British agriculture will thrive if the UK leaves the EU, according to those farmers who say they will vote to leave in this summer’s in-out referendum.
No longer constrained by EU membership, British farmers will be able to farm and trade more freely, and ramp up production to meet increasing global demand for food – as well as benefiting from more appropriate policies, says Cambridgeshire arable farmer Colin Barker.
A tenant farmer with 110ha of combinable crops, Mr Barker believes there is a disconnect between industry leaders who are lobbying for continued EU membership and the interests of grass-roots family farms and smaller producers who want out.
See also: Poll: Have your say – EU in or out?
“I predicted some years ago that we would eventually be told what we can and can’t grow and that has now started to happen with the ridiculous three-crop rule,” he says.
“It is central control from bureaucrats who understand nothing about farming.”
A straw poll conducted by Farmers Weekly last month appears to support Mr Baker’s view. Out of 2,706 respondents to the online survey, some 68% said the UK should leave the EU, with only 23% saying the UK should stay. Just 9% of respondents were undecided.
“As a farmer, most people would expect me to be in favour of staying in the EU as I receive a cheque from them every year for a not-insubstantial amount – but I have become totally disillusioned with the way the EU is now acting,” says Mr Barker.
Defra minister George Eustice is disillusioned too. Before becoming a politician, he spent nine years working for his family’s fruit farming business.
The Eustice family still farm at Gwinear, Cornwall, where they also keep South Devon cattle and the country’s oldest herd of British Lop pigs.
Last month, Mr Eustice joined the ranks of rebel Tory ministers who are campaigning for a UK exit from the EU.
Leaving the EU would bring big benefits, says Mr Eustice, who announced his pro-Brexit stance just days before speaking at the NFU’s annual conference in Birmingham.
“I have taken a view – having wrestled with all sorts of EU regulation over the past two-and-a-half years – that we would do far better as a country if we ended the supremacy of EU law and actually shaped fresh thinking and created policies that would really deliver for our agriculture.”
Mr Eustice plays down fears that leaving would mean an end to farm subsidies and an end to free trade with the rest of Europe. Quitting would deliver an £18bn/year “Brexit dividend” in savings, he says. “Could we find the money to spend £2bn on farming and the environment? Of course.”
Leaving would also free the UK to strike its own trade deals, says Mr Eustice.
“The easiest thing to do would be to put in place a free-trade deal with Europe.
“Ultimately, we have a trade deficit with the EU, so they need to continue trading just as much as we do.”
The sovereignty issue
Hampshire farmer and Farmers Weekly columnist Charlie Flindt has a similar view.
But the issue is wider than agriculture, he adds. It all comes down to sovereignty – and the belief that Britain should be governed by politicians elected by British people, he says.
“I’m an old-fashioned believer that the people who rule over my life should be democratically accountable.
“If I am told to do this, do that and do the other, I like to be able to go to the ballot box every four or five years and choose whether I want someone else in charge.”
Many farmers feel the same. More than 400 supporters have “liked” a Farmers For Britain Facebook page, says campaign spokesman and Royal Agricultural University graduate Vicky Griffiths.
“There are a lot of farmers out there who want to leave the EU,” she says. “But not all of them are willing to stick their heads above the parapet to talk about it.
“It’s not something they are ashamed of, but it can sometimes be something of a taboo subject.”
EU party is over
One man who isn’t afraid of speaking out is Norfolk poultry farmer Stuart Agnew, who is also an eastern region MEP and agriculture spokesman for Ukip.
“The EU party is over – we have had the best of the CAP,” says Mr Agnew.
The benefits to UK farmers have dwindled over the past 25 years as the EU has expanded eastwards to encompass more countries, he adds.
Until 1984, British farmers “couldn’t have gone wrong” with the CAP, explains Mr Agnew.
But the situation has changed considerably since then, with farmers’ share of the EU budget falling from more than 80% to less than 40%.
At the same time, all the rules and regulations have become far more onerous.
Agriculture’s share of the EU budget is set to decline even further, predicts Mr Agnew.
New countries joining the EU in recent years are all putting less into the CAP than they take out, he says. “When Turkey joins, that is really going to drain the pond.”
How being outside Europe will help British farming
- Current area payment levels are far from guaranteed in the long term if the UK remains in the EU and no one knows what the CAP will look like post-2020.
- If new member states (for instance Turkey) with high areas of agricultural land and low GDPs join the EU, then CAP funding will be stretched thinner in the future, meaning there will be less monetary support for UK farmers.
- UK farmers get short-changed by the CAP in comparison to many of their European colleagues. Direct payments a hectare in the UK are lower than the EU average.
- An EU exit offers the chance for a tailor-made UK agricultural policy rather than the CAP’s one-size-fits-all approach. This would allow us to reduce the unnecessary red tape associated with farming under the CAP and better promote innovation and business growth.
- The UK’s trade is too important to the EU for it to realistically consider imposing crippling trade tariffs. For example, the EU exports two-and-a-half times as much beef to the UK as we do to it, meaning safeguarding our trade is in its best interest.
- Either the EU would not impose huge tariffs on UK trade in fear of the UK taking similar measures and thus crippling the EU’s beef export market, or UK producers can take over the subsequent deficit in the UK market that was previously met by EU imports.
Source: Farmers For Britain
Better out than in: Farmers’ views
“Leaving would bring big benefits. Life would be simpler and there would be less red tape. We could get rid of the extended hedgecutting ban and the three-crop rule. We could reintroduce something like the Milk Marketing Board and self-funding intervention schemes for cereals too.”
Mark Pettitt, Lincolnshire
“If David Cameron had negotiated the meaningful deal he promised, I would be more likely to vote to stay in. But he didn’t. It shows you can’t reform the EU – it is unchangeable. I don’t have any fears about going out. We are the world’s fifth-biggest economy – it won’t be Armageddon.”
Robert Law, Hertfordshire
“I refuse to believe British agriculture will be doomed outside the EU. In my farmyard I have a Japanese car, Korean farm truck and a Norwegian plough. They all seem to do well trading from outside the EU – the idea that we won’t be able to do the same is just nonsense.”
Charlie Flindt, Hampshire
“I can see a bright future for British agriculture outside of the EU – and I believe that is in the best interests of British farmers. It will be tough to begin with, but I think in a few years’ time – if we were to get out of the EU – there wouldn’t be a farmer who would want to go back in.”
Colin Barker, Cambridgeshire
“The EU has constrained the development of UK agriculture – it did with milk quotas and it has happened in other areas too. The way the EU works is not very British and it doesn’t suit our way of farming. If it did, why are so many sectors on their knees? To me, coming out of the EU is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put that right.”
Michael Seals, Derbyshire