Opinion: What would Prof Nix have said about Gove’s green Brexit?

Back in April, I went to the funeral of John Nix, emeritus professor of farm business management at Wye College, and the originator of the famous Farm Management Pocketbook.

From urban non-farming origins, Prof Nix became one of the greatest figures of progressive post-war agriculture.

Those who spoke of John remembered his energy and intellect, but also his kindness and his willingness to help others, not to mention his pithy humour.

See also: CLA launches its blueprint for post-Brexit farm support

As he was laid to rest in a corner of Wye churchyard, the sense of the passing of an era was hard to escape.

Not because the college he loved so much is now disused and empty – institutions like Harper Adams are thriving in the new farming landscape, after all.

Paul-CobbPaul Cobb is a Kent-based independent adviser and partner in FWAG

It was more the feeling that Prof Nix had flourished at just the right time for farming, in that era of hope and challenge that followed the hungry years of the Second World War – firstly with the 1947 Agriculture Act, and later in the 1970s with “Food from our Own Resources” (both produced under Labour governments, as it happens).

At that time, support for farmgate prices and food security was seen as being in the national interest, not as some kind of aberration.

It was the 1970s Farm and Horticultural Development (FHD) scheme that took our family dairy farm from the 19th to the late 20th century; from tethered stalls and churns to a milking parlour and a bulk tank.

The FHD had its share of paperwork, but it allowed a Yorkshire Dales farm to support two families instead of one.

Fast-forward to 2018, and the Brexiteer Defra secretary’s “Health and Harmony” consultation is rubbishing the “flawed” successor to those earlier support systems, the Common Agricultural Policy, and laying the evils of environmental destruction at its door.

I’m an environmentalist and I know all the figures about loss of wildflower meadows, hedges and so on.

These things happened on our farm too. But you can’t undo all that, and you certainly can’t wish a modern industry back into the 19th century.

The recent consultation set a tone, and that tone is dangerously close to abandoning what farming can do and has done well since 1947, in favour of an agenda that allows reduced support, wrapped up in sound-bite environmental ambition. 

Of course the environment is important – it has a high profile in farming now. That is the result of increasing awareness and action in the industry, helped by bodies such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf), and some judicial funding from past stewardship schemes. 

But you can’t use the environment as a straitjacket to rein in productive farming. We’re way ahead in our environmental thinking now compared with the 1970s, and a lot of the gain we are making is due to technology and progressive agriculture, not in spite of it.

The challenges to our food-producing industry are as huge as they were in 1947; food security, price volatility, climate change, sustainable use of resources, workforce skills and availability are among them. They would be challenges even without Brexit, and the environment would still be just part of them.

As Michael Gove mulls over the responses to “Health and Harmony”, I can only imagine what Prof Nix would have made of it all.

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