Why Taxpayers need a “housemate agreement with Farmers: Guest Blog by Vicki Hird.

US Feedlot Beef production © Socially Responsible Agriculture Project










The dreaded ‘red tape’ and interference in farm decisions under the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is why many UK farmers voted ‘leave’. But I aim to justify the uncomfortable but necessary complexity we will need to cope with after Brexit when we have a new contract or agreement between farmers and the taxpayer.  

It is the elephant in the room. Farmers, NGOs and even new DEFRA head Michael Gove MP is talking up a new farm support system after Brexit where we deliver public money for public goods, productivity, rural resilience and so on. Sustain has published its ideas as have many NGOs. Yet we all keep relatively silent on the hard reality that any such scheme will need to have some pretty great rules, paperwork and enforcement.

We’ll need what could be described as a rather detailed ‘housemate agreement’ so we can live together relatively happily on these crowded isles with all the competing demands being agreed together. Farmers in other countries aren’t always subject to the type of housemate agreement the public wants to see here – they are free to trash their room, let the fridge turn into a biohazard zone, and drive their motorbike into the kitchen.

But can we really have what we are asking for – menus of options, light or dark green payment schemes, broad and shallow, local new markets for natural services and more flexibility and so on, all underpinned by strong but fair regulations – without a more intricate, complex agreement?

Not really. We live squished together on this tiny island with little room to swing a sheep. This is rather unlike, say, the US where space and distance mean few care or check enough and their vast national parks remain (mostly) pristine to be visited and loved. Here we need more care to keep everything humming relatively smoothly; or at least with as little conflict, harm and a decent level of oversight.

We need to find ways to live together with more complicated rules than if we were living far apart. This ‘housemate agreement’ between farmers and the rest of us needs to be tested, flexible, under review and proportionate. Leaving the lid off the bins is only a minor infraction; poisoning the water supply not so much. Treating livestock in a way deemed cruel or unsafe would be a red line in the agreement; and so on…

We need to embrace this reality rather than be scared of it and not let the ease with which schemes will be administered, controlled and verified be the main criteria for choice of scheme.

Certain farm systems like organic have been through the process of developing a comprehensive ‘contract’ and they’ve come out the other side of 50 years of development with a system based approach that is rather handy – a prescription for the whole farm with known results for soils, nature, welfare and so on. It does not lack complexity but organic farmers agree to it because they have a whole-farm, knowledge-based system and gain both from the process and in the market place.

I’ve yet to find anyone keen on saying we want more red tape and most people in the farm policy world say the CAP was too costly, ineffective and too complex. I’ve said that myself many times. The recent EU introduction of the three crop rule – which the ex DEFRA Secretary of State said they’d drop – was interference too far for most farmers here and for some, may have triggered a leave vote. The rule was to diversify cropping to protect over-used EU soils and stop monocultures taking root in Europe which reduce biodiversity, and increase fertiliser use. It was an admirable aim for systemic shifts yet maybe poorly designed. One study suggests the overall impacts, good and bad, are small. We can do better.

But we are just going to have to be realistic. The three crop rule was too simple in design and probably did not fit the farm and landscape scale needed. And taxpayer support will not come without strings- they will want to see results. An agreement will give farmers some decent financial reward in return for some specific actions (for instance to enhance farm biodiversity) plus some form filling and inspections.

As a result, ideally, farmers should get a decent living via the market (and we need better rules there via extending the Grocery Code Adjudicator and other policies) and via taxpayer support for what the market won’t pay. The time taken to do form filling and inspections could be calculated and covered in the agreement. Skills development, mentoring, training and advice also need to be on tap and financed. Let’s get this right. We have time in a transition period, to test and pilot; before the new scheme is due to go live in 2022.

Yes farmers don’t like form-filling, red tape etc. That’s understandable. I also understand that a certain number run unsuccessful businesses – failing on so many counts they maybe should leave farming after Brexit. Their holdings may be swallowed up by another farm, or far better still, available for new entrants or family members better able to deal with new era of markets and a new agreement with taxpayers. If that is a quarter of UK farmers that’s, say 54, 000 businesses that’s a fair few new entrants there…. and the 163,000 current farmers needing to be ready to get into new agreement with the taxpayer, with new, better environmental and health priorities, if they want to.

Finally it is worth remarking that a free trade deal with US is hugely problematic for farming and food. We need that housemate agreement but as noted many farmers overseas will have no such restrictions and can pollute, overstock and spray rather how they want. To stretch the housemate analogy, they don’t even have to empty the bins every other Friday.

Some of our animal welfare and food standards have been long fought for and should not be compromised in order to make a deal with US. Some farmers here may be lucky or big enough to compete and gain a new or bigger market via new trade agreements and may decide they don’t need taxpayer support but they will still need to adhere to baseline legal standards. How much better to embrace the new era and get a positive, forward thinking, ideally multi-annual agreement with the taxpayer. This will help to protect this crowded island, its population and its precious soils, landscapes and wildlife.

Vicki Hird is Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy at Sustain

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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14 Responses to Why Taxpayers need a “housemate agreement with Farmers: Guest Blog by Vicki Hird.

  1. Dan Crossley says:

    As Vicki says, we shouldn’t be afraid of embracing complexity (easier said than done, you might say, but nature is inherently complex!). We need to work at landscape scales and somehow foster genuine participation of people in & around those places (in the spirit of http://www.foodcitizenship.info) rather than it be a ‘transactional’ deal between farmers and ‘taxpayers’ (which makes it all about handing money over). Answers on a postcard for how to do that….

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks Dan thats very much it and bringing in citizen consumer thinking is right. I hesitated to write the blog as maybe too soon but we need to be in the right frame of thinking to work on detail and making it ‘less complex’ (often heard) is not the right way to approach it.

  2. Sue Redshaw says:

    Thank you, Vicki, for this thought-provoking article. To the outsider, which I am, the whole issue of farming, animal welfare and the environment is a real challenge to get my head round! One question: what is a ‘multi-annual’ agreement?

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks Sue. I hope more people get involved and interested in farming and why and how we support it. Can only make the debate better.

  3. stevecjjones says:

    Great blog, Vicki. I’ve personally given land managemnent advice to quite a few farmers within to enter the (old) Countryside Stewardship scheme and, even in thse days of relative simplicity, the scheme was hidiously complicated, with a baffling aray of prescriptions. This only got ‘worse’ with Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship, and worse still, I gather, with Countryside Stewardship mark two. It’s no wonder that most farmers entering ELS opted for the simplest set of prescriptions they could get away with which, unforetunately, meant they left out the full mix needed to deliver the benefits (for example, ELS agreements only really work for farmland birds if you pick some of the better in-field arable options). I’ve sinse worked on Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) agreements in the Andes and these are typically so much simpler, more popular and more effective than the monster agre-env schemes we’ve bodged together in the UK!

    Anyway, the point I was actually going to make will be an unpopular one I think: let’s not assume that all farmland needs to remain as farmland. Where I live, I’m surrounded by basically zero-yielding farmland that’s only kept open as ‘farmland’ because you have to do that to get the subsidy cheque. Historically, farming has been incentivised to ‘sprawl’ into completely unsuitable marginal landscapes, and, to my mind, we should not invent a new post-CAP scheme that perpetuates the sprawl. In the Andes, the PES schemes are often designed to withdraw agriculture from very marginal areas and thereby deliver ecosystem services other than food. That’s one reason why such schemes are so simple – they don’t need a huge array of prescribed options – just a payment per hectare and support to set up a community tree nursery (the areas from which farming is withdrawn are converted back to forest via assisted natural regeneration). NGOs come in and help land owners with nature-based tourism development too.

    My point in summary is, let’s have a scheme that delivers sensitive farming in some areas, and allows other, marginal areas, to revert back to natural land cover with other uses (such as public access, wildlife recovery etc).

    • Hi Steve, We were in the old CSS scheme and decided not to renew it in 2013. Since then we’ve felt in a better position to manage the land better and have seen more of the target species present since leaving as a result. As such I’d like farmers to be put back in control of management and paid according to the results they achieve, not paid to basically stick to some cutting and grazing prescriptions that are applied at national level and do not take into account different seasons, weather and stocking regimes or local conditions, regardless of whether they achieve anything.

      • Vicki hird says:

        Thanks steve and rib I think your comments kind of confirm what I was saying. It needs to be a site specific and flexible agreement. Complex and workable and effective not simple expensive and ineffective. V

      • Completely agree with this. We’ll see as we go through the next few years but, frustratingly, new countryside stewardship seems to follow a copy and paste approach to land management and doesn’t allow the flexibility needed for individual situations. Willing to give it a chance, but any future scheme desperately needs to have flexibility at its centre.

  4. Great blog, Vicki. For me I think we need to strike the right balance between strong laws that ensure (high) minimum standards (for the environment and farm animal welfare for example), a clear, trajectory setting national policy goals, and light touch implementation frameworks that leave room for innovation and ownership by farmers and land managers. We need regulation in the right place, to empower and create change, rather than just forcing it all onto farmers. 
    The primary admin burden should be on schemes and implementation authorities, who should then work with farmers to find creative ways to deliver individual progress against goals set out in a national framework for excellence. We should also utilise data collection, on farm and, for example, at the abattoir, to measure and monitor outcomes. 
    Farmers must embrace the public good narrative, and recognise that in the future they will be paid to restore natural capital and public trust, as well as to produce food. 

    • Vicki hird says:

      Thanks ffinlo. That makes sense where main burden falls – and resources need to be there for that . though farmers may need to be realistic and supported in the transition.

  5. I like the housemates agreement analogy but here I feel the analysis is rather lacking in one important aspect – the opposite side of the agreement! A mutual agreement between the public and farmers will break down if either side fails to pull it’s weight.

    In addition to putting the lid on the bins, looking after the animals and not poisoning the water farmers need assurance that the housemates have equal respect for the environment we all share. Simple things like putting a dog on a lead, flytipping and buying the produce at the end of it are all areas that need a lot of work.

    I favour putting the management back into the hands of the farmer to manage the land as they see fit. Some clear objectives need to be set out, with realistic goals to which we can all work towards. Payments, or rewards, should only come for the results, not the methods – it doesn’t matter when or how we graze a field if it worked in achieving the desired outcomes.

    As a farmer I don’t mind red tape, form filling, abiding by the rules etc., providing I can afford to administer it and it is practical to do so. At present we have a situation where you can do all the right things, tick the right boxes, encourage the right species, yet you’re no more guaranteed a market for your produce (in a country less than 60% self-sufficient in food) than the housemate who trashes the place. That is the real heart of the problem.

    • Vicki hird says:

      Dear Rob, those are fair points about regulations. Should be adhered to and enforced both ways. I did not mention that as took as given but I know dog attacks and fly tipping etc big problems. Given we hope taxpayer rewards practices (and I think there is case for prescription as well as outcome based) the agreement is rather one way financially so need to show how they can benefit as well as contribute. But your point is well made. I hope we get a constructive debate.

      • At the end of the day the only reason why we need taxpayer subsidies to encourage beneficial behaviour is because the consumer does not support it in their buying habits. Farmers and the public are often pitched against eachother, but when it comes down to it no farmer is acting alone – any act of eco-vandalism is backed by the people who buy the produce. Subsidies protect the environment from the consumer more so than the farmer, who only survives if he/she supplies what the public demands.

  6. Pingback: LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner Vicki Hird | a new nature blog

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