The countryside’s future is full of promise. Decisions made in 2018 will mark a turning point in how we produce food, how we care for the environment, how we interact with visitors, how we manage the land and landscapes. Government must work closely with farmers and landowners to develop a fresh approach that heralds a new future for farming that embraces new technologies, promotes harmony between agriculture and nature, and sees farmers justly rewarded both for producing high quality food and also for their ‘public goods’ work.
Although lacking in substance, the consultation paper published by Defra last week hints at a welcome ambition and a sound direction from Government.
The time is right for change and we farmers are up for the challenge. But the desire for a brighter future for farming will remain no more than ambition if the transition from the current system to the new approach is fluffed. A properly planned transition to this new policy is vital to support farming through the changes ahead, but the proposals in the consultation paper show little evidence of proper transition planning to date.
Farmers cannot adapt for a new future if they are in crisis, and too aggressive an approach to instigating change will certainly put farm businesses in that position. We need time to plan, a clearer picture of where Government policy is heading – including whether we will have trade to traditional markets – and assurance that no business, large or small, will face sudden and dramatic cuts.
In preparing for their new future, farms need to be investing in technologies and skills to make food production more efficient while finding the most effective ways to protect and enhance nature and to remain at the heart of rural communities. But it is only financially stable farms that can do this. Slashing farm payments dramatically during this transition phase puts all this at risk. The transition should instead be sufficiently measured to enable farm businesses to adapt for a more productive and sustainable future, rather than placing them at the cliff edge.
The CLA’s vision for land managers to be rewarded for ‘public goods’ work such as providing habitats for wildlife, reducing flood risk and access to the countryside for health and recreation, is reflected in the Government’s proposals. All this must sit alongside a clear and significant programme for investing in farm productivity. The new system, based on Land Management Contracts between society and the landowner, is a vision worth funding and Government must quickly commit to the right levels of sustained, long-term investment in the countryside’s future.
The opportunities ahead are exciting, but the risks of getting it wrong are disastrous for food production, the environment and individual farms. I urge Government to capitalise on this opportunity to help farmers forge a strong future for food production and the environment for generations to come rather than withdrawing investment just when the industry needs in most.