
Fortunately, the Italians – and Tuscans in particular – have had longer familiarity with more genteel and cultured English gentlemen and women over the decades. Such as, the aesthete, poet and historian, Sir Harold Acton, born into an Anglo-Italian family, who spent much of his life at his beloved Villa La Pietra, near Florence – and which became a stopping off point for many an aspiring writer and art critic on their ‘Grand Tour’ of European cultural centres. But as well as being the crucible of the Italian Renaissance, promoted during the ascendancy of the Medici family and their transformation of Florence through the patronage of Michelangelo and a myriad, lesser known painters, sculptors and architects, the Tuscan countryside beyond the medieval walled cities has and continues to resonate with the English.
Chianti-shire, a commercial, as well as romantic, concept
Not so much the arriviste ‘Chianti-shire Socialists’ politicking at Blair’s court and Tuscan Villa in recent times during the UK Parliamentary summer recess, but English travellers over decades seeing in the patchwork of vineyards and olive groves interspersed between arable fields and grassland and set beneath the rolling, blue-green wooded hills beyond, something reminiscent of the English countryside. At least that idealised English countryside as depicted by the great landscape artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, John Constable, Samuel Palmer and Francis Towne (the latter travelling and painting in Italy, which much influenced his style). Reminiscent because for much of the English countryside, that patchwork quilt has long been grubbed up, shredded through, and homogenised by the mega-machines of industrial agriculture. Whereas as we cycled through the Tuscan countryside in 2016, hay was being teddered by kit of the size I remember as a child used on the small tenant farm next door to our home on the Cheshire border – and pulled by, what I’m pretty sure was, a Ford Series 10 tractor from the 1970s (tiny compared to today’s computer-controlled behemoths bludgeoning British fields and soils into submission).
Italy has around 1.6 million farm holdings, averaging in size at just under 8 hectares, with only 5% above 30 hectares. In total these employ around 4% of the entire Italian workforce. England has ten times fewer farm holdings, on average six times larger than their Italian counterparts, with 30% of farms above 50 hectares, and worked overall by well under 1% of the country’s total workforce. Some might suggest this shows the greater efficiency of modern English agriculture compared to the ‘old-fashioned’ farming appealing to the eyes of rural romanticists such as myself?
But far from being backward looking or economically unviable, the Tuscan way of farming sustains that landscape beloved of painters over the centuries and drives an agri-tourism business contributing around 8% to the total Tuscan tourism sector – a significant percentage, given the huge concentration of tourists visiting the urban sites of Florence, Pisa and Siena. The vineyards, olive groves and farmed landscape of Tuscany have been estimated to contribute Euros 177 million annually in terms of monetary value to the tourist trade – and that’s not including, the economic value of the 180 million bottles of the regionally distinctive and denominated Chianti and other Tuscan wines those vineyards produce each season.
Our Countryside existing only in pictures…?
EU farm support, rural development programmes, agritourism and environmental schemes have been critical to protecting and sustaining this distinctive region. Of all EU member states, Italy represents one of the largest storehouses of biodiversity and wildlife habitats in Europe. And within Italy, Tuscany is the repository of the country’s richest, most diverse range of wildlife – hence having over 2,500 sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive. Having willfully turned our backs on Europe and so access to those support programmes and schemes, the very real worry is whether our remnant landscapes and countryside, which still do (just) hold on outside romantic reminiscence, will continue to exist in any form other than in the paintings of Constable, Palmer and Towne.
Rural Tourism Driving Regional Development in Tuscany. The Renaissance of the Countryside. (2011) Randelli, F.; Romei, P.; Tortora, M.; Mossello, M.T. Dipartimento di Scienze Economiche, Università degli Studi di Firenze, Working Paper No. 11/2011.
Natura 2000 habitats in Tuscany (central Italy): synthesis of main conservation features based on a comprehensive database. Daniele Viciani , Lorenzo Lastrucci, Lorella Dell’Olmo, Giulio Ferretti, Bruno Foggi. Biodiversity and Conservation, June 2014, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 1551-1576
The economic and ecological role of the cypress in Tuscany: a case study Gianni Della Rocca, Paolo Raddi, Institute of Plant Protection, CNR Italy; Leonardo Casini, Carlo Daniele; DEISTAF, Florence University, Italy.
In his riposte to Clive Aslet’s Observer piece, ‘The English Countryside has never had it so good’, Tobias Jones unpicks much of that Panglossian perspective that’s had me grinding my teeth over for the past fortnight. Aslet urges readers to celebrate what he sees as an English countryside in a far better state than that which he perceived in previous decades when working for Country Life, first as a free-ranging journalist and then editor. ‘Sees’ and ‘perceives’ – as his view, whilst lyrically expressed, lacks the concentrated focus to penetrate the surface gloss.
Jones quotes Graham Harvey’s dated, but still definitive, book, ‘The Killing of the Countryside’ which, as well as highlighting those often ploughed over figures about ‘140,000 miles of hedgerow grubbed out’ and ‘95% of herb-rich wildflower meadows’ drained and ‘improved’ since 1945, correctly identified that it was (as it continues to be) short-sighted, narrow perspective policy that drove the destruction. In particular of a form of farming that produced both good food and good countryside sustainably – half a century before that eco-buzz term had been coined:
“At the start of the last war there were almost half a million farms in Britain including part-time holdings. The majority were small, mixed units of less than 50 acres with cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry as well as some arable crops. Before the age of state protection, farmers needed to grow a range of products for financial security. If the price of any one product collapsed, there were others to buffer them against ruin.
Economically this mixed-farm structure was extremely stable. It also happened to produce a vigorous and attractive countryside, rich in wildlife and largely free of pollution… Never had the British countryside looked so good. Never had it supported a richer diversity of habitat and wild species. Yet it cost taxpayers nothing.
If the politicians had truly understood agriculture they would have recognized the mixed-farm structure as a national treasure to be nurtured and prized. Instead they set farming on a calamitous dash for intensification that was to put three-quarters of those farmers out of business.”
The statistic contained in that last sentence gets less attention than those routinely rehearsed losses to wildlife – wherein there has been an equivalent attrition of those who made a living from and on the land. In the 25 years between 1964 (before Aslet joined Country Life) and 1989, the number of farms in the UK fell by over 40%:
- From 445,000 holdings in 1964 to 252,000 by 1989 – i.e.nearly 200,000 gone in just one generation
- A further 40,000 farms have gone out of business or been amalgamated into bigger, more intensive units over the past 20 to 30 years.
Clive Aslet appears to have had an enjoyable working life; looking out through the windows of a first class railway carriage en route to appreciate the architecture of some country house or motoring up the M6 for a week-end at a great estate in Scotland. I do the same on my train journeys, albeit with more modest destinations, speculating as vistas of landscape and countryside whizz by, on what and who lives there – and daydreaming as to what I would do if I had stewardship. But knowing that, outside the bubble of that carriage and daydream, a closer, more considered scrutiny on the ground would reveal stresses and fault-lines in the physical places themselves and those seeking to make a living from them.
To recalibrate his vision, Aslet might take the train from London to Cambridge from whence he began his career as a writer. Travelling out from Kings Cross, once past the suburbia of Potters Bar and the pony paddocks of the wider, more affluent London hinterland, the train enters the bleak, fertiliser-soaked, fluorescent-green ‘fields’ of Cambridgeshire, where a few remnant hedges hang on untended and purposeless in a landscape empty of livestock and people.
A landscape turned over exclusively to pumping out crops for feeding factory-farmed pigs and poultry, for adding to highly-processed goods like margarine, or for extraction as industrial oils.
‘Cheap food’? Possibly. ‘Hurrah’? Probably not.