What next for British agriculture: Farmers and food businesses reflect on Brexit

With only days left before our scheduled departure from the European Union, Brexit is looming large on the horizon. As talk of transition, hard borders and ‘no-deal’ spreads, we want to find out how farmers and food businesses across the country are feeling about the future of UK agriculture. What threats and opportunities do they see? Has their perspective changed since 2016? What specific issues are their businesses facing, and what has the UK Government done to address those concerns? We’ve invited farmers and food businesses across the UK to share their thoughts.

Nathan Richards runs Troed y Rhiw Organics, a 23 acre mixed organic farm with a focus on horticulture, with his wife Alicia Miller. Based in rural West Wales, the farm’s ethos is built around a belief in the necessity of farming sustainably in the 21st century. This means a whole farm holistic approach to food production which starts with the microbial worlds within soils and encompasses everything from habitat protection and creation, to the role that the farm has within the local community. The business is focused on ‘hyper’ local food, serving the immediate community through a box scheme, local producer’s market and retail outlets such as restaurants and health-food stores.

Nathan sat on the steering group for the Soil Association’s Future Growers apprenticeship programme until 2017, when the apprenticeships ended. He is keenly interested in how we support new entrants into farming and the importance of ensuring farming is a viable profession for future generations. He currently sits on the Soil Association’s Farmer and Grower Board and is also active in The Landworker’s Alliance Cymru.

“As a small-scale grower in the UK, I think I have a somewhat different perspective. We’re not so worried about the increasing cost of imports – it could help people realise the value of a relocalised economy for British produce that can compete better against the globalised food supply chain. But the prospect of rising inflation and interest rates if we crash out of the EU without some kind of agreement, is scary – we have a large business loan on the farm and we just about manage to pay it every month. And that’s not to mention the potential chaos that such a Brexit would inevitably bring.

The Welsh Assembly Government does appear committed to Environment Secretary, Michael Gove’s lead – to create a more sustainable food system for the country, basing subsidies on good environmental practice. This is bolstered by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which is remarkably forward thinking. The tiny ray of hope in the Brexit fiasco, is that it might open the door to a better way of farming which protects the environment and feeds people actual fresh food again.

There is a perception that Wales isn’t a place where vegetables are grown – while there is production on the Welsh borders, it’s certainly not as widely recognised as a horticultural centre as the east of the UK is. There is increasing awareness of the importance of growing in Wales with initiatives like Tyfu Cymru to support commercial horticulture and Peas Please encouraging children to eat vegetables. We run a vegetable box scheme and it’s really eye-opening in terms of understanding people’s veg consumption. We have very loyal customers, but we also have a lot of people who join for a few months and then drop off because they can’t hack eating a lot of veg. This needs to change since the rise of obesity, particularly among children, can only be addressed by better, healthier eating and more activity and that really needs to be at the forefront of policy.

I really feel that we have to re-visualise a credible food system as comprised of small parts – including farmers and growers with under 5 hectares of land. The days of monocropped big agriculture must end; we have to return to good mixed rotational farming practice and take a holistic agroecological approach to farming which cares for all the flora and fauna on the farm as well as what we grow. Post-Brexit, there could be a lot more room to build local food economies that not only feed people, but also offer quality local employment. We have always committed to training the next generation of growers in part to fill the skills gap in organic horticulture production in the country, and so have offered paid apprenticeships. Because to my mind, if we become a society that has forgotten how to produce its own food, what are we?”

Sustainable Food Trust’s response

Nathan’s vision of a relocalised food system is one that the SFT heartily supports. The industrialised supermarket supply chain model has created a huge distance between the farmer and the consumer and this has disconnected society from its food system. We need to work to rebuild that connection. Innovation and technology can help with this, with new platforms (such as Farmdrop) working to connect farmers with urban consumers and create shorter supply chains that allow farmers to sell directly without the need for middlemen. However, more traditional forms such as farmshops, box schemes and local markets are most immediately placed to rebuild that relationship.

Nathan outlines a future for Welsh horticulture that is built on sustainable practices and ecosystem health that is designed to enhance natural and human capital. We applaud him for the work that he is doing to support the revitalisation of the sector in Wales, that has seen a significant decline. With rising obesity and a crisis of non-communicable diseases, it is critical that society begins to examine how diet impacts public health and how we can support farmers to grow healthy foods for healthy diets. To achieve the systemic shift towards more sustainable farming methods, we need to unlock the barriers to change and encourage farmers to adopt agricultural practices that serve the public interest, in terms of its impacts on both the environment and public health. If implemented correctly, the Government’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme could help to deliver this shift by paying farmers for public goods.

However, the ability for the UK to deliver such a shift may be dramatically impacted by its departure from the EU. While Nathan’s business model is certainly less exposed by the UK’s exit from the EU, he is right to identify that there is still a risk that his business would be seriously impacted by a no-deal Brexit, despite his focus on local markets. If the UK exits the EU without an agreed deal, the damage to the national economy will be wide-spread and will impact the entire business sector – Nathan included. Questions about how farmers plan and adapt their business models to meet the potential impacts of Brexit are becoming critical, with only a few days left before the March 29th deadline.

For more on the SFT’s position on the Agriculture Bill, our policy paper is available here.

This series is not meant to endorse particular businesses or farms, but rather seeks to offer a variety of perspectives on the impact of Brexit on agriculture and the food supply chain.

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