Farmers' Brexit finding fears

Photo: PA

By Peter MacMahon, ITV Border Political Editor:

In the late summer sun, or even the late summer soft rain, Dumfriesshire has a quiet beauty to it.

It is picturesque, peaceful...and pastoral.

Yet from travelling around the area I've found that beneath this rural tranquility, there's growing anxiety over the future of farming once the UK leaves the EU.

And that includes the future for farmers like Andrew McCornick who farms some 440 acres in the area, and is also the vice-president of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, the NFUS.

This is what he told me:

Andrew McCornick Credit: ITV Border

Prior to this Brexit vote we were constantly asking for the alternatives to be put on the table so we could make a proper and informed decision. I think you saw on the 24th what the result of this is. No-one has an idea.

The politicians who are supposed to be the decision-makers and decision-takers haven't got an idea. They're getting their cards in order now I hope and maybe then we'll see what they are talking about. But we have ideas beyond this.

– Andrew McCornick

And that throws the ball firmly into the politicians court, politicians at both Holyrood and Westminster.

For now, we do not know much, if anything about what will happen to the Common Agricultural Policy funds in Scotland.

Between 2014 and 2019 Scotland will get just over £3 billion from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy - CAP - budget.

That figure, converted from euros, is for the main support to agriculture, what is known in the jargon as 'Pillar 1' support.

There is also 'Pill 2' support of more than £400m over five years, which goes mainly to schemes to preserve and enhance the landscape - environmental improvement.

With the money from Europe set to end, who should fund farming? Just back from Germany, and trying to keep Scotland in the EU somehow, Nicola Sturgeon is clear.

She says:

Nicola Sturgeon Credit: ITV Border

It's the Scottish government's job to administer this funding but if that funding is not coming from the European Union in the future then it's for the UK government to give certainty about where it is coming from. What I think absolutely essential is that that funding continues to be available.

Now, people will remember hearing the Leave campaign in the referendum saying that there was no threat to this funding, that as well as funding additional money for health and other things payments to farmers would be guaranteed. it's now time for those promises to be honoured and the UK government has to do that.

– First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

One opposition MSP who campaigned for Remain is to meet the new UK farming minister, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom - this month, and says the SNP government should follow suit.

Finlay Carson, the MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries, says:

I think we need to look at this and start straight away and start sitting round the table with the UK government, not going on trips to Europe and trying to negotiate a position which I don't think is sensible.

We need to start right now, sitting round the table in Westminster, make sure we're all singing from the same song sheet and get a good resolution. What I don't want is a time wasted trying to negotiate a deals that are pie-in-the-sky, that are unrealistic. Let's do the deals we can do and let's do them as quickly as possible.

– Finlay Carson

But despite farmers fears, a fellow Tory who campaigned for Leave says even the current system wasn't stable.

Oliver Mundell, the MSP for Dumfriesshire, told me:

Oliver Mundell Credit: ITV Border

What I say to those who wanted us to remain and have these concerns is CAP payments weren't certain within the EU. We've seen them drop back significantly over the years. Constant changes and uncertainty around what those schemes look like and how farmers benefit from them.

I think that the money that we have at the moment was only ever guaranteed to 2018-2019 and I think we need to have a serious look from first principles about the kind of industry we want to support.

– Oliver Mundell

I asked him, to be clear, was his position that farmers will, after the Uk has left the European Union, get the same level of support as they currently do in Scotland?

Mr Mundell replied:

I can't see how that support's going to be any less than it is at the moment. I think that what we'll have is a different scheme that's bespoke and focuses on the priorities for Scottish farmers. OS rather than looking at subsidies as they are at the moment, designed to suit or accommodate 28 member states, we will have a bespoke solution.

– Oliver Mundell

Farmers are used to uncertainty, but known uncertainties. The cost of feed or seed, the price they get for their crops or livestock. Or even the weather. What they worry about now is the unknown uncertainty of 'Brexit'.

As Mr McCornick told me:

There's definitely a future in agriculture. I've got concerns, I've definitely got... the stability's gone. We don't know where we are, or what we're going to do. We have to help inform that. There's an opportunity for us make this into something better. Where we're going we're not sure, but there definitely will be a future in agriculture.

– Andrew McCornick

What that future is, is now for the politicians to decide?

And there are some indications. There was even a possibility of a statement, or announcement, from Ms Leadsom today.

I understand something will come within a matter of weeks as Ms Leadsom - a Leave supporter - is not only under pressure from Scotland but from Tory MPs in England, both 'leavers' and 'remainers'.

That is likely to amount - broadly - to a steady as she goes statement, reassuring farmers that in the short terms at least little, if anything, will change.

Longer term through there is the possibility of re-shaping farming support, something Mr Mundell was supporting and something his father, David, the UK Secretary of State for Scotland, will be heavily involved in.

Could it be there there could be different kinds of support to farms, rather than the current systems? Very early days, but it is true that the current system is a compromise designed to work across the whole of the EU. The big question, of course, is what level of funding will there be once the UK does leave the EU.

Before the referendum, as Ms Sturgeon pointed out, there were reassurances from the 'Leave' side that farming subsidies would continue. Farmers will expect that promise to be delivered.

Which shows what a canny appointment by Prime Minister Theresa May the new environment secretary was.

Over to you Andrea.

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