A rural charity founded by Prince Charles has warned that family farms will need help adapting to life without direct payments after the UK leaves the European Union.
Claire Saunders, director of the Prince’s Countryside Fund, says grazing livestock farms, in particular, faced the unwelcome prospect of “slipping away” without urgent support to help them remain productive and viable after Brexit.
“A reduction in direct payments will affect many small farms radically, and many are just about managing as it is,” she said. “Volatile farmgate prices, bureaucracy, TB and the appalling effects of climate change are all affecting their ability to thrive.”
It was clear that government plans to phase out direct payments and introduce a new environmental scheme would involve a “deep and extraordinary culture change”, Ms Saunders told a Harvest Service and Lunch event organised by the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists.
“Although direct payments are being paid in full in 2019 and 2020 – and are being phased out over a seven-year period – in agricultural terms this seems to me to be a very short timeline indeed,” she told listeners at Painters’ Hall, London, on Thursday 11 October.
Debt and mental health
Charities are being approached by an increasing number of farmers with complex debt and mental health issues, Ms Saunders said.
This was is surprising, because direct payments accounted for some 61% of farm business income across all farm types.
The warning is significant, not just because of the charity’s royal connection. Over the past eight years, it has provided more than £10m for in excess of 250 rural projects to improve the prospects of farming businesses and the quality of life for rural communities.
Many farmers are stressed about their future and simply do not know where to turn, Ms Saunders said. But many have benefited from the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme, which offers free business skills training to family dairy and livestock farms (see below).
Even if farmers can recoup some of that lost basic payment by adopting environmental measures, doing so would still require careful planning and understanding to evaluate any potential negative impact this might have on their productivity.
Suggesting there is a moral obligation to help smaller farmers, Ms Saunders said they were the bedrock of local economies and rural tourism. A study by Professor Michael Winter has shown that size was not a factor when it came running a resilient and profitable business.
“Small farms are about more than butterflies and bees,” she added.
“Not everyone undertaking this programme chooses to remain in farming. But ultimately it gives them the control to choose. It puts them back in the driving seat and encourages success – and in the process it also gets them to think about the future.”
What is the Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme?
The Prince’s Farm Resilience Programme offers free business skills training to family dairy and livestock farms across the UK.
Up to 300 farms can join the programme each year. Workshops focus on different business skills to help maximise profitability and resilience.
Topics include business planning, understanding accounts and budgeting, and exploring new opportunities.
Every farm receives one-to-one on-farm support with a Business Health Check Tool. They are encouraged to examine their strengths and weaknesses – and benchmark their costs against similar enterprises.
Some 68% of farmers report they are more optimistic about their future as a result of being on the programme.
They include Devon beef and sheep producer Richard Mortimore, who farms at Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor.
“It’s very helpful to look at other farms and see how other people are doing things,” said Mortimore. “Just because you have been doing something a long time doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best way to do it.”
The programme brings together like-minded farmers in local groups, and gives families the tools to evaluate their viability and long-term sustainability, enabling them to make informed business decisions on their future direction.