We all agree that the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy needs reform. But in the UK, it seems that very few farmers agree with the proposals coming forward from the EU’s Commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian Cioloş. Commissioner Cioloş is Romanian, and a relatively young 42. He is nonetheless a man with a wide experience in administrative and bureaucratic posts, but has never, so far as I can ascertain, been a farmer.
Last Monday, April 2nd, saw me in deepest Lincolnshire, at the farm of NFU County Chairman Ian Stancer (second from the left in the picture, with other NFU colleagues and a golden retriever puppy; photo credit Simon Fisher of NFU).
Farmers receive 70% of their CAP payments on an acreage basis (I refuse to write hectarage), subject to “cross-compliance” — that is, to meeting a plethora of EU-imposed environmental standards. Then the other 30% will be subject to meeting yet more environmental desiderata, which are themselves the subject of current negotiation. But three of Commissioner Cioloş’ ideas are causing real concern.
The first is “triple cropping”. Brussels will insist that all farms grow at least three crops. But this is a rather arbitrary condition that may well fly in the face of agricultural and market pressures. Some farms specialise in one or two crops, and their plans and their equipment are geared to those crops. It may be that their soil, topography or micro-climate are particularly suited to those crops — so why grow something else?
While large farms may be able to take three crops in their stride, it will cause huge inefficiencies in small farms, where it may be uneconomic to grow any one crop on a third of a small acreage. I was struck by the comments of Sarah Dawson, National Chairman of the NFU’s Board for Horticulture. She runs a relatively small farm which concentrates on purple sprouting broccoli. The whole operation — the skills, the management, the staffing, the equipment — are geared to that one crop. She has real depth of experience in that crop, and a high reputation with her customers, including major supermarket groups. Her haulage, logistics and marketing are geared to one crop. We ask farmers to respond to market demand. Sarah Dawson is doing just that, and an arbitrary rule that she should grow something else makes no sense at all.
Nor is it clear what constitutes three crops. Supposing a vegetable grower specialises in brassicas, of which there are many varieties. Do three varieties of brassica represent three crops? Or one? The same evening at a different function I met a farmer who is big in cauliflowers. He has experimented with purple cauliflowers. Are white and purple cauliflowers two crops? Or one? So far, no one knows.
Sometimes a group of small farmers will form a cooperative to farm their adjacent farms as a larger unit, for economies of scale. But if each individual farm is required to triple-crop, those economies of scale are largely vitiated.
The second requirement, for “ecological areas”, amounts to little more than a new name for set-aside. But many UK farmers are already engaged in British environmental stewardship schemes, which involve reserving areas for wild-life. Will farmers be able to count this same land against the new criteria? Or do they have to set aside twice, for the UK scheme and for the EU scheme? Again, no one knows. And the whole concept of set-aside is deeply flawed. We face a world where food supplies are increasingly tight. We worry about food security, and about excessive imports of food that we should be able to grow ourselves. Setting aside good productive land in Lincolnshire at the behest of Brussels is surely folly.
Thirdly, they are asked to create “permanent pasture”. If we’re asking them to create old-fashioned hay meadows full of wild-flowers, all very well (though not very productive). But the pastureland is likely to be cropped early for silage and late for hay, and will grow very few wild-flowers. Meantime it will reduce productivity, and devalue the farmer’s most precious asset — his land.
I suggested that a derogation for smaller farms would help. And there is one — at three hectares, the size of a large pony paddock. 100 hectares would hardly be enough. But there’s a more fundamental question. Why do we think that Commissioner Cioloş, sitting in his air-conditioned office in Brussels, knows more than the local farmer about what a farm should produce in Lincolnshire? The phrase “one size fits all” has become a cliché, yet it surely applies here. I asked several times why the Commissioner wanted triple cropping — but even the NFU seems to have little idea. “Because the public want it” is the nearest we got. But I represent 4.2 million members of the public, and not one of them, ever, has expressed to me his concern about the lack of triple cropping.
Pity the poor farmer, hedged about with rules and tick-boxes and admin, when he just wants to grow food. No wonder it’s proving so difficult to bring young people into the industry, and why the average age of British farmers is — well — very nearly my age.