For many months we have all been hearing from government that post-Brexit farm support systems under the Common Agricultural Policy will be replaced by “public funds for public goods”. That might seem reasonable enough, but how exactly will it happen . . . and how will it impact on our local farmers in Dorset ?
Initially it seemed that an Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme would be devised to achieve this. That is now “work in progress” so more recently the government has announced plans for a transition scheme prior to rolling out the ELM. Called the Sustainable Farming Incentive it seems mainly geared to farmers not already involved in any current agri-environment scheme. Farmers will probably be required to work towards the government’s environmental and net zero goals to qualify for funding. The aims of the Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme indicate that a reasonably large number of farmers should be able to qualify.
However on Dorset’s low-lying, well hedged, grassland farms – such as exist all across the Blackmore Vale – it is difficult to envisage exactly how such farms will be able to suddenly start delivering public goods over and above what they offer now. They form a key part of the Dorset landscape, but the government needs to remember that the rationale for such farms is their capacity to produce food – primarily from livestock and dairy production. Often the field size – as well as the farm size – is not large. In many cases they are family farms without the resource to deploy staff on to any work that is peripheral to the daily slog of getting cows milked, calves reared, slurry stored and spread, and grassland managed for grazing and silage.
I suspect that encouragement of “farm diversification” will soon resurface as a device for government ducking its responsibility to achieve optimum self-sufficiency in domestic food production. Some Dorset farmers have been very successful at diversification – farmhouse accommodation, farm shops, and even racehorse training all spring to mind ! But these are not options available to everyone, and without the right expertise can lead to financial disaster.
Climate change and Brexit probably makes it inevitable that farming will have to change. Covid is a further complication – not least as the funds promised for the farming industry will have to come from greatly depleted government resources. For those of us who value both our rural landscapes and local farm products the years ahead could well be very challenging.
If we want to keep our farmed landscape we have to think hard how we best support local farmers. However controversial it might seem paying more for our home-produced food may have to be one future option.
Shaun Leavey OBE FRAgS
Farming Adviser Dorset CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England)