Recouple support to boost production – Stephen Carr

Coupled payments have a crucial role to play in boosting production and making home-produced food more affordable, says Sussex farmer Stephen Carr.

His call was made at the South of England Agricultural Society’s annual debate, which this year asked: “Who can afford food produced in Britain?”.

“With national governments and assemblies now having considerable flexibility on how farm policy is set, we could soon see very different financial incentives for farmers depending on which side of the border between Scotland and England one farms,” said Mr Carr.

He called for up to 8% of farm spending budgets to be used to bolster production and replace some of the 40% of indigenous foods we import. That recoupling had been allowed at all in the CAP reform plans was a loud admission from policymakers that decoupling had failed as a policy, he said, adding that the industry was afraid of talking about losses.

The latest DEFRA figures showed average beef and lamb farm business income at just £18,000, he said.

Many farmers had used the SFP as a de facto production subsidy, said Mr Carr, who drastically reduced his suckler cow numbers when the SFP was introduced in 2005, switched almost 243ha of arable land into conservation agreements and halved his 1,000-ewe flock.

“Without suckler cow premium only a sucker would continue to keep a beef cow. And without ewe special premium only a special sort of idiot would think there is any money to be made from keeping sheep.”

The SFP was rapidly rotting out the will and means of English farmers to produce affordable food, said Mr Carr. “If things stay as they are there must surely come a tipping point where we see more economically vulnerable sectors such as beef, lamb and possibly milk undergo a serious production collapse.”

The payment had encouraged rises in land prices and farm rents, while farm incomes remained stagnant in some sectors or had declined in others, he said.

While acknowledging that suckler beef production without subsidy was a big ask, NFU president Peter Kendall rejected the recoupling of support, saying it would lead to distortion and make farmers less competitive.

Responding to an example from Mr Carr of Austrian support for small mountain dairy farms to preserve a local cheese type, Mr Kendall said if governments wanted to support small producers in rural idylls, the finance for that should come from national budgets.

He said the government was waking up to the need to produce more food here, but consumers were waking up to it too.

“Domestic food security is rightly back on the public agenda. Our focus should be producing food for the British consumer – we have to do that at a range of prices. The challenge is how we all work to ensure the food we produce is affordable to the British public.”