I was going to concentrate my Country Diary this month on our fantastic Suffolk farmers and producers who not only grow and create some of the finest food and drink in the country, but are also true custodians of the land. Their thoughts are not only on feeding we humans but also ensuring that wildlife has the right and sufficient food through the winter months. That their fields have habitat as well as growing crops. That their water is clean, soil healthy and hedges and woodland as well tended as their tender wheat and barley that are currently emerging through the sodden soil.
I say I was “going” to do that, but events in parliament changed that. For the working countryside George Eustice made an announcement on Monday that will have a profound effect on our county’s farmers, our wildlife and, in reality, everyone! ELMs is coming and this means the end of farm subsidies. It’s replacement is supposed to be a tailor made system for the UK post our exit from the EU. It will provide £2.4 billion a year in farming grants and subsidies over the coming seven years. The problem is that whilst £2.4 billion sounds a lot of money it isn’t when the funds have to stretch over both food production subsidies and the grant support for conservation work such as I am involved with on many farms throughout East Anglia. In fact we have a fairly stark choice. In the UK we enjoy some of the cheapest food in Western Europe. The minimal prices we pay for our food at the supermarkets is only possible because farmers have been forced to become increasingly industrialised, due largely to those supermarkets insisting that food MUST be cheap. However we know also that the more intensive the farming becomes, the more the negative effect it has for nature. Therefore whilst there remains next to no clear detail on how the ELMs funding will be divided up there appears that either the losers will be food shoppers with limited budgets or our wildlife and environment.
Whilst we wait to see quite what ELMs will be, we continue to rely upon the existing stewardship schemes. The RPA is being its usual slothful self and as a result the large scale conservation project at Flea Barn in Winston hangs precariously by a threa. We simply do not know now whether we will get the grants that are essential for us to boost the wildflower meadows, sow wild bird seed blocks, cut lapwing and stone curlew plots, lay miles of hedgerow, plant over 3 hectares of new wood, dig new ponds and renovate old ones. Unlike RSPB Minsmere or the Wildlife Trust reserves we do not have the luxury of donors giving us money, nor television personalities fund raising for us. We are simply like so many other farmer conservationists trying to run a business that ultimately puts food on Britain’s table whilst making a landscape scale place for wildlife rather than an oasis like reserve, and all of this is at the whim of a government department.
This may not be the usual cheery Country Diary, particularly at Christmas, but our farmers need friends at the moment and I hope that all of the listeners will ensure that wherever possible the culinary delights they buy this Christmas bear the mark that it is produced in Britain. Better support Suffolk, buy from our county’s farm shops and farmers markets, butchers and game dealers, independent delis and green grocers, brewers and distillers, pickle and jam makers. If you buy local, the local rural economy gets a boost and then we may be able to carry out some of that vital conservation work without having to rely upon a grant that may never materialise.
Here’s to a happy Christmas and hopefully a better New Year.