Farming Through Brexit: How will leaving the EU affect farmers in and around the South Downs National Park?

photo of Helena Howe

Helena Howe

In this piece Dr Helena Howe (Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex) gives snapshot findings from a pilot study of how the UK leaving the EU will affect Sussex farmers. In addition to outlining findings, Helena sets out potential policy implications of the research, as well as next steps for the project.

Initial snapshot of findings from pilot study

WHAT IS THE STUDY AND WHO IS INVOLVED?

In a way this project started in 2016, just after the vote to leave had been announced. I stood at the base of the Downs talking to a farmer who has worked hard to enhance the wildlife on the farm and is justly proud of his farmland bird populations. But his vision of the future was not a comfortable one. If food prices fell and financial support for farming reduced significantly, he feared being left with no choice but to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the farm; thereby squeezing out the wildlife. A well-designed and funded system of support for farmers and land managers could do much to address the flaws in the existing approaches, buffer uncertain markets and foster sustainable food production in the UK. But the risks of getting it wrong were evident.

Withdrawal from the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to have significant impacts on farmers in the UK. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is currently developing the new regulatory framework for land management, including the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to deliver ‘public payment for public goods’, although there is ongoing uncertainty due to the election and Brexit process.

This is the first stage of a study following a dozen farmers in and around the South Downs National Park until 2024. The aim is to contribute an in-depth, regional exploration of farmers’ lived experience of farming as we leave the EU and their responses to the emerging post-Brexit law and policy.

The research began with this pilot study of six farmers in the Eastern South Downs. The farms involved differ in terms of output, approach and tenure. Four of the farms were described as conventional or commercial, one is organic dairy and another has sustainability firmly integrated with food production. There is a mix of owner-occupiers and tenants.

The farmers were interviewed during summer 2019 and asked for their views on:

  1. the impact of Brexit on their farm business, including the changes to existing payment schemes;
  2. whether the potential changes to their markets and the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) were likely to alter the way they farm;
  3. features of the proposed ELMS and opportunities for participation in the process of development;
  4. any other issue they felt important.

 

WHAT ARE THE INITIAL FINDINGS?

1. Potential impact on the farm business

All the farmers felt uncertainty about the future. Several were extremely concerned about the financial viability of their farms post-Brexit given the lack of information on market conditions – particularly tariffs, food standards and distribution channels – as well as payment schemes. Most felt that without either higher food prices or substantial public good payments their farm business would be in a precarious financial position. One noted that their farms and other risked ‘going bankrupt wholesale’ (Farmer A). Most already relied on diversification to support the farm financially, although several questioned why the return on food production was so low as to make diversification necessary.

For most, removal of income support through Direct Payments and lack of detail around the new ELMS was a major concern. The majority felt that the loss of Direct Payments could be mitigated if payments for ‘public goods’ under the new ELMS were set at a suitably high level. However, most of the group acknowledged the problems with an area-based payment to landowners, particularly the impacts on land prices and rent. Several noted that the position was more challenging for tenant farmers than owner-occupied farms. Some also expressed concern for the new generation entering the sector.

Farming in this region was seen as a mixed blessing. Those who farmed in the South Downs National Park felt that this was a potential benefit under a system of payments for the provision of public goods. Several farmers were critical of the South Downs National Park Authority management of issues, particularly in relation to recreational access and planning.

2. Changes to farming focus and practice

For all but two of the farmers producing food was the priority. Two of the participants felt that food production was vital but more integrated with wider environmental and social goals. All the farmers were aware of the potential impact of their practices on the environment, both positive and negative. Several felt the degree of damage done by farming to the environment was mispresented.

The majority of participants appeared pragmatic about what they would produce and how they would manage their land and livestock in the future. As one farmer stated: ‘…if I need to change something because that’s where the money is, then that’s what I have to do’ (Farmer B). Decisions on what to produce and how they produced it would be largely determined by what was required by the market or any payment schemes. One spoke of willingness to produce wildlife if that was what became financially sensible. However, another was prepared to become more intensive if this was the only way to maintain the viability of the farm, against his personal preference. Another two felt they could accept a system in which conservation was integrated into food production but would not prioritise public goods over food.

The other two were less pragmatic. They felt that their commitment to broader principles of sustainability meant that they would not be willing to intensify if it meant seriously compromising these principles.

A recurring theme was that the costs of producing food were not adequately recognised or reflected in the prices consumers expect to pay. Several farmers noted that income support through Direct Payments to farmers worked to subsidize cheaper food. The loss of these payments and low returns on food mean farmers are being asked to absorb this cost unfairly; in effect being asked to produce public goods – in the form of cheap food – without this being acknowledged or paid for. They felt this was a major issue for them and for the future of the sector.

3. Initial responses to ELMS

There was enormous frustration at how inflexible and prescriptive the existing agri-environment schemes (AES) have been in setting and enforcing objectives. Many felt that there was insufficient account taken of farmers’ knowledge of their farm and that enforcement was unduly harsh.

All felt that to be successful the new scheme must address these issues. Recommendations included:

  • a move to a more outcome- based system: ‘so what they need to do is to put it in our hands and say … “you deliver this and we want to see results”’ (Farmer E);
  • greater flexibility to enable farmers to try different approaches without being penalised;
  • regional implementation and support for ‘sensible’, knowledgeable, local advisors to help co-design a plan for the farm and to monitor achievement.

For one famer the scheme was simply flawed because it focuses on environmental goods and ignores food production.

Four of the six farmers are part of the same farming cluster. Some found the experience useful for peer learning and social interaction but others seemed unsure as to their real value or purpose. The importance of having a good facilitator was mentioned by several participants. There was ambivalence about an enhanced role for clusters under the new ELMS system amongst this group. Some recognised that this could help to provide public goods at the landscape level but were concerned about how this could work in practice. Several farmers stated that everyone wants to do their own thing on their own farm and not be tied into a scheme with other farms.

All but one farmer felt that they had not been enabled to participate in the development of the new scheme sufficiently. Some felt that that their views had not been sought, save via online consultation or by bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). But many also felt they had not been – or would not be – listened to. One farmer mentioned that the South Downs National Park Authority has played a role in feeding their views back to DEFRA. Several famers felt that clusters should be used to feed farmers’ views into policymaking.

4. Additional issues

Several participants highlighted the challenges facing younger entrants into farming, such as access to available land – on which to both farm and live – as well as comparatively low levels of pay. Some linked this to the wider issue of how to support thriving rural communities through planning and communications policies. Others mentioned the move towards plant-based diets. Some noted the vital role of cattle and sheep farming in maintaining the Downs landscape but others were trying out products for the growing vegan market.

One farmer emphasised the role of farming in mitigating environmental and social crises through innovative sustainable practices and opportunities to provide experiences that educate and enhance well-being. He wanted farmers, schools and policymakers to embrace and support this vision.

 

WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL POLICY ASPECTS FOR THE STUDY TO EXPLORE?

  • The funding and design of ELMS is potentially key to maintaining both viability of farms in the region and integration of environment and food production. The research will explore ELMS’ capacity to support farms in the South Downs to produce food alongside public goods.
  • If farmers are pragmatic and adaptable there are opportunities and risks for sustainability. Financial and other support could promote a resilient, sustainable farming sector but insufficient funding, excessive bureaucracy or delays could do the reverse. The challenge is to ensure that farmers adapt to changes in ways that promote ecological sustainability rather than being resilient by intensifying their food production. The study will help understand what farmers feel is needed to enable sustainable adaptations in farming practice.
  • Changes in the delivery of advice, monitoring and enforcement are likely to be key to helping farmers adapt to more sustainable practices and make the most of public funding under ELMS. A shift in the balance towards useful advice and away from inspections could significantly improve farmers’ experience of regulation and motivation to engage. The study will explore the role of advice, what makes valuable advisors and how they can enable farmers to make innovative and beneficial use of a more flexible and reward-based scheme.

    The experience of these farmers validates DEFRA’s aim to enhance flexibility and reward outcomes through ELMS. The research will help evaluate how well farmers feel the developing schemes meet these goals.

  • A role for clusters in the administration of ELMS appears challenging. The study will capture members’ experience of participation and suggestions for working at landscape scale.
  • Policymakers could increase efforts around effective participation in the design of ELMS. This study aims to monitor farmers’ perceptions of this and provide another path for feedback.

 

WHAT NEXT?

Discussion is underway with key policymakers and stakeholders to ensure the study is as useful as possible. Additional recruitment of participants in the project is also taking place.

Please contact: h.r.howe@sussex.ac.uk for further information or to get involved.