A farmer’s guide to Brexit

I promised a Brexit two-parter with a second post on agriculture, so that’s what I aim to deliver. It’s clear that the Brexit issue is going to reverberate for a long time to come, but I think I’d better start pressing the fade button on it for a while after this. Funny how quickly it’s flipped from a slow-burning issue of the disgruntled fringe in both main parties to a fast-burning issue of the disgruntled mainstream. Looking back at my pre-referendum predictions, I thought a Brexit result would cause strife in the Tory party, which it has. What I didn’t predict, though perhaps it’s obvious with hindsight, is that it would also lead to a full-on meltdown in the Labour Party. Compare the way the two parties have handled the fallout: on the right, the smooth and ruthless excision of Johnson and now probably Gove as a threat to Tory ruling hegemony; on the left, a massive and possibly terminal public brawl. Those who see Brexit as an opportunity to reshape our politics for the better, which includes me to some extent, have got their work cut out. I also failed to perceive how, especially outside Britain, many in the heterodox leftist circles where I usually find my inspiration would side with the neoliberals in heralding the Brexit vote as some kind of victory, rather than just another perplexing lurch in the long-term crisis. At issue, I think, are different notions of political sovereignty, on which I’ll have more to say later in the year.

Something that I did predict was the delusional excess currently parading across the country and its political talk shows: Britain is important once again, a great trading nation that now has a free hand to direct the flow of money and limit the flow of people. If the Brexiteers succeed in those dual objectives then it’s game, set and match for neoliberalism in the UK. But I doubt they will, so I feel reasonably relaxed about putting up with the current victory party. It’ll be over soon enough, and then things will get more serious. Perhaps the question is, as David Hare puts it, whether we’ll have politicians who are serious enough to cope with the aftermath.

Anyway, I’m just a humble farmer so let me leave all that aside and say a little about how this might pan out agriculturally. Policy wonkery isn’t really my forte, and neither is accurate prediction, so it seems. But let me hazard a few guesses about the agricultural landscape of a post-Brexit Britain…

The first point to make, along the lines of Tim Lang in this interesting commentary (interesting also for the mixture of wise and foolish comments beneath the article, including the good old vertical farming fallacy) is that food and farming are just about the biggest ticket items within the entire EU but got almost no coverage in the referendum campaign, except obliquely in terms of immigration issues. A case of “let’s quit the EU, and then start figuring out the implications”.

I think those implications are going to be quite troubling for farmers, consumers and Brexit negotiators. But a lot will depend on the shape of the Tory government that takes us out of the EU. My best guess (which on present form probably isn’t a very good one) is that the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers will be a more dominant hue in the post-Cameron Tory party. My predictions below are based on that assumption.

A brief statistical interlude – the following three figures are worth bearing in mind: The average annual earnings in the UK are around £25,500; the average annual farmer’s earnings are around £19,500; and, three-quarters of the latter comes from support payments1.

So let me now take a few wild punts on how all this will play out:

Small-scale farmers: plus ça change. Britain has the largest-scale and most straightforwardly market-oriented agriculture of any EU country. After the last round of CAP negotiations, the British government could have chosen to keep basic farm payments for small farmers, cap maximum payments for large ones, and use the CAP framework and other trading mechanisms to support local small-scale farming in other ways. But it didn’t. In that sense, small-scale commercial farmers who are still in business may be Brexit-proofed ahead of the curve. But we also mostly focus on high value niche products which are quite income elastic. So if the post-Brexit economy bombs, then so might we.

Large-scale lowland farmers. Despite all the promises of the Brexiteers, I can’t see basic farm payments lasting much beyond the 2020 election. Their days are probably numbered in the EU too, but here in Britain we won’t be able to afford them, they’re not in keeping with the neoliberal faith, and there aren’t many farmers anyway, so their votes don’t matter much (besides, who else are they going to vote for – Jeremy Corbyn?) On the upside, a lot of that meddlesome EU environmental regulation will probably go too, which will save a bit of money. Expect more dead fish in the River Frome, and in other waterways the length and breadth of the country. Fuel and fertilizer prices, grain prices – ooh, it’s a knife-edge, but I’m sure a lot of the big guys will pull through. The schmooze factor between Big Agri and the Tory government will increase exponentially (expect pedestrian disruption between Nos. 16 and 17 Smith Square due to pavement repairs). But I’m not sure it’ll make much difference in the end.

Big Landowners. In his article Tim Lang takes a gentle sideswipe at George Monbiot for overdoing his CAP-as-a-subsidy-to-the-rich schtick. I’m with Tim on this, even though George is right that the CAP does function as an outrageously regressive negative income tax for wealthy landowners. But George tends to underplay the fact that, within Europe, it mostly functions as a subsidy to consumers and retailers (note earnings figures above). In any case, with Brexit I think the big landowning wing of the Tory party will lose out to the swivel-eyed neoliberals. But I’m not sure how much it’ll care. Tenant farmers are a pain in the backside anyway. Big landowners will most likely line up with all the current ‘getting our country back’ tosh, position themselves as custodians of the timeless English landscape and find other ways to cash in. They’re good at that sort of thing. They’ve been practicing it for, like, a thousand years.

Upland stock farmers. Hard times are in store when the subsidy regimen dies and the winds of neoliberalism blow harder. Ironically, perhaps the New Zealand sheep farmers who suffered in the 1970s when Britain tightened the screws on its EU membership (or EEC as it was then) will return the favour now we’re leaving it. But some of the British upland farmers will survive because, like the aristocracy, the peasantry is adept at hanging on to what it has. The lightening of the regulatory burden may help. So more dead fish, then. Don’t expect much rewilding or watershed management, unless it’s undertaken for free by Mother Nature on abandoned upland farms.

Dairy farmers. The final death knell for medium-scale family dairy farming? And no more generous grants for converting to indoor robotic systems. So a game for giant corporate players. But also perhaps some spaces opening up for low-impact micro-dairying?

Conservation policies and environmental regulation: you’re joking, right? (See Miles King for details).

A national food policy: are you some kind of communist? Read my lips: no centralised planning unless we have absolutely no other option. Which may turn out to be the case (see below).

Energy: I doubt there’ll be enough in the kitty for the new reactor at Hinkley Point, and negotiating with EDF just got harder. I also doubt that the instinctive Tory hatred towards renewable energy of any kind will change much. And now we’re out of the EU we don’t have to ratify that silly Paris climate deal. So I’d predict lots of fracking and open-cast Welsh coal. Probably not enough to keep us ticking over, but there’s a chap called Putin knocking at the door with some excellent deals up his sleeve. They seem a bit too good to be true, to be honest, but surely it would be madness to say no?

Horticulture: now that we’ve got our country back, will British consumers want to buy more British fruit and veg? I’m not so sure. They’ll have their job cut out anyway, because we import most of it from abroad (the EU, principally). And the stuff we do produce is heavily dependent on the kind of footloose migrant labour working long hours in hard jobs for low pay that we’re supposed to be getting rid of. Though a good deal of it is organised by criminal gangmasters who are unlikely to be affected by whatever edicts are issued out of Westminster. But maybe more horticulture jobs will open up for British people. What’s the betting that after further onslaughts on trade unions and labour legislation a good number of Brits will find themselves lying nose-to-stolon on giant picking rigs supplying strawberries for their favoured politicians’ jaunts to the tennis at Wimbledon, and will then vote the Lib Dems in at the next election in order that we rejoin the EU and bring the migrants back? Stranger things have happened. Though not many, to be honest. Anyway, rising fruit and veg prices are a fair bet for the future, turning them into luxury items that’ll be increasingly beyond the means of ordinary people. But that might foment an allotment movement, and once the smell of the veg patch is in people’s nostrils then peasant insurrection is never far away.

An ecomodernist calls: what this all seems to point to is that Britain could become a giant laboratory for ‘land-sparing’ ecomodernism, with its uplands re-wilded by default and intensive, large-scale, grain-heavy farming in the lowlands. Expect Mike Shellenberger to be flying in soon for another meeting with Owen Paterson (will Paterson soon be stalking the corridors of DEFRA once again, or is that just another Bremain scare story?) In terms of the ecomodernist agenda, the roll-out of GM crops in the UK is probably now a foregone conclusion, so we can look forward to the end of weeds and pests and the feeding of the poor and needy. But as I said before, new nuclear is probably off the agenda for the time being until we’ve saved a bit more cash. Mike, could you bring some piggybanks over with you?

Food prices and food policy: In summary, I imagine that we’ll keep churning out the wheat, barley and oilseed rape in the short-term until all our best agricultural soil has been washed into the English Channel (it’s OK to call it that again, right?) But food prices will probably rise, especially for things that require work to grow and actually taste nice: fruit, vegetables, meat and such. And our national food self-sufficiency will probably continue to dwindle, necessitating increased food imports bought with a weaker pound on less advantageous trading terms. As climate change, more populist government and trade protectionism begin to make their influence felt around the world the UK government will suddenly panic about the parlous state of the food supply and appoint a safe pair of hands to pilot a national food security policy – Boris Johnson, perhaps? And as we know from Johnson’s antics to date, anything could happen after that. My prediction is that he’ll target the planning system as a dastardly communistic impediment to free enterprise. The last time the Tories took a look at the planning system they ditched decades-worth of meticulous planning guidance in favour of a short document that they knocked out on the back of a beermat as they walked home from the pub. This time they’ll probably throw out the beermat too. And then, my friend, every acre of these fair isles will be ripe for a sturdy peasant farmer to fight it out with the aristocrats and property developers to take possession. What’s that you say? Who on earth in this day and age has a plan for how Britain could feed itself through peasant farming? Well, I’m glad you asked me that…


1. Figures from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/datasets/averageweeklyearningsearn01 and Wood, Z. 2016 ‘Figures that add up to higher food prices’ Guardian 04.07.16

20 thoughts on “A farmer’s guide to Brexit

  1. I think we might be able to forward some beermats for future planning sessions if you find fellow Islanders in need of such.

    Hunger is a great motivator, and it can have the effect of clearing a lot haze from the glasses of the bespectacled. Another benefit of a forced focusing on the procurement of the daily bread is that less time is available for pursuits that don’t add value. But perhaps there comes a time when archery comes back to fashion, so that more are ready for their coming roles in a post modern ‘Hunger Games’…

    But first lets see what good comes of the peasant struggles in our Brave New World.

  2. If the City should run riot, the rest of Europe will have a neat target to blame.

    Then there’s the likelyhood of Britain’s housing bubble bursting – with no EU umbrella to save the foreclosed.
    The City might descend into mediocrity, with Frankfurt as the new, and blameless, star.

    Britain has basically become a banana republic we can swamp with our subsidized agricultural products.
    (Of course, you can impose any tariffs because you’re not producing enough to feed yourself.)

    And when the pound is devalued sufficiently, all wealthy landowners can set up holiday theme parks for us folks. They’ll be keeping a few farmers in the petting zoo for sure.

    CAP as a “subsidy to consumers and retailers ” should really be said out loud time and again. I’m all for blaming the right people.

    On the upland farmers: Do you think someone like James Rebanks would be doing watershed management? Holistic Management it ain’t (that’s where Rebecca Hosking excels).

    Dairy farmers: …and Britain as the new raw milk haven? If suitably deregulated and unsupervised, it might get the population figures down a little.

    Re veg: The one thing to always bear in mind is that they may be luxury items in some respect – but they’re also the stuff that, compared to other items on the menu, almost grows itself in rainy countries like ours. Slugs permitting.
    Good carabid, come to papa.
    (I’m starting to see bigger species on my property.)

    Re GM: I shall be “importing” blight-resistant potatoes and tomatoes and dates containing an arctic moss’ genome sequence and…oh, the wonderful stuff you’ll come up with!

  3. Kinda scratching me head… “the harder line neoliberalism associated with the Brexiteers” — Really? I thought Brexiteers were all those working class folks who were fed up with the domineering masters in out-of-reach Brussels? Also small businessmen who have to deal with crazy regulations… In Czechia people complain about ag regulations that make it hard for neighbor farmers to sell to neighbors… an old tradition where I come from. Yes, including raw milk and raw milk cheese. Last I was in an Austrian village, they seemed to handle the purity issues just fine, and that was in 83.

    We could have a nice mud fight about raw milk, but then on the other hand, Chris does not deal with it, so maybe this is not the place for it.

    Just confused… I am a Brexiteer, and I hope it spreads. Yet I am not a neoliberal person (whatever it really means, in the different countries… the term certainly invites mud pies from the likes of me on account of its economics, and some of its silly posturing).

    • Vera, let’s define neoliberalism for present purposes as a strong commitment to a political economy based around private markets unfettered by government regulation (except the kind of government regulation needed to keep private markets in existence) and largely in the hands of large-scale corporate enterprises.

      I think you’re right that a lot of people voted for Brexit out of opposition to the consequences of neoliberalism that they’ve experienced. And it’s also true that the drift of EU economic policy has increasingly inclined to the neoliberal. But the thing is, the political movement in the UK which pushed (successfully) for Brexit adheres even more strongly to the neoliberal faith, and regards the EU as an irritating welfarist brake on its program of neoliberalism max. Insofar as this faction is able to gain stronger control of UK and/or English governance – which seems pretty likely in view of events in the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and Scotland, as well as the reality of Brexit – then I think we’re going to see an enhanced neoliberal programme. So more austerity, more rollback of public services, less labour rights and so on. Who knows how that will play out in the long term, but in the short term Brexit seems likely to deliver a further boost to the already neoliberal proclivities of the Conservative government. We Bremainers get a big telling off if we claim that Brexiters were duped or didn’t know what they were voting for, so I’ll restrict myself to saying that anyone who voted Brexit thinking it would directly deliver a more democratic and less neoliberal politics was…thinking naïvely. I’m not completely signed up to the mainstream leftist alternative to neoliberalism/austerity of social-democratic welfare state politics, but I prefer it to the current alternative offered by the Conservative party.

      The Pat Condrell video is quite entertaining, but there’s little in it that I find persuasive, other than agreeing that it’s silly to demand another referendum (though some pollsters have suggested on the basis of the ‘Bregret’ vote that the result of a rerun would be almost too close to call). In particular, I disagree with Condrell that Brexit has given us ‘our’ democracy back and that it gives us more money to spend as we wish. I can expand on that if you’re interested…

      This little spiel from Green MEP Molly Scott Cato is quite a good basic primer so far as it goes on the ‘undemocratic EU’ fallacy. Again, I can expand if necessary…


      Both the Bremainers and the Brexiters think that their version of events will be vindicated by the passage of time. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. My guess is that the plucky little nation going it alone theme won’t last long and we’ll get drawn even further into our already dangerously close orbit of the USA. And that, regrettably, is probably a best case scenario. Oh, breaking news: I gather that the US has said it won’t make any trade deals independently with Britain. Ah well, we’ll see what happens. Maybe my autarkic, neo-peasant future is closer at hand in Britain than I could possibly have imagined – not a bad thing at all, but only if we have a properly egalitarian government which does its best to smooth the transition for everyone. No evidence of that currently.

      • Chris – thanks for the link to Molly Scott Cato’s YouTube video. A nice civics lesson for those of us not tuned in to details of how the EU parliament works.

        After watching her bit I fell into a piece by Yanis Varoufakis where he makes a case that Capitalism will eat Democracy (in a TED talk). Aside from having one of the most interesting names I’ve come across in some time, he makes a fairly compelling argument. There is a brief Q&A at the end in which Yanis schools the moderator (in a friendly manner… Einstein gets the credit).

        I bring this up because one might associate neoliberal tendencies with unbridled capitalism… and still we need to keep in mind that capitalism isn’t a form of government, but of economic behavior.

        Libertarian Marxists need to watch this one.

        • “capitalism isn’t a form of government, but of economic behavior” – well yes, but I’d argue one of the tricks of capitalist ideology has been to make ‘the economy’ seem to be something separate from politics, and subject to its own ineluctable laws of nature. Hence we now talk about ‘economics’ rather than the ‘political economy’ of the discipline’s founding fathers. So although as you say capitalism isn’t a form of government, it’s an ideology (especially in its more uncompromising variants like neoliberalism) which tends to instantiate a particular form of government, namely one that’s geared to optimising private market arrangements for large-scale enterprises and not doing a whole lot else.

          I like Amory Lovins’ aphorism: the market makes a good servant, but a bad master, and a terrible religion.

  4. A propos:
    At the (current) bottom of the comments section of his last blog entry J.M. Greer enthusiastically links to an article on the Ern Malley poetry hoax, which is…maybe a bit less black-and-white than his own thoughts on the matter.
    I thought I’d mention it, Chris, because I seem to have realized what you’re so disappointed about him not seeing as dimensions of the political field (which I’m not), only in art.
    I wonder whether I find him so good at commenting on politics because that’s one field where a spade is always a spade (and no credible avantgarde ever exists) because you’ll sooner or later cop your whack if you’re not paying attention to those who are angrily wielding them.

    • Thanks – art/politics, interesting point. Earlier in that same comment JMG writes “see it through the eyes of history, as the working out of one of the standard ways that societies destroy themselves, and it’s easier to make sense of it all and figure out how to respond”. In the face of liberal hand-wringing about the rise of Trump, Brexit etc I see the value of saying “well, what did you expect?” But only as a starting point. I’ll have to read up some more on my Greer and Spengler, but my sense it’s that it’s easy to slip into a rather deterministic sense of decline as a prefigured historical arc, and from there to affect a lofty disdain for all the quotidian political scrabbling that goes on around the unsettlement of established politics. Or to put it another way, I agree that it’s good “to see it through the eyes of history” but I disagree that this makes it easy to figure out how to respond. The lesson of history I’d draw is that when established political orders start breaking down it’s extremely difficult to figure out how to respond as a participant in events who is trying to realise a political vision at odds with both the established order and some of its alternatives. My doubt about Greer (and perhaps Spengler) is that he sometimes seems to prefer the disdainful downwards gaze from a lofty and over-deterministic historical perch, than the messy business of being down in the workshop of history trying to figure out how to forge the new order. And surely in politics as in art, the interventions that people make can take all sorts of surprising twists and turns that transcend their original intentions. But I’m not fully read up on Greer and his influences, so I offer that as a mere thought and not a gnarly judgment. More reading for the in-tray…

      • Right, determinism is a threat. Countering that sort of defeatism used to be what political commentators were revered for. Who then of course started by saying ‘look at the mess this country’s political class has gotten us into. Last time that happened…’ And people would learn what happened last time – heck, maybe a politician or two would learn something as well!
        I recently read Galbraith’s ‘The Great Crash, 1929’. Not turning determinist after that is a heck of a challenge 🙂

        • Well yeah – you can pretty much write the history of sociology in terms of trying to steer between the Scylla of grand historicist determinism and the Charybdis of voluntarism.

  5. Much food for thought here, if you’ll pardon the pun. Your sceptical attitude to the future makes for unhappy reading, but is no doubt warranted.

    I’m interested in how some of these groups overlap, and therefore in how some of the trends you predict might interrelate. Are there many tenants among the big lowland farmers, or are these people mostly landowners? Ditto upland stock farmers, dairy farmers and small-scale farmers. Who gets the subsidy, the landowner or the tenant farmer?

    Not much to offer except my ignorance I’m afraid!

    • Well, I’m quite ignorant myself on some of that – I’ll have to see if there’s any good DEFRA data to provide illumination, though it’s often not available in that kind of cross-tabular format.

      I’d hazard a guess that yes there are a lot of large-scale lowland tenant farmers, fewer upland tenants but still some (with the additional upland situation of small private farms with common grazing rights), mostly privately-owned family dairy farms and small farms. Quite a lot of renting of additional fields by farmers with their own private holdings, but that’s different from the situation of large estates which wholly own several tenant farms.

      It’s certainly the case that some landowners take the subsidy, leaving the tenant to deal with cross-compliance. Outrageous, really. But I don’t know how widespread that is.

      I’d welcome input on these issues from anyone reading this with further knowledge about it.

      • Can’t offer any assistance for the English system, but between Canada and Mexico there is a republic that subsidizes agriculture according to who is taking the risk (using a very broad brush). So a landholder who is actively farming his/her own land will qualify for countercyclical payments. If someone pays a cash rent to a landowner and then does the farming the renter gets the subsidy. A landowner who hires another to drive the tractor (as it were) and pays the employee is considered the farmer and will qualify for subsidy. Mixes of these will be taken apart for their individual aspects… so an owner operator who rents an additional 500 acres will get the subsidy on what he rents. But if said operator also plants a neighbor’s field at a custom rate he will not get any subsidy for doing the custom work (the neighbor who we presume takes all the risks gets the subsidy). There are also arrangements where an owner and an operator share in the costs and then share in any proceeds (if there are any). In this case they share the subsidy in relation to their share of the inputs.

        I should also mention there is a means test – wealthy landowners are not allowed to claim the subsidy (though gaming the system to get round the limitations isn’t all that difficult).

        On our shore you can purchase crop insurance – and the premium for crop insurance is somewhat subsidized (not sure of degree of subsidy). Crop insurance is a bit of a strange elephant though too… if you want to raise veges as our host is want to do you will not find much patience in the insurance market.

        • Thanks for that interesting report, Clem. Looks like the US system is better targeted at rewarding work and risk, whereas ours is better targeted at rewarding large-scale landownership. Heaven forbid that I should try to make any larger historical inferences from that…

          • One thing you might consider covering at some point is how the English system may have come down to where it is today. I appreciate that you have a House of Lords and a peerage system (24th Earl of Landcastedasideshire and all that) – so are these institutions responsible for maintaining a sort of feudal landholding system? You have written of this some in the past – (see points made about Prince Charles’ family assets).

            I learned of enclosure and crofting by reading this blog. Homesteading on our side stands in stark contrast to some of the landholding systems you have on the isle… and perhaps some of what we have was designed specifically to avoid the British way (I’m sure we drive on the right just so we don’t drive on the left like those silly Brits 🙂 )…

            My reason for this request is both a bit selfish – so I can learn how this works in your world – and also a bit wondering whether some of the landholding and use mechanisms in place now (along with their historical narrative) could inform the path one might take to introduce the sort of change(s) you seek to make in terms of a SFF. Engineering something entirely different from what folks are familiar with now will likely be too tall a mountain to climb without some sort of serious environmental intervention (a great cull if you will). I guess what I’m asking is whether a more politically friendly approach to peasant agriculture might proceed from a fuller appreciation of how it came to be like it is right now.

            [It’s those darned Angles and Saxons, I know it…]

          • Good questions, and an interesting brief. Perhaps I’ll try to address it in the future. Marion Shoard’s book ‘This Land Is Our Land’ is still a good overview of landownership in Britain (a subject bedevilled by the fact that data on landownership is so secretive here). On agricultural subsidies, I’m no expert, but my sense is that the shift away from specific crop subsidies in 2005 led to the present single farm payment system which in some ways is a more direct subsidy to landownership than what went before. But nevertheless, as Shoard shows, the landed gentry in Britain have kept a remarkable hold on landownership even as their political power has waned. Over much of the last couple of centuries this has been of limited political importance since landownership wasn’t a major route to political or economic power, but I think that’s beginning to change. I agree with you that building a new agricultural economy out of the existing one is a good way to go in principle, though disparities in wealth and power make it awkward.

  6. Just read the news that while Hungary was defending its right to not sell its land to “legal persons” and the insistence that who owns ag land must also work it, the EU slammed them with a punitive suit. Slovakia, panicked, is capitulating.

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