Shadow farm minister Sue Hayman has come under fire for suggesting that big farms are bad and risk putting smaller farms out of business.
Speaking at an NFU fringe debate on the future of food and farming after Brexit at the Labour Conference in Brighton on Monday (25 September), Ms Haywood said she didn’t want an emphasis on productivity to force the UK towards “mega farms” at the expense of small farmers.
“I don’t want to see my hill farmers in Cumbria go under, that would be absolutely criminal,” explained the MP for Workington.
“We are losing small farms in this country at a huge rate in a way that’s not happening in Scotland. Why is that?”
But Ms Hayman was challenged over where she would draw the line between a small and large farm.
West Sussex NFU chairman and mixed farmer David Everett said: “I agree with the need to support small farmers but I farm 1,800 acres [730ha] – am I a mega farmer?
“Define that,” he added. “How are you going to support small farms without disadvantaging bigger farms?”
Ms Hayman said it was about finding a balance between the two.
“I don’t want to cause you any problems with the farming that you do because actually productivity is really important and you’re not going to reach productivity levels if you only have very small farms.”
NFU vice-president and panel member Guy Smith said he took issue with the idea that small farmers were not as productive as large farmers.
“I’m wary of this dichotomy of farmers. We do have a bit of a weakness that we always like to find out why we are different from each other as farmers, but farmers have far more in common than they have differences.
“I think sometimes we need to not ramp up this small farmer, big farmer rivalry because I don’t think it goes anywhere, and it’s impossible to define.”
Need to be realistic
Observer food critic Jay Rayner stressed the need to reverse the drop in the UK’s self-sufficiency level in food, but he warned that the shake-up of the subsidy regime meant not all small farms would stay in business after Brexit.
“It just can’t continue in the same way. There needs to be diversity across the farming sector, but we also need to be realistic about what happens here,” he said.
“There is going to be a turnaround over the next 20 years and some of it is not going to be attractive to some of those involved.”