Brexit For Farmers

BY JIM WEBSTER

They always say that timing is the secret of good comedy, and frankly it’s the secret of success in agriculture as well. I knew two chaps who retired after a lifetime in dairy farming. For a tenant, selling your dairy herd basically pays for the house you have to buy.

The two men were much of an age; their herds were pretty much the same. Yet the first got an average of £1,100 a cow, the other chap who retired two years later averaged about £600 a cow.

Why the difference? A mixture of things, most of which wouldn’t even make the papers, politicians tweaking EU dairy policy, supermarkets cementing their dominance in UK milk sales, there were currency fluctuations, all sorts of things.

But what it meant was that one chap had £66,000 to show for a life-time’s work, the other had £36,000.

I know another chap who kept farming for a few extra years in an attempt to build up a bit more capital. He worked out that because of those five years, with dairy cow prices falling and the EU decision to end milk quota leading to a collapse in the price, he’d effectively knocked £30,000 off his capital for the privilege of working the extra five years.

Obviously there are swings and roundabouts. I came to the conclusion that we managed to survive the whole EU quota scheme without gaining or losing on it. Some people who retired and sold their quota when it was at its height did OK. Still, no matter how good you are at the job, whether you get out of the job with a home and a decent pension is pretty much blind luck.

It’s one reason why I’m watching the Brexit negotiations with no real sense of panic. For a start they haven’t actually started negotiating yet, we’re still at the posturing stage.

Take the Northern Ireland border issue. How on earth can you decide what sort of border is needed until you have agreed what sort of trade agreement there is between the EU and UK. If I was Theresa May I’d just offer the Irish Republic free-trade and promise them that as long as they stay out of the Schengen agreement there won’t be a border.

As for the insistence that the European Court of Justice should deal with matters regarding EU citizens in the UK after we leave, frankly it’s a nonsense. I’d love to see what the Canadians would say if the EU insisted on it as part of the terms of a trade deal. The EU cannot expect any sovereign state to agree to it.

But at some point the posturing will have to stop and then they’ll have to agree something. I very much doubt that they’ll manage to achieve an agreement before the two years is up. Given the structure of the EU they probably couldn’t get all member states to sign up to a deal in that period. So far we’ve seen the Spanish threaten to veto any agreement that doesn’t solve what they see as the Gibraltar problem, whilst the latest thing I heard was the Greeks want the Elgin marbles back as the price for their agreement. It’ll take more than two years for the Commission to negotiate the agreement with the member states.

So we’ll ‘crash out’.

Probably, but don’t let the hysteria worry you. Nothing is ever as good as they promise and nothing is ever as bad as they threaten it will be.

Take the Brexit vote as an example, instead of the collapse of civilisation we were promised, Cumbria has done quite well. A low pound has boosted tourism and pushed the sheep price up nicely. I know somebody who started their flock last autumn and is selling their first lamb crop this year and is doing very nicely. This sort of boost can get a business nicely on its feet.

But why am I not worrying about Brexit? Well in the last thirty years I’ve had EU/Government ;-

  • Retrospectively impose milk quotas
  • Inflict their management of two major FMD outbreaks on us
  • We had the BSE fiasco
  • We had the fiasco that was the single farm payment system
  • We’ve seen Bovine TB go from being a minor problem in a few parishes to being endemic across vast swathes of the country

If I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, any one of those could have screwed us financially. For example during BSE outbreak there were more farmer/butcher suicides than there were people who died of the disease.

If I was the sort of person who took it personally I might claim that pretty well twice a decade the EU/Government has done its best to leave me homeless.

Brexit? Yeah well, whatever. It’s only governments; don’t confuse it with real life.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quadbikes and dogs) It’s available here.

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