Opinion: The time is nigh to phase out direct payments

One of the joys of writing a column for Farmers Weekly is the occasional letter you receive from a reader.

The views expressed in these letters are usually idiosyncratic, and sometimes bizarre. I suspect this is because farmers are not used to having their thoughts challenged. 

Now imagine the ill-fated souls at Defra who have the pitiless task of reading the thousands of responses from farmers to the recent consultation on future farm policy.

I need a glass of Scotch after one letter from an aggrieved farmer. How will they cope? They are going to need professional counsellors on hand.

See also: Thousands respond to Defra’s Health and Harmony consultation

I can’t imagine how Defra can possibly distil the cacophonous soup of 40,000 thought processes into a coherent and deliverable policy, and my heart bleeds for the poor souls faced with the job.

Matthew Naylor is the managing director of Naylor Flowers.

For my own part, I am broadly supportive of the government’s “Health and Harmony” paper.

The environment secretary and I differ in our views on EU membership, but we would certainly find common ground when discussing the failings of the CAP.

I actually admire his effectiveness as a minister and his ability to steer government policy in new and bold directions with remarkable speed.

I attended a Defra meeting in Coventry to contribute to the consultation – and discovered my views were at odds with many of the other farmers in attendance.

Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing, but I feel horribly guilty about receiving subsidies for being a farmer.

The €28,000 we receive each year is small beer compared to what some farmers receive. It is small beer to me too, if I’m honest. It wouldn’t pay our wage bill for a week. Nonetheless, £25,000 is a large sum of money to the individual UK taxpayers who have to fund it. 

Some farmers argue that area payments protect jobs, help wildlife, support small farms or guarantee a cheap and secure food supply, but we all know that it is a deeply ineffective mechanism to do that.

This cloak of altruism is pretty transparent and farmers’ self-interest is clearly visible beneath.

I like the SNAP programme in the USA where low-income families receive coupons to exchange for healthy, home-grown food. This is a more rational and socially-just idea than giving money to farmers to keep food prices artificially low for everyone.

My view is that area payments should be phased down to zero over the next five years. Farmers wishing to retire should be able to surrender their entitlements now and claim the whole five years’ payments up front to assist their retirement and free the land for new entrants.

The money saved should be channelled into focused environmental schemes, capital grants for investment and job creation and a community-administered rural development grant scheme along the lines of LEADER.

If we are to face the global market, the message to farmers must be clear: “Improve and invest, or leave the industry.”

As an aside, I couldn’t help noticing at the meeting in Coventry that the car park was full of Land Rover Discoverys, some new, with personalised number plates saying things like MO02 COW or G8 EWE.

It will be interesting to see how the value of such number plates holds up over the next few years.

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