Brexit provides a unique chance to create a British agricultural policy tailored to our farming needs

Brexit provides a unique chance to create a British agricultural policy tailored to our farming needs

This year in politics has had more twists and turns than a country road. That’s coming from someone who, to their surprise, found themselves negotiating the lanes of Ceredigion in West Wales when I stood there as the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidate in June.

Ceredigion is one of the UK’s most rural constituencies, so I had a lot of ground to cover when it came to understanding agriculture and the rural economy. I took a crash course – visiting dairy, beef, sheep and arable farmers and meeting farming unions.

Unexpectedly, my crash course grew into a lifetime apprenticeship when I met my partner on the campaign trail. I now find myself the part owner of a smallholding complete with alpacas, rare breed sheep, a stroppy cockerel called Harold and four Kunekune pigs.

The experience has taught me a lot – but that’s another story! I have also seen first-hand the opportunity we have to improve agricultural policy post-Brexit.

Farmers are worried their support will be the low-hanging fruit which government will cut after the transition period. The British food and farming sector employs nearly four million people and is worth over £109 billion. So the adverse impacts of a reduction, without long-term fundamental reform to the industry, would be felt far beyond the farm gate and across the agricultural supply chain.

Furthermore, farmers deliver a range of valuable social and economic goods such as water management, wildlife protection and food security – which, in themselves, generate no farm income. A sudden reduction in support could see many disappear.

That’s not to say we can’t improve and restructure support or more closely link it to public benefits. Nor that we shouldn’t focus on measures that help improve productivity, profits and resilience to market volatilities.

In fact, leaving the EU presents us with a one-time opportunity to devise a new system, tailored to British farming’s needs; a system which keeps the best of the old while throwing out the bad – such as the much derided ‘three crop rule’.

We can also adopt a much more pragmatic approach to the regulation of this new system. Yes, we need to make sure rules are followed but the current approach is disproportionate at best.

One farmer in Ceredigion, who was receiving payment for tree planting under an environmental scheme, had planted more trees than agreed and so was being financially penalised. That’s right, a scheme to encourage the planting of trees was penalising a man for… planting trees!

Others were punished for putting up their fence posts later in the year than agreed, with no appreciation that the weather had been unusually wet and so the ground too soft to use tractors.

This kind of officiousness is just one reason why uptake of agri-environmental schemes has declined in recent years – something we can really change once we leave.

But we can go much further. Rather than simply developing a new and improved version of the CAP, we should fundamentally assess the role we want agriculture and forestry to play in our economy and society.

That means focusing on new trade deals and export markets abroad but also widening our horizons at home. From renewable energy to sustainable forestry and timber production, there are many new markets into which farming can expand.

Over 60% of farmers in England have diversified their business through a range of activities that contribute roughly 30% to total farm income. We need to invest in professional and commercial skills development across the sector to help more farm businesses diversify and increase profits. This matches the approach government is taking to help entrepreneurs in other key sectors, such as digital technology.

Speaking of technology, investment in the uptake of new research, innovative farming practices and automation is needed to improve productivity and profitability. UK farming productivity lags behind other comparable nations. Let’s seize the opportunity to improve. Farms that can’t get superfast broadband should be our first port of call.

It’s also nearly impossible for young farmers to get started as entry costs are so high. We should invest in ways to open up the industry to new entrants such as share farming and apprenticeships. We should also look at introducing an extended and modified Help to Buy Scheme. This is vital if we want to see British farming thrive in the years ahead.

Rural communities will be some of the most impacted by Brexit and we need to provide reassurance they will not be forgotten or short-changed. If we get it right, we will generate increased prosperity and a growing rural economy. If we get it wrong, the consequences will be devastating. The opportunities for agriculture post-Brexit are significant, but we need to think big.