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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Burying the prospects of hill farmers

It seems that it is not just the Welsh Government that is in trouble with farmers. The Guardian reports that government officials have buried an analysis of the financial prospects for some of the most vulnerable farmers in the UK after realising it was almost entirely bad news:

The analysis was to have been part of an optimistic look at the financial situation for upland farmers, some of the poorest in the country, but minutes from meetings about the plans obtained through a freedom of information request have revealed concerns were raised about the negative findings.

Farming groups said it was “irresponsible” not to make the analysis public after FOI documents showed officials refused to publish it as ministers would not like it.

According to the minutes:

* One official commented: “Could end up with no pathways to success at the end. We only want to publish if we have something which is positive to tell people.”
* Government officials admitted that upland farmers were falling into financial crisis and may go out of business.
* Officials feared that when upland farmers saw the data showing how much money they would make they would sell up.
* Officials believed upland farmers were dismissive of the environment.

Many upland farmers only remain financially viable because of the EU-derived basic payment scheme (BPS), a system that will be completely phased out by 2027.

Post-Brexit farming payments schemes will be given to farmers who restore nature, but they are easier to access for those who own their land. Many upland farmers are commoners or tenants, and many of the most lucrative options under the BPS replacement, such as creating wildflower meadows, improving soil heath and reducing pesticide use, are geared towards lowland arable farms. This means upland farmers have feared losing BPS and being unable to make enough money under the new scheme to make ends meet.

To remedy this situation, ministers asked officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2022 to draw up a “pathways to success scheme” for upland farmers to show different ways to make their farms profitable under the new scheme.

But at a series of meetings that year, officials raised concerns about the financial analysis and the scheme as a whole, and concluded it would be better not to publish them. Various reasons were given, with one official saying it was “a case of waiting for the political situation to settle”. Another said: “[it is] important we make sure ministers are happy with what we put out into the public environment – sensitivities around that.”

One official said in a meeting that they were waiting to find out from Defra “the number of people expected to go out of business”, and added that many would take the opportunity to reduce the size of their farm or sell up. However, they added: “Worry if you include land sales in options – dangerous option to promote. We should be focusing how to keep rural communities there.” Another official said: “Agree, that’s a capital not revenue income – personal choice. Not a pathway to success.”

Those at the meetings also believed that upland farmers, many of whom work in England’s national parks do not care about the environment: “A lot up until now be dismissive of the environmental side – challenge to get good engagement in that.”

Officials concluded: “We are not in a position to share economic analysis for the foreseeable, nor are we able to commit to a particular date where we can share the information.” The information still has not been shared with farmers or the public.

Brexit is not going well, then.
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