In May, during the Health and Harmony consultation, I set out my hopes for the new Agricultural Bill in this column.
These were that area payments would be phased down to zero over five years, that retiring farmers would be able to claim all their future payments up front and that money would be paid for focused environmental schemes, capital grants and rural development projects.
So I have to take my hat off to Defra secretary Michael Gove and his team for what they have delivered. The speed that they have worked at since the referendum has been breath-taking and, to my mind, they have presented a clear, logical and deliverable vision for the future.
Farming should be grateful
Whether or not you agree with the strategy, the farming industry should be grateful for the priority that this has been given in government, the leadership of the secretary of state and, most of all, the clever and hard-working people in Nobel House.
I’m not saying this to ingratiate myself with Mr Gove. If you have read my column before, you will know I think that leaving the European Union is an act of pure idiocy. Hopefully there will be a second referendum once we know the terms of the deal and we will keep our EU membership.
But, and I say this with my teeth gritted so hard that my eyeballs are wobbling, “We are where we are.” In the circumstances, this bill is as good as it gets.
There is almost nothing about the current government that gives me either hope or confidence, but I have a lot of respect for Mr Gove. Like him, I have always hated the distorting and stifling impact that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has had on rural businesses. Personally, I would have preferred for us to carry on pushing for EU-wide reform of the CAP as a member state, rather than paddling off into the global market in our own little canoe. But there we are.
Mr Gove instead campaigned to take back power from Brussels and has used that power to deliver the agricultural policy that the EU should have. There is a consistency to that. I believe that the new bill will improve the British countryside, make UK agriculture more market-responsive and much more accountable to the society that it serves.
The current method of subsidising farms, where the “top” 10% of the recipients receive 50% of the money and the “bottom” 20% receive 2%, is a situation that only a fool could defend. I am delighted that eventually we are going to be paying public money to farmers for what they do and not what they have.
The nine-year transition period to phase out the current payments is a bit slow for my taste. The average age of farmers is so high that most of them will be dead by 2027. I suppose a long transition will at least allow arable farmers to finish paying their children’s public school fees without the embarrassment of having to put them in state education half-way through.
Hopefully Defra will now give some thought to improving the national diet, public health and bringing fairness into the food supply chain. These topics need to be woven into the heart of an agricultural policy.
It looks as though farmers have some big changes ahead, but we should acknowledge that we have been treated graciously by government. Some other industries will not be so fortunate.