Would EU exit render our farms unviable?

Hans Porksen
Hans Porksen

The chairman of the farmers’ union in Northumberland has painted a bleak picture of the industry’s future if Britain votes to leave the EU.

His comments came after yesterday’s release of a report, commissioned by the NFU, on the implications of a Brexit on British agriculture.

The union commissioned a world-leading agricultural research institute to assess the possible effects of a number of different trade and agricultural support policies which would, in theory, be open to the UK Government in the event of an out vote in June.

The three scenarios examined are a free-trade agreement (FTA) between the EU and the UK, the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) default position and a trade liberalisation approach for the UK.

Under the latter scenario, farm incomes could fall on average by €36,000.

Northumberland NFU county chairman, Hans Pörksen, said: “A loss of €36,000 on a farmer’s income will mean that most of the farms in Northumberland will become impossible to live on.

“Currently, many farmers are supported by one of the partners earning money from non-farming occupations.

“What will happen is older farmers will retire, farms will turn into large ranch-type operations and there could be land just left, unfarmed. This happened in the 1930s when many farmers went bankrupt.

“The countryside we all love and admire will change forever without a viable agricultural industry.”

Under all three scenarios, the report states that farm incomes would fall, but this is dependent on whether direct support for farmers is retained, reduced or eliminated.

A fortnight ago, Farming Minister, George Eustice, said: “The UK Government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support – or perhaps even more – as they get now.

“The Prime Minister has made that clear and I agree with him. After all, non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway actually give more support to their farmers than we do.”

Meanwhile, writing in this week’s Gazette, Berwick MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was this week asked to join the national board of Vote Leave, said that the funding argument ‘has been used to attempt to scare farmers into voting to remain, even though if we left we would be able to give farmers more money and develop a system which doesn’t penalise them as the present, bureaucratic EU system does’.

The NFU report concludes: ‘The results of each scenario show that the biggest driver of UK farm income change is the level of public support payments available.

‘The positive price impacts on farm incomes seen through both the FTA and WTO default scenarios would be offset by reductions in direct support.

‘A reduction of direct support, or a complete elimination of it, would exacerbate the negative impact effects seen under the UK trade liberalisation scenario.

‘The cattle and sheep sectors are particularly dependent on direct support payments, but so too are mixed farms and field crops.

‘Consequently, the combination of a more liberal trade policy and a reduction or elimination of direct support would make many British farms less viable’.