Britain's £100bn farming sector ready to take control of its own destiny

Anna Jones works for BBC's Countryfile and Radio 4's Farming Today
Anna Jones works for BBC's Countryfile and Radio 4's Farming Today

Anna Jones

I'm a Brit writing about Brexit as I tour around Ireland for a couple of weeks as part of my Nuffield Farming Scholarship.

I'm gradually making my way south-west from Dublin, stopping off in Tipperary, Wexford and Cork. In fact I'm writing this in a B&B near Bantry after a bracing walk along the Sheep's Head peninsula. A good place to mull over what's going on at home.

When Brexit crops up in conversation, as it invariably does, a couple of Irish people have put their heads in their hands and cried: "What were you all thinking?!"

I was chatting to a guy in Cork city about it over the bank holiday.

"I know what they were thinking," he said. "It would be like if we had a referendum here about uniting Ireland. I'd know it could cause trouble and damage relations with the UK, but would I vote for a 32 county Ireland? Yes I would."

Whether or not that is a reasonable comparison is up to you, but he's right that many Brits went to the polls with the sole purpose of "making Britain great again".

The farmers though? I think those who voted to leave the European Union were thinking more tactically than that.

I know a few of them and they're not what you might expect. For example, if you thought all the young people voted 'Remain', you should chat to some under 40s in the British countryside.

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Some want rid of direct payments and the farms that depend on them, which they view as inefficient and a drag on the industry.

I distinctly remember one Leave supporter saying "subsidised old codgers" were blocking new entrants and fresh ideas. Others, particularly in the arable areas, hope a Brexit will mean the relaxation of the precautionary principle and better access to new crop protection products, and maybe even GMOs. But if anyone thought for a minute these things would happen quickly - if ever - they are very much mistaken.

Britain is still reeling from the shock. No one, not even those who voted to leave the EU, can quite believe it's actually happening.

The National Farmers' Union is making the best of it by calling on farmers to take control of their destiny.

This month they are launching the biggest consultation for a generation.

NFU bosses have agreed on a set of core principles, which could form the basis of a new domestic agricultural policy, or at least what the NFU wants from one.

Meetings will be held all over the UK to discuss the pros and cons.

They hope to have it signed off and ready to deliver to government by October.

The NFU cannot be accused of acting slowly. Less than a month after the referendum result, the four presidents, representing each nation, met in Brussels to set out their priorities.

England put access to European markets and new global trade agreements at the top of its list, Scotland stressed the importance of access to labour, Wales called for a science-based approach to pesticides and herbicides and Northern Ireland a removal of costly bureaucracy.

Some of it tallies with what our new Defra Secretary of State Andrea Leadsom said in a letter to the Farmers' Weekly exactly a month after the referendum.

In it she appears very positive, ambitious even, about trade and export opportunities and recognises the £100bn a year contribution to the economy from food and farming.

But she makes no mention of continued support payments for farmers after we leave the EU, and I was surprised none of the four NFU leaders mentioned it at the earliest opportunity either.

This will be something to watch very closely.

My Dad, a sheep and beef producer and a staunch Remainer, is disillusioned.

"How can the NFU represent the interests of the big arable men in the east and the small livestock farmers in the hills at the same time?" he asked.

Personally, I believe now is the time for every British farmer to stand up and have his or her voice heard, to be part of the first British Agricultural Policy in decades.

Yes, our industry is fragmented and regionalised but there are strengths in that too. We do a lot of things well - from beef to barley, pork to potatoes, sheep to strawberries. And it's time to shout about it.

Someone suggested to me the other day that Irish farming will far much worse out of Brexit than ours.

I can see their point but with emotions running so high at home, I hope you don't mind if I keep that thought to myself when I get off the ferry at Holyhead.

Anna Jones is a farmer's daughter from the Welsh Borders. She works on BBC's Countryfile and Radio 4's Farming Today. Her Nuffield Farming Scholarship looks at the coverage of agricultural issues in the news media

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