Does the Agriculture Bill actually mean anything?

Last week I visited Mark Hayward, a farmer in Suffolk who runs Dingley Dell Pork (watch this space for an upcoming podcast episode). I was particularly impressed by him and brother’s drive and determination to improve the abundance of wildlife on their farm in real terms; ie not just engaging with Natural England led schemes but actually focusing on achieving results and increasing the numbers of pollinators on the land rather than undertaking process. They have sown 33 hectares of nectar rich plots, including plants such as phacelia, different types of clover and mallow and they aim to feed a million bees. Quite a project! What is more it is being run in partnership with Essex butchers Direct Meats, which means that business and the consumer are directly involved; in my view this is vital if conservation projects are going to be successful (and financially sustainable) in the long run.

The recently read Agriculture Bill (see here for parliamentary progress) pushes the environment to the forefront of thinking about land management and how that is paid for, in theory at least. The headline is that payments based on land area are being phased out in favour of a payments system based on public goods (environmental works, flooding prevention, public access etc), something that all countryside commentators have been discussing almost ever since Brexit became a word. However, in reality we have no idea what the detail of the system will be at this stage. The transition period of 7 years will, in theory at least, give farmers and land managers time to adapt to the changes. However, will the new system actually see real successes and progress, as being seen in the Hayward model, or will it be tied down by bureaucracy, as has been seen in the current countryside stewardship scheme for example? Further, will it encourage innovation and drive real investment, actually developing rural business or will it weakly adapt the status quo to something that doesn’t actually achieve the radical improvements to the rural economy and to wildlife abundance that is drastically required? The thought of signing up to a ten year contract with the government that is impossible to adapt, involves regular inspections and shelves of paperwork does not fill me with glee. However, with such high expectations I cannot see how we will not end up with such a situation; driven by the dreams of civil servants who remain, by no fault of their own, merely the system, entirely ignorant of the realities of the people who they serve. Farmers meanwhile will be smothered in paperwork, stressed through overwork and expected to do all things for all people. We will see, but this remains my prediction at this stage. I hope I am wrong.

I see it as a good thing that money will effectively be redistributed from the larger landowners to the smaller producers, but the fact remains that we need to somehow tackle the profitability issue for many farming sectors. Farmers need to receive the feeling of self-respect garnered from producing a good product and receiving a profit for that product. Payments for public goods should be money on top of this, not instead of. If extra expectations are placed on farmers all that will happen is that mental health will suffer and all the old pressures will remain.

The devil will be in the detail as they say and until we know how a system is actually going to work in practice I will remain cautious. Does the agriculture bill actually mean much at this stage? I would say, no, not really. The road ahead is still long and winding.  I am not somebody who likes uncertainty, and I seem to be right at the heart of it. Mind you, we all are, and we need to support each other, to talk together, if we are going to get through this.

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