New CLA president Henry Robinson sets out his views on farming issues. Johann Tasker reports
Your presidency coincides with the government preparing to implement CAP reform. What is the biggest challenge facing farmers from the new CAP?
There are two big challenges. The first is crop diversification. I am genuinely baffled to see how many environmental benefits it is going to deliver.
Frankly, if I were a large farmer using block cropping to farm efficiently, I would be unimpressed to have to introduce three crops on each holding. And if I was a small farmer with 30ha growing a crop for my own livestock I would be absolutely furious if I had to grow two other crops.
There are also challenges around the computer system, especially when it comes to recording the establishment of ecological focus areas. Heaven help us if we have to go back to the horrors we had with mapping a few years ago. Nobody wants that – least of all the Rural Payments Agency.
"I would fight tooth and nail for taxpayers to have their say"
Henry Robinson, CLA
Are you worried by the government’s apparent determination to transfer more money from direct payments towards environmental measures?
We’ve told the government it shouldn’t modulate just because it can, it should modulate what it needs to. We want to see agri-environment schemes that are still well-funded. So if modulation is required for that, we understand. But if agri-environment schemes can be funded without modulation as high as 15%, then modulation should be lower.
What is your priority?
We need to do lots of things – but that isn’t an answer to your question. We are doing a mass of work on compulsory purchase and how it needs reforming. We are also working on rural housing. Planning is always an enormous issue. So too is renewable energy.
But what I would like to see is a better balance between food production and the environment. I see it as a real issue for agriculture because the environment and what we do with it is a large part of farming’s PR. How we look after it is often how we are judged.
It is a difficult balance because farmers are paid for producing crops but not for the most part for doing things for the environment. But with a bit of ingenuity it may be possible to reach the stage where environmental work is funded more widely – agri-environment schemes are only a start.
I would be very happy if we could achieve it within my two years.
What is better: Simple schemes such as Entry Level Stewardship open to lots of farmers or schemes which encourage fewer farmers to do much more for their money?
Both are valuable in their way. In an individual case, you can do more good with a highly targeted area. But the value of Entry Level Stewardship was that it raised our environmental farming standards way above most of the rest of Europe’s.
I would like to see environmental measures open to more farmers. But in order to do that, you need a bigger budget in Pillar 2. And that is difficult to achieve. Our politicians have tried and it hasn’t happened.
- Describing himself as “very much a practical and hands-on farmer,” Henry Robinson has managed farmland since 1978. He farms 400ha (1,000 acres) in Gloucestershire on which he grows wheat and oilseed rape.
- “I’m a traditional farmer and always have been,” he says. “My wife will tell you I spend too much time on a tractor. I come from a part of the world where we don’t get enormous yields – dig down 6in and you reach stone.”
- “Part of my job has been to keep costs down so in the past I have done all the spraying and fertiliser applications at home. We’ve more recently contracted out – especially since I have become more involved with the CLA.”
- Married with three grown-up children, Mr Robinson worked as an adviser to three local farms and spent 10 years from 1986-96 as co-ordinator of a farmers’ buying group for eight farms comprising about 2,400ha.
- Mr Robinson has been a member of agri-environment schemes for more than a decade. He has been in Higher Level Stewardship since early 2011. His business also includes residential lets and workshops.
- He has served on committees for the Gloucestershire Farming and Wildlife Group (FWAG) and as chairman of Gloucestershire Rural Issues Task Force (for Gloucestershire First). He has also been treasurer of the National Birds of Prey Trust, a registered charity.
But they do seem to regard direct payments as ‘money for nothing’?
DEFRA wants to move money from Pillar 1 direct payments to Pillar 2 rural development measures for understandable reasons. But the CAP is a European policy and many other European countries are moving money in the opposite direction. We are in direct competition with them.
So direct payments are in place across Europe – and it would be wrong to say it is money for nothing. I defy you to name a country that doesn’t support its agriculture. Even New Zealand – which is held up as a shining example – supports its farmers by encouraging agricultural exports.
To get away from direct payments, there has to be a different way of paying for food. There is not enough money in the system to keep many farmers going without direct payments. And the higher up the hill you go, the more that is true.
You say you would like a better balance between agriculture and the environment. Does that extend to the food v fuel debate too?
We require lots of things from the land – and fuel is one of them. I watch the political dynamic about energy being expensive but I believe it would be more expensive for future generations if we were to do nothing to bring in non-fossil fuels.
What we want is a range of renewable energy initiatives from the government so our membership can make the decision regarding which initiative best suits them. The CLA has been well involved in renewable energy for a long time – long before it was fashionable.
Wind turbines have a wonderful way of dividing the membership – in the same way they have divided everyone else. The electricity they supply is unpredictable and uncertain. I am pretty ambivalent about them myself. But there is also solar and anaerobic digestion.
Many people view the CLA as an organisation for wealthy landowners. Is that misguided?
We represent landowners – that’s what we do. But probably less well-known is that half of our 34,000 members each owns less than 40ha (100 acres). And 15% own less than 4ha. Our job is to represent them all – and we represent roughly half the land area of the country.
It is a powerful line to take to politicians. My line to politicians is that they need to talk to us because we are the people who will be implementing their rural policies. So they need to get us on side in order to make it work.
Organisations such as the RSPB or National Trust have many more members than the CLA but much less land. Do taxpayers have too much say in what goes on in the countryside?
No. Taxpayers have every right to have their say – and I am a taxpayer too. I would fight tooth and nail for taxpayers to have their say, and so they should.
Do we expect too much as rural communities when it comes to wanting more affordable housing, faster broadband and improvements in other services?
The challenges around rural housing are not going to be easy to resolve but unless something happens we are building in a price which keeps increasing. And if we do get enough houses, what are we going to do to offset the damage to the environment by building them where they are?
We have been campaigning on broadband before quite a lot of our members had computers. Whether you are a silver surfer or a youngster doing homework, you need broadband. It’s a social inclusion thing. However much people say it’s a good thing, it’s still not quite happening.
It’s a particular concern as DEFRA’s “digital by default” policy means a lot of government information is going to be available only online. It is an issue that will run and run until we’ve got complete broadband coverage.
This government likes to portray itself as more rural-friendly than the last. Does that make it easier or more difficult to deal with?
Under me, the CLA will remain studiously politically neutral – sometimes you get problems bowled to you by a government you thought wasn’t going to cause you too much trouble.
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