The small and medium-sized farm is the mainstay of so much of what we cherish about rural Wales. But whether we like it or not, the world around us is changing.

Welsh farming is at a crossroads – should it continue to expect income support as a special case and so continue the flawed approach of the Common Agricultural Policy? Or is this the moment to take a step forward and reset the relationship with the Welsh taxpayer? I think this is a time to be brave, with public money paying farmers for all the wider environmental benefits that sustainable land management and food production can bring, but which at present have no market value.

The Welsh Government’s consultation on how best to replace the CAP in Wales puts this bold new vision firmly on the table. It describes a future where taxpayers help farming to move away from income support payments. It proposes a twin track scheme available to every farmer in Wales that would invest in the economic resilience of farm businesses so they can be more efficient and profitable, alongside a “Public Goods” scheme to improve the condition of the natural environment for everyone.

Ben Hall, rspb-images.com

I really welcome the “Public Goods” proposal as it will pay farmers for the environmental stewardship that many currently provide for free: maintaining drinking water supplies, reducing flooding and taking measures to reduce climate change, by storing carbon in habitats such as blanket bogs and woodlands.  Importantly, given the well-documented declines in wildlife that lives on farmland, this should help to restore natural habitats to bring back Welsh wildlife.

I believe that every farmer in Wales can produce these public goods should they choose to do so.  There’s a real need to improve conditions for nature in lowland farming, where the biggest declines in biodiversity have occurred.  There are even greater opportunities in the more marginal/upland parts of Wales, areas rich in natural resources, where public goods payments could provide farming with an essential new income stream at a time when making money solely from food production is becoming increasingly difficult. 

It is a big change from the current system which pays farmers based on the amount of land they have, to one where payments are for direct benefits for society. In the face of this scale of change, I can see why sticking with what you know might seem a safe option. However, embracing this approach will enable farming to demonstrate to taxpayers how it represents real value for money and plays a critical role in helping solve the environmental and social challenges faced in Wales.

Even before Brexit, much of Welsh farming was in trouble: more than 80% of farm income in Wales originates from EU funding (reports Cardiff University); there is an ageing population of farmers; signs of land abandonment; and the market for light lambs is becoming increasingly difficult. Brexit will accelerate those trends unless there is a different approach. Maintaining the current income support system will not guarantee a future for marginal farming nor the communities and culture they support. 

Ernie Janes, rspb-images.com

We believe the twin-track scheme proposed by Welsh Government could be vital in maintaining vulnerable farming systems that produce high quality food and manage land for nature and people. It should provide a more socially-just way of supporting farmers who deliver outcomes for taxpayers, and critically, it is a new market that Welsh farmers can never be priced out of.

When we leave the EU, the UK Treasury will play a significant role in future budget allocation.  We know that it does not want to continue to spend £3 billion a year on agriculture, particularly on businesses that are not otherwise economically viable. There will be no agricultural ring fence. Farming will need to make the case for public money, justifying every pound of expenditure alongside the needs of other essential public services, such as health and education. 

I believe that rural Wales is best served by embracing the new public goods approach, and for farming interests to make common cause with others who care passionately about our countryside. We must make a unified and strong case to the public that it is worth paying farmers for those wider environmental and social benefits that land management can bring. Or we risk losing investment in the Welsh countryside altogether.

Anonymous