Editor’s View: Could 2023 be year that farmer anger erupts?

When you push people to the limit, anger is only a heartbeat away.

This year is set to drive many farmers even harder to stay solvent if input costs remain high and output prices come under further pressure.

On top of that, farmers in England will see another sharp cut to their area payment, with someone receiving £40,000 in December 2020 in line for £25,500 this year.

About the author

Andrew Meredith
Farmers Weekly editor
Andrew has been Farmers Weekly editor since January 2021 after doing stints on the business and arable desks. Before joining the team, he worked on his family’s upland beef and sheep farm in mid Wales and studied agriculture at Aberystwyth University. In his free time he can normally be found continuing his research into which shop sells London’s finest Scotch egg.
Read more articles by Andrew Meredith

This week’s news from Defra that there will be hefty-sounding increases to Countryside Stewardship payments is welcome, but it bears repeating that it is not designed to help farmers stay afloat.

It should only reward farmers adequately for doing the actions or capital works intended, and it will be interesting to gauge from readers in the next week how much they think the extra cash will help achieve this.

But it is still area payments that are keeping many operational, even as the money dwindles.

A political decision has been made that payments will end in England by 2028 and there is no hint that this will change.

Throughout last year there were signs of increased preparation for it. Rural professionals spoke of more businesses doing succession planning.

There was higher than anticipated take-up of the Lump Sum Exit scheme and many farms took advantage of the free advice available through the Future Farming Resilience Fund.

Yet for all the preparation, anger still simmers. While implementation of the Environmental Land Management scheme is slow, the pace of cuts to area payments is fast.

This year, the gap between what English farmers will get compared to those in other nations will yawn wide enough to find businesses in the black on one side of a border and in the red on the other.

The forecast from 2021 by farm consultancy group Andersons, which predicted one-fifth of UK farmers could disappear by 2030, still rings in my ears and the firm’s economic outlook for 2023 in last week’s Farmers Weekly (30 December 2022) made dispiriting reading.

There will be more farmers this year, particularly close to retirement, that conclude now is simply the right time to walk away.

But with anger at declining living standards spreading across many sectors of the economy, it would be foolish to assume agriculture will not boil over at some point too.

As Guy Smith notes in his opinion piece this week, we have been here before in a multitude of crises down the decades.

Finding a way to channel that anger into a plan that gets meaningful results (and wins the support of a critical mass of participants) is the stumbling block that has seen many previous bouts of fury fizzle and fade.

In the letters bag this week we find more anger at the NFU and Red Tractor. Criticism of governments and big corporations is also never far away.

Anger is powerful yet unpredictable; just one of the reasons that made the BBC show Traitors a festive TV hit.

In a bid to oust traitors from their ranks, contestants also shoved potential allies from the nest as emotion conquered strategy.

Farmers are also a factional bunch, but conditions have not been riper for some time for a challenger to ride a wave of populist anger to the top of a union or for a challenger organisation, such as the embryonic British Farming Union, to attract support.

Is there an unseen Dominic Cummings-esque schemer in farming’s ranks?

Whether they can do any more than the incumbents if they get to the top remains to be seen.

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