Transcript of the Farmers Against Brexit Meeting held in Leek Wednesday 21 August.
The meeting was Chaired by Mike Ottewell (MJO) Leek Town Councillor (Lib Dem) and Chair of Staffs 4 Europe (North).
Phil Latham (PL) – Dairy Farmer and former Chair of NFU for Cheshire.
PL Good evening everybody – my first foray into putting across my views on Brexit into a public arena – outside Farming. Normally I am talking to an audience of farmers – where we all have our own views but usually farming centric.
I hope I can answer the questions you have about Brexit and the impact on farming.
Dairy Farmer for 28 years, so I have a fair amount of experience on dairy farming and a degree in zoology, so I am passionate about my animals and animal welfare is a priority.
I have done a Nuffield scholarship in welfare and looking at high and low input systems and I am passionate about how we farm and ensuring that it is to a standard.
Industry roles. County Chairman and Vice County Chairman for NFU in Cheshire. On the national dairy board in 6th year as an appointee, and the TB policy advisory group. As a farmer a mixed dairy farm business we farm as tenant farmers on Lord Cholmonderley’s estate with 500 dairy cows and trying to diversify on the farm that we own into other things.
Ellie Chowns MEP West Midlands (EC) – International Trade and Development committees.
From Herefordshie – SW corner of the constituency. Leek is in the NW so a large constituency but actually quite a few similarities - not only the green rolling hills but also the strength of the farming community.
I live on an organic farm myself – small and collectively farmed, so I am going to defer to my colleagues here on the technical knowledge side of farming.
I am also passionate – as a Green about caring for the national environment and farming plays such a key role in doing that.
Before becoming an MEP I was working at the Uni of Birmingham as a lecturer in International development and ended up being an accidental academic after having worked for about 15 years in International development NGOs for charities such as Christian Aid and Voluntary Services Overseas.
Looking forward to talking to you tonight.
Philip Bennion (PB) – MEP and Arable farmer based in Tamworth.
Apologies for late arrival – busy grain harvesting and technical issues with a combine machine.
Arable farm in Staffordshire – the other end of the county between Tamworth, Burton and Lichfield.
As MEP for West Midlands for second time with a gap of five years - we lost in 2014 but regained our seat for the Lib Dems this year.
My farm is diversified, we have got a district heating scheme run on my own straw that heats eight houses in the village. We also provide accommodation and I have been involved in various environmental schemes for 23 years, starting with countryside stewardship which I count as a sort of diversification.
Before farming I was a researcher for ten years. I have PHD in agricultural sciences. I did research in plant breeding and a couple of years as a lecturer before taking over the family farm. So for 34 years, a farmer trying to do a bit with research with HTB on the cereals committee which meant that I was monitoring research projects, being funded through the levy schemes for 12 years. Also, County Chairman for Staffordshire NFU – in 1996 when we had the BSE crisis – my first experience with television news reporting.
I have been a County Councillor and a District Councillor for Lichfield before becoming an MEP.
The first question was based on a letter from Mr John Emery that was published by the Leek Post & Times. It followed the announcement of the proposal to hold this meeting and Mr Emery wanted to express his disapproval by stating:
“We voted out – get used to it. The majority of Farmers in this area voted Leave”
Is this correct? If so – WHY?
He goes on to ask: Why are Lamb and Beef prices at an all-time High to the point that families on mid incomes cannot afford to buy it – who is making the money here?
NB: This claim has been contradicted in the following weeks’ edition where there is a report on the Farms and Countryside page saying that the Beef sector is actually in crisis. The NFU are asking the Government to ensure we retain free and frictionless trade with the EU while also opening up new export markets.
His letter continues:
“Subsidies were introduced in 1947 to encourage farmers to increase production to make up for short fall due to the war. Since then Subsidies have been used to take land out of production. Where is the logic in this?”
“The EU put in place subsidies to prevent the food mountains. (Remember the butter mountains, wine lake and milk lake.) Do we remember our highly productive dairy farms being forced by EU mandate to dump milk because of quotas?”
And he ends by asking.
“Why is it we now import milk from inefficient farmers in Europe.”
The Panel replies
PL The problem with letters like this is that they are well intended but very light on facts. I have just spoken, before this meeting, to the chairman of the AHDB Beef Board. Beef prices are not at an all-time high. Beef prices are very low, and they are £40 down from where they would like them to be. The price has just dropped and whether it is throughout Europe and the UK at the moment, Beef prices are not good. So that is causing Beef farmers a lot of problems.
Re the cake and eat it model, if we get an FTA with Europe then a lot of the problems, associated with a No Deal outcome will not be there but it seems to be a very confused rant about farming.
Why are farmers getting subsidies for environmental farming? It is simple – there is no market reward for investing in the environment. And without some incentive to invest in the environment you are asking farmers to give up their asset base and invest in the environment without getting any return for it.
While we all want to invest in wildlife and create the best environment possible on our farms, when prices are down, we are looking to make a return, so our first objective is to make money because we have bills to pay.
The EU did not force us to throw milk away. They tried to regulate the market with a quota regime. We now have no quotas and we can produce as much milk as we want, and we are no better off than we were but perhaps we have a more market related business than we used to.
Hard to dissect a letter but I don’t think that there are a lot of facts in there that are worth responding to.
EC Before I answer the points raised in that question – may I ask, how many of the people in the room are farmers? show of hands six. How many in the room voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum – show of hands looks like all. So then how many voted Leave – there was one. Thank you for being so brave.
Helpful to know what sort of audience we are talking to. So I am not the best person the answer the question Why so many farmers vote Leave. I don’t know I havn’t seen any stats (break down) by professions which vote Remain or Leave. Anecdotally I have heard that quite a few farmers voted to leave and in Herefordshire – which has a strong farming community also voted for Leave.
But I believe people vote Leave for a variety of reasons. And more lately, I have had some interesting conversations over this month of August, with parliament on holiday I have taken the opportunity to speak to people and particularly, to reach out to Leavers. I have heard a range of views, some of it has been about immigration, some has been misconceptions about how the legal process works, some have been about finance based also on misconception about the costs.
So, I don’t know why some Farmers voted Leave but it does seem strange on the face of it looking in from outside that so much about farming is so dependent on EU funding. As I understand it more than two thirds of the land area in Staffordshire is farmed and looking at the recent impact studies for farmers, it has been estimated that half the farms will go under if we have a No Deal Brexit. Even if there is a deal there will be significant disruption to farmers. Probably not an evidence based thing that the voted leave, but it is perhaps an emotional response as so much of the Brexit debate has been emotional and we have seen a racheting up now with Boris Johnson’s rhetoric with the bluff and bluster, and the return to a politics of sloganeering.
I think Phil has done a good job of demolishing the misrepresentations covered in that letter but I would like to pick up on one more point in it, which is this point about subsidies. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of which I am not an expert, has changed over the years. It has changed from a policy that tried to make sure that there wouldn’t be any food shortages by artificially inflating prices, encouraging and then by now, not designed to encourage the accumulation of butter mountains and wine lakes but it is there to support farmers on the basis of the land area that they own or farm.
Only about 12 percent of that money has an environmental dimension – to my mind, as a ‘Green’ that is nowhere near enough. (17.42).
In a way the single pro Brexit argument that I have some sympathy with is that we will not be stuck in the CAP and will therefore have the freedom over the use of those subsidies to support the type of agriculture that we would like to see. But the damage that will be done by Brexiting far outweighs any possibility of that. And indeed, the risks that we face by Brexit – in terms of difficulties in trading and the complexities around ensuring that the standards are held up and indeed the need to retain high animal welfare standards, when potentially, we are making deals with Trump’s America. That is one of the first things that we have to look at. Yes, the subsidy regime is not perfect, but I would like to see it more focussed on environmental benefits – public money for public benefits. That is something that the Greens in the European parliament have been campaigning for many years and still at the centre of our programme.
PB As far as the letter is concerned Ellie says she doesn’t know much about the CAP but at least she knows that it has evolved over the last 25 years. But the letter describes the CAP as it was before the MacSharry report circa 1992.
It has changed so much since then. We had price support rather than area support and while – it used to be accurate – it’s like the Sunday Times keeps coming out with this £500 per cow 30 years after we had headage payments. This is what happens with the media. They pick up on an idea and then for 20 years they keep reporting even after it ceases to be true.
The CAP has changed a lot. It has also changed because of WTO rules. I agree with Ellie to some extent that it could move further towards supporting environment standards but it can only go so far because the WTO rule actually stop you making any profit out of the environmental payments. This goes back to 1983 with the GATT agreement – the Uraguay round – when we actually wanted farmers to make a profit out of environmental payments but we caved in to MERCOSUR (South American Trade Block).
They said they couldn’t trust us not to cheat by paying farmers huge subsidies for providing very little environmental goods.
So if we went 100 percent towards environmental payments – which is what the Grove draft Agri-bill states then the result would be we would have no income support whatsoever, Whereas most industrialised developed countries with their agriculture have support payments which support farms’ incomes. And as ( illegible) report points out, roughly 60 percent of our profits is made up by our incomes support.
If we go down the route of having 100 percent environmental payments and we stick to the WTO rules, unsupported farmers will be expected to spend a lot of money and a lot of time delivering environmental goods when they have actually got no income!
And what is most likely to happen in that scenario, is that with a lot of contract farming no one will take up the environmental schemes because everybody is trying to run – instead of 200 acres of land they will try to run 2,000 acres of land and they haven’t got time to deliver environmental schemes at cost.
At the moment, because we get a proportion of support through these areas payments which support our incomes, people like me will decide to do some of the environmental work at cost. It gives us no extra income. When we look at the agriculture bill when Gove says he is going to move everything to environmental payments then in the second draft we could see that someone had told him that this was against WTO rules, because he then said that he was going to do this thing against WTO rules within WTO rules!
So it is a bit like the whole Brexit thing. So yes we can go a bit further with the environmental payments – a bit more public money for public goods but is we ‘over egg ‘ that pudding we will end up with nobody taking up the schemes because they are two busy scrabbling around try to cover three or four times as many acres. In other words we haven't got enough farmers on the land to deliver those schemes.
Now if we go back to the question – WHY did farmers vote for Brexit?
I think it was about 53 perecent of population – typical of the electorate as a whole. To me it might have been surprising if it hadn’t of been for a vote in the European Parliament that took place three weeks before - not to re-license a herbicide called Trifurcate. This is a product we all use – have to use. We have moved away from ploughing because we have been told it is very bad for the environment because it oxidises all of the organic matter in the soil. So if you are arable farming and not ploughing you are in a catch 22 situation. You cannot sow seeds into a field full of weeds and expect them to grow. So the only thing you can do to deal with this ‘Mintel’ agriculture is to use a total herbicide and do your minimal tillage over a clean surface with no plant life on it. There is only one chemical approved for that use which is Trifurcate so for a lot of farmers – at that point in time – it was a last straw.
So in my opinion voting leave for some was a gut reaction – How are we supposed to farm? Anything would be better than this.
Needless to say it was eventually did get re-licensed but only for five years and we still have this conundrum to get through but it shows that a little thing/issue like that – minor thing to most people, but it can have a seismic effect though an industry sector and certainly with the arable farmers that was the reaction. A short term scare that didn’t last after calming down and thinking a little more rationally.
The only way around it would have been to return to the plough – and most of them had disposed of their equipment for ploughing and purchased pretty expensive tillaging equipment and direct drills which without Trifurcate – would be useless and have to be scrapped. And then buy new ploughs!
That was the feeling at the time. We can come up with all sorts of theories why people voted on a particular day and there will be particular reasons.
I also did two debates at the time against Owen Pattison and another reason why farmers may have voted leave is that they were promised a Brexit that would deliver unfettered access to the European marke – our main export market - while getting rid of most of the regulation! And that is what the leave side promised them. Owen Pattison was promising not only that but they would get the same level of public support – income support from a British government post Brexit than they would get under CAP.
So in effect the same level of support, still get access to the EU markets to sell our beef and lamb and we will get less regulation. Having just had another load of regulation piled onto them. So what’s not to like about that?
Of course after the vote was over we saw some back tracking on all those goodies. And this is why some farmers are realising that they have been sold a pup.
Nick Avins from the floor.
I would like to ask about what happens to the single farm payment after Brexit? How will small farms survive without subsidy? Thank you.
PB Yes I think we answered it but very briefly, the draft agriculture bill is very clear it does’t even say anything about consulting about single farm payment. The word consult is not there. It says the single farm payment now called the basic payment is not there it will be phased out so basically it is gone by 2027 and the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese the Swiss – everybody those not in the Mercosur group who are special cases, those in industrialise countries all getting support but the British will not after 2027.
I can’t see how we will be able to compete with the world under those circumstances.
EC We are not the people to be answering those questions. Farmers have secured some promised for the government that they will continue to get subsidies and they will be specially cared for. A large chunk about £4 billion comes from the EU. As an organised lobby group maybe PL will be able to tell us about the work of the NFU in lobbying the government on behalf of the farmers. In terms of the impact of Brexit I am less concerned about whether the subsidies will continue and more about what will that subsidy regime look like and also the actual disruption that will be caused by the break down in our trading relations that we are being confronted by.
Part 2 (30.01)
EC continues: Membership of the EU is not just about transfers of money from the UK to the EU and the EU back to the UK – its about all of the stuff around regularity alignments, single market and frictionless trade and so forth which is fundamental to the ways that the farming sector – as well as all the other industry sectors – work. In fact thinking about the money the EU sends back to the UK, another dimension that I am concerned about, is the money that comes back, the structural funds for investment in left behind areas. There is clear evidence that the UK government has abandoned these regions , in particular over the last ten years and that will only be worse after we take our selves out of the system that currently takes a more objective look at which areas need that kind of investment in infrastructure, in business and in support for young people. I am concerned about that aspect of EU support in particular.
PL: Just briefly because it gets a bit of a repetition of what you have already heard. What will happen is the subsidies will disappear. That is a big concern for us as farmers. Around 40 percent of livestock farmers make no money at all without their subsidy. When we remove that support mechanism, then we are looking at massive structural change, never mind the market changes, we going to have to cope with that change in itself.
At the NFU conference – immediately before the 2016 referendum, Daniel Hannan did a presentation where he very eloquently, he painted the picture that for every £5 we invest in the CAP the UK only gets £3 back. So vote Leave and we can actually pay you more than you are currently getting – we will pay you £4 instead of £3 and make a saving and that will be wonderful. You will get more and society benefits and we can have all the benefits of associated membership of the EU with none of the downsides. Of course we can see now that this was all hocas-pocas nonsense. Unfortunately, people bought into it. This is just ludicrous as soon as he said it, then hear that we are going to lose all of that support and the £4 not £3 turns out to be £zero.
That’s not a great place to be if you are relying on subsidies to help pay your bills. This is a real concern for the NFU and for farmers across the board.
If we had fortress Britain – and I didn’t really answer the question, why did farmers vote leave. I think many farmers thought that we were going to be fortress Britain – which would be great. We are a net food importer with 61 percent self-sufficient. We come out of Europe, we pull up the drawbridge, we can produce more and serve the market ourselves and we will be quids in because there will be a strong demand from home market. But that’s not going to happen. After 20 years of UK politicians blaming the EU for anything bad that has happened in life, then it is hardly surprising that farmers swallow all this negative propaganda about the EU.
MJO: Call to audience for any questions. (33.21)
Cllr Matt Swindlehurst from the floor.
I am a Leek town councillor and I have the Livestock market in the ward that I represent, How can we as representatives of both Town and District Council levels within the community. How can we help from the community to try and mitigate against all these negative things that Brexit could bring about.
EC: I shall go first and my colleagues can build on the ideas. By the end of it we may have something useful to say.
It is a kind of mirror image of this process that PL just referred to. Every bad thing has been blamed on the EU for an awful long time, when actually the responsibility for a hell of a lot of that lies with Westminster, In dealing with Brexit, what can Town Councils do? There is clearly a limit to what Town Councils can do. But maybe it is an extension of stuff that you already do to keep these market towns vibrant. I have friends who serve on Leominster town council, which is also in a farming area. They have taken on more and more responsibility as local government has been starved of funding. This covers different activities from running festivals and fairs in the town, managing the loos and things like that. All of it is focussed on keeping the town vibrant, attracting visitors to shop and to eat and to socialise and to participate in community events and is what you do best at town council level.
But you can also do something else and that is to make your voices heard. And I hope that is what all of us in this room have been doing for the last three years and that we will continue to do.
I have attended a meeting with the Staffordshire County Council Leader and CEO this afternoon, as part of a series of meetings I am having with all of the leaders of the top tier councils in the West Midlands region, not only to discuss the impact of Brexit and what work they are doing to prepare for this outcome but also, to ask about what they are doing to tackle the climate crisis.
I see that as part of my role to say – here I am, I am available to help you but also I want to urge you to ensure that you are doing everything you can on the two issues which are at the top of my agenda.
I trust that you are also putting maximum pressure on your local government up to national government and MPs to do anything within their power to avoid the hell of a crash out Brexit. To avoid Brext – full stop. And enable all of us to get back to dealing with the essential business of delivering community services that we have all been distracted from over the last three years.
PB: First off, I don’t yet accept that Brexit is inevitable. So the most you can do is put your shoulders to the wheel and help us to try and stop it. I know that many here tonight are also very active in the fight as well.
If we do crash out then we are going to be in a tough place and Ellie has pointed out that you can do what you can as councillors within the local authorities to think more about food – put on food fairs – its our local base. Look at tourism – the farm businesses that will survive are those that have diversified and created another income stream. Please do whatever you can to encourage tourism into the area so that those business that have diversified can participate.
Really, we are looking at something which is mitigation – as you say. Damage limitation and the answer is not to leave in the first place.
PL: My answer is to focus on the practical aspects, I guess. Should we have a kind of Brexit, what can you do. Firstly if you have any influence you can help with the sourcing policies, make it local sourcing, buying British and valuing the ‘Red Tractor’ kite mark is a really important thing. Valuing what farmers bring to the environment. Seventy percent of the countryside is farmed by British farmers and that has a huge impact on the environment and tourism. You can see that when things like ‘Foot and Mouth’ disease happen and suddenly there is a drop in the money that normally flows into an area and the consequences. So it is important to understand the need for a vibrant rural community.
If we Brexit and we have 50 percent of farmers taken out of the local economy as a result, then that money will not be percolating though our market towns in the same way as before. It will not be invested in local businesses making animal management equipment. There are a multitude of businesses that farmers support. For example, the dry cleaners in our area nearly went bust because of Foot and Mouth disease, when all the County Livestock Shows were stopped and subsequently there is a knock-on effect.
Another way of supporting farmers is not playing games with TB. Councils love that – especially in Cheshie we have lots of game playing and party political nonsense going on with people trying to knock spots off each other which doesn’t help us. We have got a real problem with TB and we need to get on top of it.
Councils can also help from the point of view of facilitating planning and supporting business that have diversified. We are just going through the process with a major investment and it has been a hugely tortuous process and the cost of attempting to diversify almost seems like we are being taxed on endeavour. We are going to have to adapt – you are not going to be able to tax these businesses in the same way that they have been taxed to diversify if the costs keep escalating.
Part 3 (40:42)
Chair MJO informs the audience that Town and District councillors from all three major political parties were represented in the audience, while also acknowledging the important contribution by the Green Party.
Contribution from the floor (Unamed)
We have got two big issues – we have got Brexit and we have also got Climate Change. And when we start thinking about climate change, then maybe I should be eating less meat. And yet around here, most of the agriculture is milk, sheep and dairy.
What do you do as an individual? Are we going to eat less meat because of climate change while also you want to support your local farmers?
PL: The first thing you should do is question the logic of why eating less local meat is better for the environment. If you look local to here there is a lot of lamb production that will not convert to cropping. If you are not going to buy protein that has been converted from animals grazing on grass grown on hillsides that are uncroppable. Then what is the alternative land use that is going to go with that? So where is your food coming from? All you are going to do is export your food requirements to somewhere else.
You could buy your crops from Brazil where deforrestation is taking place, in order to provide an offset here. But really we are just exporting our consciences.
I would really urge you to look up at the sky – above you and say to yourself – up above the planet is something like the equivalent of the entire population of Birmingham – kept aloft – airborne by the burning of fossil fuels. Now we have cows – and there was a time when there were more cows on the planet than we have today. It is not cows that are causing the problem of air pollution, it is what we choose to do and it is convenient to forget the importance of transport and air travel, because we like to go on holidays. But agricultures contribution to the whole of the UK’s emissions is only ten percent.
I agree that there is a lot we can do with local sourcing – our beef is two and a half times less carbon emitting than it is in the South American countries. So local sourcing is something that you can do without trying to turn agriculture on its head.
Mike Ottewell, Leek Town Councillor (Lib Dem) and Chair of Staffs 4 Europe (North)