THE BLOG

No Time For Nostalgia

24/04/2017 12:55

At the Eastern Counties Vintage show, rows of lovingly-restored tractors show the changing face of British agriculture. There is of course nostalgia for these simpler, slower machines and the farming traditions of past decades. But there is also a real concern about how farmers will cope with the challenges of Brexit and the uncertainties ahead.

This may not feature much in the election campaign, but it is the biggest concern for many voters at this gathering at the Norfolk showground. Many of the exhibitors represent businesses dependent on farming: truckers, feed manufacturers and suppliers of equipment and clothing. Many of those who have come for a day out are from farming communities.

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Agriculture accounts for just over 1% of GDP, but almost three quarters of land in the UK is used for farming, providing more than half of the food we eat.
There are 142,000 farm businesses across the country. Their stewardship of the countryside is also vital for the tourist industry.

British farmers currently receive around £3 billion in subsidies under the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the Chancellor has pledged to maintain current levels of funding until 2020.

But not one of the political parties has said what it would do after that date. Many farmers, and firms dependent on them, are already having to take decisions which will affect their businesses well beyond the end of the decade.

"Without the EU payments, lots of farmers will go bust" is the verdict of one who runs a West Norfolk family farm. He does not like the word "subsidy" but says that without the CAP funds he currently receives, his business would not be profitable.

Many local growers rely heavily on seasonal labour, mainly from Eastern Europe. They have no idea what will happen when free movement of people from the EU comes to an end. They worry too about the future trading relationship with Europe, our biggest export market.

Despite this, it is hard to find anyone here who wants to stay in the European Union. Norfolk, apart from the cathedral city of Norwich, voted for Brexit - as did most rural parts of Britain.

Those I spoke to have a long list of complaints about the rules and regulations emanating from Brussels. There are many echoes of the slogans from the Leave campaign, as people talk of "taking back control of our country".

There is a readiness to adapt to new circumstances and a surprising confidence that the government will step in to support farmers.

"This country cannot afford to live without its own grain and livestock" a tall young farmer in a designer sweatshirt told me. "The government won't have to give all that money to Brussels, so it can spend it at home".

The former Environment Secretary and leading Brexit campaigner Owen Paterson has said Brexit is an opportunity to tailor new policies which will work for UK farmers, consumers, environmentalists and the wider rural economy.

So far there are few clues of what will emerge. Environmental campaigners are already concerned about what will Brexit will mean for targets on pollution, environmental standards and protection for wildlife.

Voters at the Norfolk showground, gazing at the vintage tractors and steam-powered milking machines of the past, know it won't be easy to ensure their voices are heard in the election campaign. But critical decisions lie ahead. And they will be pressing those vying to represent them to set out a clear vision for the future of British agriculture, outside the European Union.

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