A few months ago, The Landworkers’ Alliance, a grassroots union representing farmers and land-based workers, organised a Good Food March in London, running from Parliament Square to the Bargehouse on the South Bank. The event was in light of a revision to the Agricultural Bill that will take over from the current Common Agricultural Policy. This is a policy governing agriculture in Europe, which will cease to exist when the government decide on how Brexit will be implemented.
But what does that mean for our food and the people who grow it? To find out, Abi Aspen Glencross goes straight to the horse’s mouth and asks our farmers what they think. In the first interview of the series, she talks to Oscar Harding from Duchess Farms who produces Farmdrop’s incredible cold-pressed rapeseed oil.
“We are passionate, but passion can waiver if it’s not profitable” – Oscar Harding, Duchess Farms
But first, what is the Common Agricultural Policy?
The current Common Agricultural Policy is a financial subsidy for farmers in Europe. It’s paid out in two tiers.
Tier One is a ‘basic payment scheme’ where farmers are paid based on the area of land they own and nothing else. Not on how much they produce or the quality of their produce.
Tier Two is a ‘greening’ subsidy, which is an environmental payment scheme that pays farmers to leave a margin around their fields, dedicating five percent of their land to wildlife. This means that farms are incentivised with an element of environmental farming. Nevertheless, larger farms that grow only monocrops still receive more money than smaller ones, and there is no incentive to produce quality, nutritious food with low chemical use.
What is proposed for the new agricultural bill?
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, has proposed a Green Brexit. This says that farmers will be paid for ecosystem services (meaning, healthier land and water), increased productivity and there’ll be provisions for Research & Development. This doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well… almost. The biggest concern is the lack of discussion around how we’re actually producing food. While there’s a lot of talk around land management and the environment, very little has been mentioned about what our food landscape will actually look like.
The Good Food March was a response to this void. It was a call for high animal welfare standards, a food system that promotes more fruit and veg for public health, more organic farming and fair food prices for all.
So what do Britain’s farmers think?
Duchess Farms, Hertfordshire
Oscar at his farm in Hertfordshire
Duchess Farm specs:
More than 500 acres. Conventional with parts practicing organic.
Rapeseed, feed wheat, heritage wheat, Dexter cows.
How does the current Common Agricultural Policy affect you?
Not too much as a whole farm because we have a diverse income. The CAP is more relevant, however, when it comes to our arable crops. Much of the subsidy money that arable farmers receive from the EU has to go into chemical inputs. We’re reducing this as we move towards more organic practices with the heritage grains we’re now growing. Still, subsidies help to keep food prices low, and without them, the cost of food would spike.
Currently five percent of arable land has to be left to wildlife and not farmed. This is tricky for smaller-scale, arable farmers because that five percent is possible income. It means that many small farmers have to intensively farm the rest to make enough profit.
What do you think the new Farm Bill will look like?
More green space, more hedges, more wetland. It’s an easy sell. It’s great to put emphasis on the environment, but it seems more focussed on non-food producing areas. It’s great to focus on the birds and the bees, however we can’t eat the birds and the bees… we need to consider food security and how food is grown. There seems to be no mention of that in the farm bill talks.
How would you like the bill to look?
We revise subsidies so they are based on how you farm, incentivising low-input farming and producing good-quality food. It would have advice and aid in sustainable farming to change the current norm. Also, subsidies would be more widely available and accessible to ancillary rural businesses to promote the rural economy as a whole. Not just specific to crop-growing as they do now. This would incentivise more to go into farming who are not from a farming background.
What does the future look like for you?
We work with the mantra ‘conservation through commerce’. This means that we make money by farming well, which feeds into better farming. Our oil is slow cold-pressed, we are growing heritage varieties of wheat through organic practice. We have also diversified the farm a lot. We are passionate, but passion can waiver if it’s not profitable. Still, we can’t worry too much about the future of policy, we’ve got to make our own way. We are very lucky that there is a demand for our product, and we are in a great area. Others aren’t so lucky and may need more regional support.
Stay tuned for more in the Brexit series, for insights and thoughts from Britain’s smaller-scale farmers.
Need a reason to support our local farmers? Here are 4 insane facts that reveal the damage done by factory farming.