What is the future of the farming industry in the UK?

Although I come originally from a city called Lublin, in the South-East part of Poland, as a child, I spent a lot time visiting my cousins and grandparents’ in relatively large village close to a city called Rzeszow. I remember Polish harvest, I remember watching my uncle, my grandmothers’ brother, who used to leave the house very early in the morning and who was coming back home very late; often tired but also happy, as the job enabled him to feel closely connected with nature. 

Looking back, I think that farming has been always strongly rooted in the “working culture” of the Polish nation. Today, the situation has changed as young people move to cities to seek and enhance their life opportunities. I remember how hard everyone had to work to feed their families and earn a decent (?) living. My mum tells me that when she was a child, before going to school, she also had to support her parents with e.g. feeding the cows or cleaning the stable. I also remember visiting my auntie in Italy, who was working on the farm. It really was a hard job. I have it easy these days, don’t I? 

I’ve recently come across a very interesting article published in Emerging Europe about the impact of Brexit on UK farming industry. I often wondered what will happen to some sections of the economy when the transition period ends? It is good news that the UK government has increased to 30,000 the number of visas to seasonal workers, who will be able to come to Britain for up to 6 months. Unfortunately, this is where the good news end. This new ‘visa arrangement’ comes with a heavy price. Each work permit will cost £244, which for many interested individuals might be simply too expensive. What is even more interesting is that citizens from some countries e.g. Turkey or Macedonia will pay less (£55) than seasonal workers from other countries e.g. Romania, Bulgaria or Slovenia. Reason? Some countries are not members of the Council of Europe’s Social Chapter. 

Are there any other major obstacles, which might stop people from coming to Britain? Of course, plenty. Each person applying will have to demonstrate that they have enough money in their account to support themselves, at least £1270. Each employer will also have to issue a certificate of sponsorship. Moreover, each applicant will have to travel to a visa application centre to have their photograph and fingerprints taken. A lot of hustle? I think so. Would I come to Britain if had to go through so many hoops? The simple is answer is no.

Is that the end of the “application saga”? No, there is a lot more to it than we think. My personal worry is that if an applicant can’t meet the required financial criteria, they would still be able to come to the UK, however they would rely on the financial support of their employers. It seems like that the application process is formed in such a way that it can’t be applied to any other sectors of the economy and therefore most seasonal workers would be forced to continue working on farms and they could be possibly exposed to labour exploitation. Some might not speak good English, which would make them more vulnerable.

However, what is truly astonishing is that 98% (!) of all farming workforce, in 2019, came from Romania and Bulgaria. In my view, the government has introduced a system, which is complicated and quite frankly, immoral. I agree that the government needs to ensure that some of these jobs are “picked up” by the local workforce. However, replacing an “ocean of EU nationals”, willing to take up these really hard jobs won’t be easy and it simply won’t happen overnight. In my view, this is a short-sighted policy, which will have a detrimental impact on the farming industry. I also worry that as a result, we will pay a higher cost for food in general in our supermarkets. Due to potential shortage of workers, I am also certain that the cost of producing the food locally will inevitably increase and we as a nation, will continue to import fruit and vegetables, regardless of Brexit implications and additional red tape.  

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and former councillor

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5 Comments

  • This article raises points about the seasonal agricultural workforce which are clearly part of the fall-out from Brexit.
    Another Brexit concern must be the loss of protection for traditional farming methods which had been provided by the CAP, and the loss of protections provided by EU food and animal welfare regulations. We will now be targeted by foreign ‘industrial’ meat and dairy producers, principally from the USA, where dispensing with fields, using hormones and antibiotics, and importing animal food like soya grown in former rainforests allows them to manufacture a cheaper product. The American agribusiness is itching to export to Britain now we are out of the EU, and the result could be the disappearance of the British rural landscape as we know it, as well as the destruction of a way of life for everyone living and working in rural communities.
    When livestock farming becomes uneconomic small fields bordered by hedges will be neither necessary nor viable to maintain – a visual amenity loss for us, and a catastrophe for wildlife. Farmers will be forced to switch from livestock to arable crops which don’t need hedges, and are best managed in giant, prairie-like fields.
    This is no secret in political circles, and the government answer is that when the cheap meat and dairy products start to arrive, it will be up to us whether or not we buy them. This is to an extent a fair point, although I found the chain of consequences I describe above came a surprise to most Leave supporters when I was campaigning for a second referendum, and there was a worryingly high level of indifference when they were forced to think about it.
    This suggests it will be necessary to campaign against retailers who display cheap (but ultimately very damaging) foreign imported meat on their shelves, and against others in the food business who might be less obviously incorporating it into prepared meals.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Jan '21 - 8:56am

    @Andy Daer
    “The American agribusiness is itching to export to Britain now we are out of the EU”

    But is Joe Biden in a great hurry to do a trade deal with UK?

    “When livestock farming becomes uneconomic small fields bordered by hedges will be neither necessary nor viable to maintain – a visual amenity loss for us, and a catastrophe for wildlife. Farmers will be forced to switch from livestock to arable crops which don’t need hedges, and are best managed in giant, prairie-like fields.”

    A recipe for soil erosion…… – increased rainwater run-off from fields, absence of hedges acting as windbreaks and soaking up water…..

    “the government answer is that when the cheap meat and dairy products start to arrive, it will be up to us whether or not we buy them.”

    Perhaps the better off among us might have that choice while the less well-off don’t?

  • @Nonconformistradical
    Yes, as you say, the poor might not be able to afford expensively produced, environmentally correct meat, one of many consequences of an unequal society. Campaigning to load guilt onto people for being poor is not something I relish. Nor do I relish leaving a note for our great-grandchildren’s generation saying “sorry about the mess ! We could have done more, but frankly some things we ought to have done would have been a bit awkward, politically. However, we’ve left you some nice pictures showing the Amazon dust-bowl when it had trees, which might cheer you up a bit.”

  • Thank you for this. There are obviously some very basic issues we need to consider.
    One of course is the price of housing in many rural areas where people are keen to buy their second homes. At one time all the towns where surrounded by market gardens and small farms, so seasonal produce could be supplied. Land was relatively cheap.
    That many that there were people in country areas looking for work. Now unemployed people in towns would find it expensive to move to a rural area where there was picking to be done.
    So what would a policy for the countryside look like?
    Until we accept that having destroyed most ecosystems on the planet we need to find out how we could manage a planet for sustainability we will not find a solution.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Jan '21 - 4:56pm

    We need to find jobs for everyone who wants them in the post Brexit world. This means low skill jobs for many. Tourism and farming provide plenty especially if the latter is low input. Combatting climate change by rewilding is another opportunity for those who love the outdoors.

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