Double.LL’s managing editor, Jools Payne, talks to three local farmers as the Brexit storm clouds gather over an increasingly frustrated farming community.
At the time of going to press, Britain will leave the European Union at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29th March 2019. Brexit is widely regarded as one of the most divisive, politically toxic decisions in more than a generation. Whichever way you voted – Remain or Leave – in what was a naively simplistic, binary poll, nobody voted for the unmitigated political chaos and economic uncertainty that has ensued since the Referendum was held on 23rd June 2016.
Wales voted Leave in the EU Referendum by a margin almost mirroring that of the total national vote. In all, 854,572 (52.5%) voters in Wales chose to leave the EU, whilst 772,347 (47.5%) voted Remain. As a net beneficiary of EU funding, it was a decision that took many of the commentariat by surprise.
The uncertainty around current negotiations dominate the conversation at every Oswestry Livestock market. Three local farmers, rooted in the area, believe the ramifications for UK food and farming post-Brexit are dire. Heather Rogers, an organic dairy farmer, who with husband Alan has been a tenant farmer at New Hall Farm in Chirk for the past 23 years, can barely contain her fury. “I speak to farmers almost every day who voted Leave and are now regretting their decision. Most of them are saying to me ‘but I didn’t vote for this’,” she says.
“If we exit the EU in March, without a deal, that means we’ll no longer have EU certification. How long will it take to get new certification in place? What happens in the meantime?”Heather Rogers
Heather and Alan have a herd of 200 New Zealand Friesian cows and are members of the Calon Wen co-operative. “Speaking purely on a personal level, I worry about a ‘No Deal’ scenario,” she says. “If that happens the impact on our exporting capability will be huge. We’re part of a co-operative that exports a lot of dried milk and cheese to China. If we exit the EU in March, without a deal, that means we’ll no longer have EU certification. How long will it take to get new certification in place? What happens in the meantime?”
A lowland farmer, with 154 hectares, Heather worries about her upland farming friends. “We don’t rely heavily on subsidies like the hill farmers. We were told that the subsidies would remain the same, but the Single Farm Payment will decrease year-on-year in Wales.
“And as for the Welsh Labour government? Don’t get me started,” says the normally mild-mannered Heather. “They don’t have a clue about farming. It’s all very well putting environmental schemes in place, but what about feeding the country? More than ever we need the conversation to focus on food. I fear a lot of hill farmers will be forced out of business. Then what happens to the land? With fewer animals grazing, pastureland will become overgrown with ragwort, nettles and weeds. That will be a disaster for our local landscape and tourism pull,” says Heather. It’s a moot point. How will the valley’s major employers, our award-winning hotels fare if Lloyd George’s ‘little piece of heaven’ turns into ragwort-ridden hell?
“No-one in government is talking seriously about food in this whole Brexit issue. We are facing a crisis.”Jan Edwards
Heather’s combination of bewilderment, frustration and fury is but nothing compared to the ferocious ire of Llanarmon hill farmer, Jan Edwards. Jan and Robin’s 1,400-acre upland farm, Tyn-twll at the head of the Ceiriog Valley in Llanarmon DC, is especially vulnerable. Jan is scathing about UK Environment Secretary, Michael Gove. “He is so out of touch with farming and the issues we face. It is beyond my comprehension,” she fumes. “No-one in government is talking seriously about food in this whole Brexit issue. We are facing a crisis. And Gove’s proposals on changing the countryside’s ecology are… well, appalling.”
Jan, Robin and their hard-working farm team work like Trojans to run their mixed upland farm profitably without compromising their high standards of animal husbandry and welfare. They have a healthy enclosed beef herd that can be traced back 40 years. “We only change the bull about every four years. The best cattle are kept for breeding and the rest are fattened ready to go into the food chain. But the price of hard food and straw are rising at a pace we can’t keep up with because the price we get for our meat isn’t rising in tandem. If we can’t make it pay, we may have to look at not carrying on fattening,” she says with such exasperation and sorrow in her voice it is painful to hear.
As the rallying cry for a People’s Vote on the Final Deal grows louder by the day, with almost 1 million people of all ages, both Leavers and Remainers, taking to the streets of London in late October demanding such, it is the young farmers who Jan feels for most keenly. One such farmer is 28-year-old Caryl Hughes. Along with her brother, Caryl is the fifth-generation to farm at Ty Hwnt I’r Afon, a 950-hectare upland farm in Llanarmon DC.
“I’m very concerned about what will happen to the lamb market, especially the light lambs’ section, which is mainly exported out to the EU.”Caryl Hughes
“We produce top quality food with some of the highest welfare standards in the world. I think that’s something we Welsh farmers are very proud of, but equally the whole of the UK should be too. The public need educating now more than ever as to how important it is to buy local and reliable,” says Caryl, who studied Agriculture & Animal Science at Aberystwyth.
“Being a sheep farmer, I’m very concerned about what will happen to the lamb market, especially the light lambs’ section, which is mainly exported out to the EU. The smaller lambs are produced by the upland ewe. This is a crucial breed as without the upland ewe you don’t get the big crossbred ewe, which is farmed lower down in the country. There needs to be a market for the small lambs, so people keep farming them to keep the sheep cycle running smoothly,” she explains.
Caryl’s insight into the nuances of the UK lamb supply is enlightening. “As we farm mainly above 1,000ft the best ewe for the type of farm is a Welsh Ewe. We’re producing a lot of the smaller type of lambs that there isn’t such a demand for in the UK meat markets. If subsidies end, my worry is the cost of food is going to climb dramatically. The subsidies invested in agriculture go a lot further than the farm gate. People aren’t aware of how much actually goes back into the local economy… the tractor dealers, the feed companies, local shops, schools and tourism. If you take the farms out of our community, there won’t be much of a community left,” she warns.
Caryl fears for her future and those of other young farmers in a post-Brexit era. “I think a lot of people voted with a lack of knowledge. What we know now, and indeed what we don’t know, is enough to make people change their minds about the whole thing. On that basis I’d support a People’s Vote. I do see that there are good reasons to leave the EU… just not for British agriculture.”