With fewer than eight weeks remaining before the UK decides on its future in or out of the European Union, Farmers Weekly has conducted an in-depth survey into how farmers plan to vote – and why.
National opinion polls suggest that the vote on 23 June as to whether we remain in or leave the European Union will be a close-run thing.
The Financial Times “Poll of Polls” currently has the remain camp at 47%, and the leave camp at 40%, suggesting the tide may be starting to turn in favour of those who would like the UK to retain its membership of the EU.
That would certainly be the preferred outcome for most of the farming establishment, with all the main unions having now come out and said they would favour a vote to remain. But at grass-roots level, opinions among farmers are substantially different – and for a host of different reasons.
According to a survey of readers by Farmers Weekly, most farmers are minded to leave. In fact, even though there are some regional differences, only in Wales does the proportion of farmers who want to leave the EU fall below 50%.
- Influences and expectations
- Quotes from those who are undecided
- Quotes from those who want out
- Quotes from those who want in
In total, the survey reveals that 58% believe the time has come to turn our backs on Brussels. This compares with just 31% who definitely want to remain, while 11% are still undecided – much the same as in the national polls.
Break this down by region and a slight variation is revealed, with farmers in the Midlands, the South West and the North East being the most keen to leave the EU.
Conversely, farmers in Scotland and Wales are slightly more inclined to remain.
This reflects the fact they benefit more from, and are more dependent on, EU subsidies than farmers in some other parts of the country.
It is also no coincidence that the farming unions in these Celtic areas were among the first to come off the fence and advocate staying in the EU as being in the best interests of their farmer members.
As well as regional differences, there are also some clear distinctions when it comes to farm type.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents from the poultry sector are most enthusiastic about leaving the EU, with 82% intending to vote that way.
In contrast to many other sectors of farming, broiler growers have always operated in an unsupported market, where free trade has been the norm.
Furthermore, many of the export markets for poultry lie in places such as West Africa and the Middle East, making the sector less dependent on continued tariff-free access to mainland Europe.
And, while broiler growers have derived little EU taxpayer support over the years, they have certainly been subject to a large amount of regulation from Brussels, particularly in relation to animal welfare and environmental control.
Similarly, vegetable and potato growers appear to be leaning towards a so-called Brexit, again reflecting the fact they receive little in the way of support from Brussels, but endure a good deal of the paperwork.
The survey was self-selecting, emailed to the Farmers Weekly database and open between 11 and 20 April.
In total we received 577 completed responses from UK farmers.
Their responses to the 15 questions were weighted according to farm size and region using Defra figures to make them as representative as possible.
This ensures that no one group of farmers has any disproportionate sway over the results.
Dairy farmers surveyed are at the more anti-EU end of the spectrum, too. Many have been struggling for a number of years and there are numerous global influences behind this.
But Brussels has also been a contributory factor, especially since the winding down of milk quotas in 2015 opened the floodgates on milk production.
In contrast, sheep farmers who responded are among the least antagonistic towards Brussels, with 33% wanting to remain in the EU – the highest of any farming sector.
This reflects the fact that EU subsidies are an absolute lifeline on many sheep farms – especially in the uplands of Wales, Scotland and North West England – while trade with Europe is also essential, with exports to France being a key factor supporting the market.
It is a similar story for beef producers who may derive additional CAP subsidies in some parts of the UK, potentially making them more EU-friendly.
But once again, the clear message from the survey is that, regardless of whether they grow wheat, milk cows, fatten livestock or produce chickens, the majority of respondents still want out.
Farm size and structure
Some interesting differences of opinion also emerge from the survey according to farm size.
It might have been expected that small farmers would have been more inclined to want to remain in the EU, with all the income protection that goes with it, while larger farmers would be happier to leave, given their ability to stand on their own.
In fact it seems the reverse is true. The highest proportion of farmers in the leave camp, at 61%, are those with less than 50ha, and this figure falls to 52% for those with more than 500ha.
It is hard to know why for sure, but one can speculate. One explanation may be that smaller farms feel the burden of form filling and red tape more, while larger farms may employ a secretary or an agent.
It is also possible that smaller farms derive a greater proportion of their income from a diversification or off-farm job, so may be less dependent on EU subsidies. And it is certainly the case that some of those anti-EU poultry farms in the survey will be in the “less than 50ha” category.
As for demographics, again the survey came up with something unexpected. The common perception – backed by national opinion polls – is that the old are the most inclined to want to leave the EU, while the young, who have never known anything else, are more enthusiastic about staying.
Not in farming, it would seem. Of the age groups analysed, it is actually those under 44 years old who most want to leave the EU. This desire seems to fall in those who might be described as middle aged, before climbing in the oldest age group.
Certainly those farmers over 65 will probably have had experience of farming before the UK’s accession to the then European Economic Community in 1973. Some see those as the “golden years” of British farming.
Influences and expectations ahead of crucial EU vote
As well as providing a detailed breakdown of voting intentions according to things such as farm location, type and structure, the Farmers Weekly survey also sets out to explore what is motivating farmers as referendum day approaches.
Factors influencing farmers
Some clear differences emerge between those who want to leave the EU and those who would rather remain.
Among the broader issues, it is clear that farmers in the survey who want out are overwhelmingly influenced by the perceived loss of sovereignty to Brussels, and a desire to see political control returned to these shores.
They are also concerned by immigration, presumably wanting the UK to tighten its borders post-Brexit.
As for specific agricultural matters, it is seems that frustration with EU regulations and policies is the big one, with 72% saying this is the issue that is influencing their decision to leave.
Taking a closer look at those farmers who prefer to remain – the minority – the survey shows they are most concerned by the impact of a leave vote on their economic prospects.
They are seemingly concerned that a return of powers to Westminster will lead to a winding down of farm subsidies, as government austerity continues to bite.
These farmers are also influenced by market access, fearing that outside the EU it will be harder to compete in what is currently the UK’s primary export market for agricultural goods.
What if we leave?
The survey also looked at farmer expectations in a post-Brexit world.
With regard to their own financial prospects, it is not surprising to see that more than 60% of those who want to leave the EU believe their businesses would be better off, though a sizeable chunk (29%) feel it won’t make much difference one way or the other.
Dairy farmers, vegetable growers and poultry farmers are the most optimistic in the survey about their financial prospects outside the EU.
This contrasts strongly with the remain camp, where 90% are convinced they will be worse off. This clearly reflects a pessimistic view about the loss of support to farming outside the EU, and the likelihood that prices will have to fall in order to compete with more highly subsidised farmers in continental Europe and Ireland.
This is seemingly confirmed by another question, in which we asked farmers how confident they are that a UK government detached from Brussels would implement farmer-friendly policies.
Not surprisingly, among the “remain” camp, the vast majority – 90% – are either “not at all confident” or “not very confident”. Sheep farmers are particularly pessimistic in this respect.
What is surprising, however, is that even in the “leave” camp, only 13% say they are “very confident” government will implement farmer-friendly policies.
Some 57% say they are “quite confident”, but almost one-third of those who want to leave have little faith in the government’s willingness to implement farmer-friendly policies.
This reinforces the fact already identified that respondents in the leave camp are motivated by factors that go beyond the farm gate, rather than concerns that they might take a financial hit.
Another apparent contradiction emerges in relation to red tape, and whether farm regulation will increase or decrease if there is an exit from the EU.
Even though the number-one agricultural reason for those wanting to leave is seen to be frustration with EU regulation, the survey also shows that many of those people do not actually expect things to be much better if it is left to Westminster to devise the rulebook.
What about the undecided?
While the majority of farmers intend to vote leave, there is still a significant number of undecideds.
Looking at the factors that concern them the most, they are particularly worried by the possible economic consequences of a Brexit. There is also a big question mark about the future availability of government support.
Quotes from those who are undecided
“If we vote to leave, we will need a very forceful new prime minister who tackles the negotiations with vigour, and treats the British bureaucracy the way Margaret Thatcher did the unions in the early 1980s.” East Anglian cereal farmer
“Our future as farmers will be affected by the strength of the pound far more than the effects of leaving Europe.” Small South West livestock farmer
“Cameron has had a Chamberlain moment and has negotiated no meaningful concessions; who has mentioned them of late?” South West vegetable grower
Quotes from those who want out
“There may be ifs and buts if we leave the European Union, but if we stay, there is a certainty that the country will be inundated, nay, overrun, with immigrants.” Older North East mixed farmer
“Having looked at the options – for example in the NFU’s recent sponsored research – there seems little to fear from Brexit.” North West dairy farmer
“We need to trade with the whole world not just EU. The rest of the EU needs us more than we need them.” South East mixed farmer
“We should rule ourselves, not be ruled by overpaid, underworked, folder-carrying Brussels bureaucrats.” Midlands mixed farmer
“As a farmer it may not be in my best interest if the UK leaves EU, but in my opinion for the sake of our national identity and democracy, we should go.” Small South East cereal grower
“New Zealand has thrived without subsidies, so can we.” South East sheep farmer
“Brexit will make us focus on trade with the faster-growing parts of the world rather than the slow-growth EU that does not need our produce.” Older South East cereal grower
“I want Britain to be ruled by the British for the British, and safe from the ever-encompassing nature of the Fourth Reich.” Older Yorkshire cereal grower
Quotes from those who want in
“The current situation is far from perfect, but I would have no confidence in the current UK government supporting farm businesses, large or small.” Northern Irish livestock farmer
“I think leaving the EU would be disastrous for the future of farming in Scotland. If the UK votes to leave the EU, I hope Scotland votes to leave the UK and to remain in the EU.” Older Scottish sheep farmer
“Britain leaving the EU would create significant tariff barriers, as the EU would seek to make an example of us to other member states who may also wish to leave.” Small Midlands cereal grower
“I think that the government could pay more in support payments than we currently get if we leave the EU – but doubt that they will.” Welsh livestock farmer
“Remaining in Europe will be better for security and prosperity for the UK, Europe and the world.” Large South West tenant farmer
“I have no confidence that people like George Eustice would bring in agricultural subsidies at anything like the present levels, and we would be left with roughly the same level of regulation as now.” South West cereal grower
“I think it would be absolutely tragic if the UK were to leave the EU. In my view, all the ‘benefits’ that the ‘outers’ promise are totally illusory.” Large East Anglian mixed farmer
“The net cost of being in Europe is a small price to pay for political stability, access to a huge market and financial security for most businesses.” Midlands poultry farmer