"Risk of over-commercialisation"
Farming in Devon is in danger of being over-commercialised after the introduction of a series of government schemes that reward farmers for looking after the environment.
This is the view of North Devon Cllr Jeremy Yabsley (Conservative, Witheridge), who says some farmers are not gaining anything from the programmes.
When the UK was in the European Union, many farmers were paid subsidies based on the amount of land they owned. Now the government is planning a scheme called the sustainable farming incentive (SFI), through which farmers are rewarded for managing livestock and land in an environmentally friendly way.
Cllr Yabsley says larger farming businesses will benefit most because they have the space and the resources. However, he believes farmers with less capacity will struggle to meet the demands of the programme and will therefore get few dividends from it.
“We’re actually going backwards in terms of nature recovery, because they can’t get anything out of the new scheme, so they’re not going to bother with it,” he said at a joint planning policy committee of Torridge District Council on Friday [27 January].
“The commercial people – the bigger people – they’re making money, so they’re not interested. The people trapped with small family farms that are relying on the subsidy schemes to survive – there are quite a few of them. But my sense is it’s all aimed at the bigger units because they’ve got the room to do what’s required and they can pay someone to do the paperwork.
“I can see farming even in Devon just going down the commercial route, and sucking up everything else. And in fact we’ve gone backwards to be honest, except for those few smaller units who are focusing on nature recovery.”
The most recent scheme announced by the government is the environment land management (ELM) programme, which is essentially a Brexit replacement for the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP).
It works in a similar way to the ISF in that farmers receive public funding for using sustainable methods such as chemical-free pest control and looking after the natural environment such as hedgerows and grassland.
But Cllr Robert Hicks (Independent, Monkleigh and Putford) feels it might not have the desired effect, as farmers cannot afford the time to focus on such environmental schemes.
“Agriculture is starting to take a hiding,” he said. “The stewardship schemes that the government has introduced are okay for the green farmer who is quite happy to wander around with a dog and stick and produce little or nothing.
“The commercial boys don’t want to know it, because it intrudes on their method of farming to an extent that they just can’t afford to do it.
“Now, you might say they’re making money. They’ve had a good 12 months. I saw a letter last night where our biggest cheese producer in the area was, from yesterday, reducing their price by nine pence a litre. That is, I don’t know what it is, a 20 per cent drop overnight.
“The last time we saw drops like this was the twenties, a hundred years ago. And we know what a fine shambles it was after that.”
Cllr Hicks also described farming in Devon as “a mess,” and that the current climate is going to “drive people out” of the sector.