Arable Matters by Brian Henderson

Well, the 10 minutes spent removing the last of the harvest grime from the tractor windows at the start of the week as the driller took to the fields, was time well spent.

For it was a joy to have a clear view of the countryside as I drilled wheat on a bright mid-September day, with the harvest finished and the low sun drying the ground between myself and the plough working out in front of me.

It was warm in the cab too and around the field edges only the faintest signs of yellows and reds in leaves of the trees hinted that summer was slipping into autumn.

Even the buzzard being mobbed by reeling rooks as they circled in a blue sky dotted with cotton-wool clouds seemed to hint at things being set fair for the coming season of mist and mellow fruitfulness.

But even on such an idyllic day it was difficult to ignore the post-Brexit storm clouds rolling our way.

For I’ve simply got to ask – has anyone else been feeling a wee shiver running down their spine since Michael Gove revealed his long anticipated proposals for a Green Brexit in the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill a couple of weeks ago?

For, to be honest, I would have thought that the plans to do away with almost all support for food production which lie at the heart of the bill would have had the English NFU squealing like a stuck pig. Maybe I’ve just have been reading the wrong papers, but despite a few grumbles, there doesn’t seem to be any major panic over the proposed approach south of the border.

Now I’m quite aware that, with agriculture being a devolved matter, the plans for England won’t necessarily apply to us up here in Scotland. While we might get there by a different route and maybe take longer to get there, I rather suspect that there’s likely to be a deal of convergence in approach as the years go by.

Indications are that current support measures will be phased out over seven years in England – and area-based payments will be a thing of the past. I say 'indications' because not only is the bill highly complex – but it also seems to be written in a language understood only by peri-wigged 18th century lawyers, so arcane and legalistic are the terms and clauses used in the Bill that I suspect few outside the rarified fields of law-makers would be able to understand it, let alone work out the ramifications.

(All of which makes a bit of a mockery of the claim that Brussels has been responsible for making these things unduly complicated over the past forty odd years.)

But while former Lib-Dem leader, Tim Farron, called the bill a 'seven-year notice to quit' for farmers, most of the rest of the industry in England would appear to be poring over the legal dictionaries before putting on the gloves for a fight-back.

They’ll better get their act together, though, for while the bill is no more than that at the moment – and is open to amendments at a range of stages before it is put onto the statute book – it will require a lot of countering to overcome public sentiment for the direction of travel away from farm support towards environmental payments.

Okay, so the change isn’t going to happen overnight. But, south of the Border the payment is currently somewhere around £228 a ha, or £92 an acre, so losing that is going to make quite a big dent in any farm’s returns and would more than likely plunge most cereal growers, even in England’s green and pleasant land, well into the red.

And that’s going to come at a time when we’ll be struggling to come to terms with the implications of whatever trade deal is – or isn’t – cobbled together with the EU after Brexit.

Okay, so a fall in the value of sterling might give some cushioning, but it’s unlikely to fill the gaping hole in our finances. While there might be opportunities to cut back on what we spend on inputs, fertiliser and spray prices are likely to become more expensive if the value of sterling drops.

Rents and land values are obvious areas for growers to cut back – but over the years it has become patently obvious that the logic of this course isn’t always followed.

Of course, we shouldn’t discount the fact that the cropping sector will still be able to key into at least some of the environmental payments which will replace the area payments. However, as a leading consultant recently pointed out, the current basic payments can pretty much be added straight to a farm’s profit line as little over and above the normal practices associated with growing crops really needs to be done to earn them.

'Public money for public goods' will mean something has to be done, though – which will be some task undertaken or other sources of income foregone to qualify for the payments. Despite the fact that good agriculture and good environmental practices do sometimes go hand in hand, the glib claims of 'win/win situations' seldom bear scrutiny and it will be almost inevitable that producing public goods will have a business cost associated with it.

The other big hole in the Bill was the lack of any commitment on the levels of payments. Although the promise that they would remain the same until the end of the current administration was once more repeated, the chances of that continuing until 2022 now look slim. Most sources believe that even in its new green guise, support spending is likely to fall by between 50 and 60% by 2030.

Interestingly, the new, greener proposals were released in the same week as a major scientific report found that fairly intensive agriculture was the 'least worst' option for feeding a hungry world. This is mainly because, compared with what are often viewed as more environmentally-friendly production options, the higher yields achieved mean that less land is required to be under the plough in order to feed a growing world population, so more natural habitats can be left unmolested.

Of course, despite this scary picture painted by Gove’s vision of the future of farming, it has at least given the industry in England something to get its teeth into and to marshal its forces for either fighting them or adapting to them.

Up here in Scotland, however, we still wait for the Scottish Government to play its hand on this front – and without a clear view of what lies before us we remain in limbo, unable to focus our thoughts and plan ahead.

If only it was a simple as cleaning the windows to get a better view …