Opinion: Reasons to be cheerful about Ag Bill, if you try hard enough

It’s hard being a pessimist. You’ve just settled into a negative frame of mind, when along comes something that makes you think things might get better; even that someone has been listening to you.

So I read about the Agriculture Bill with some wonderment. “Help farm businesses become more resilient, productive and internationally competitive.” “Support farmers in getting the right price for the food they produce.” I started to get mildly interested.

See also: No need for farmers to fear life after Brexit

Next, the new Environmental Land Management system (ELM): “In sharp contrast to the inflexible nature of the current system, these contracts will be based on a land management plan developed by the farmer or land manager.

Their plan will set out how they intend to deliver the environmental benefits identified, based on guidance and specialist advice”.

Exactly what I said should happen, in my responses to the Health and Harmony “command paper” that preceded the bill. So I delved into the official summary of responses, to see if I was actually named. I wasn’t. So with my ego nicely deflated, I just needed to deal with any latent sense of optimism.

I read the summary of responses further. If getting through to Defra secretary Michael Gove was a numbers game, farming lost out badly. World Wide Fund for Nature: 14,056 responses. Compassion in World Farming: 3,363 responses. National Farmers’ Union: 2,344 responses in total.

Many responses were generated by organisations’ campaign machines, with co-ordinated action of the “send this postcard to…” type. And send them the world and his wife did – there were more than 43,000 responses in total, plus the regional consultation events. Democracy is overrated (look at Brexit).

Why do so many people think they are entitled to have a say in the future of a major business sector? If there was a consultation on the future of the UK aviation industry, might people be reading; “Paul Cobb said he had seen someone jump off a bridge wearing a Birdman costume, and thought it had a lot to recommend it?”

Many organisations are keen to say farming should be supported – for what they want. But they major on the public money for public goods theme, leaving bodies like the NFU, stressing the importance of food production, looking like a minority report.  

Ask yourself what’s most likely to appeal to farmers; “Here’s support for your farm that enables you to go forward with confidence, and helps you enhance the environment,” or “We’re paying you for the environment, but we’re sure you’ll be able to produce some food as well.”

That brought me back to my farm plan idea. I said such a plan should be part of a wider farm-funding strategy that sees food production, business development and the environment as a whole.  Farmers, advisors and government working together. Local priorities set, and local decisions made.

Fat chance, I thought, until the next thing I read was a Defra presentation on its vision for ELM. It says potentially the plans could take in both food production and the environment (as well as agro-forestry and recreation). Lots of stuff as well about independent expert advice, local priorities, light touch monitoring and inspection… 

Can I remain a pessimist, in the face of all this?  Well, Defra will need to be held to its fine words. And the RPA will be running the new scheme…

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