A lush pasture, sheep grazing or resting in the shade of a tree or hedge, rambunctious lambs playing – it’s the pastural idyll so many of us believe the English countryside to be. Broughton Grounds Farm near Banbury certainly fits the image: The traditional farmhouse and farm buildings are part of Lord Saye and Sele’s family estate, dating back to the 15th century.

The Taylors are tenant farmers in the third generation and Tom, one of the three farm dogs, is a minor celebrity: check out the BBC’s The Archers website – the dog you see, that’s Tom.

Lambing season is one of the busiest times on the farm. Andrew Taylor starts work at 6am, son James does the night shift but is up again by mid-morning. I tag along as James, Andrew and farmworker Harry Caulcott do the gazillion jobs that need doing and learn more about the farm. 170 of the farm’s 400 acres are in a six-year arable rotation. The rest is permanent grassland. Some of the land is close to the farm and can be accessed directly, but the rest is a patchwork of pastures – some part of the tenancy, others rented from different landlords and a few, smaller pastures the Taylors can use for free – the sheep saves the owners the job of mowing.

Apart from the flock of around 520 sheep there are 50 to 80 beef cattle, depending on the time of year. Some 200 free range hens produce eggs. Every Thursday, Andrew Taylor does two egg rounds to supply long-standing customers in local villages. The rest is sold at the farm gate with an honesty box or supplied to a local farm shop. The Taylors grow wheat and barley, a third to a half of it is needed as feed on the farm, the rest is sold. Due to the long rotation and careful management, the fields have a SOM (soil organic matter) content of 8.9 to 13.3 – which is off the charts fantastic, indicating (among other things) that a lot of carbon is permanently stored in the soil.

School visits and care farming

Late morning everyone gets together for a short coffee (or tea) break. It’s sunny, but still quite cold for April and far too dry. We sit in the yard, enjoying the bucolic view, talking. If you ever wondered what a diversified farm business looks like – Broughton Grounds Farm is one. Apart from the sheep, the cattle and the hens there is honey, James is an ardent beekeeper. The Taylors have started to do 10 kg beef boxes. Andrew’s wife Margaret runs the farm B&B and looks after the vegetable garden. The family raises poultry for Christmas and grows their own potatoes. Before the pandemic they had 25 school visits a year, they participated in the annual “Open Farm Sunday” and they ran a “Farm Club” one afternoon a week. The Taylors work with three care homes in the area, the activities range from feeding lambs, calves, and pigs to tending to the vegetable garden, digging potatoes, felting and even jam making. Planning the visits and making it fun for everyone is time consuming, but the Taylors have a deep sense of community and everything they do is rooted in it.

Agriculture after Brexit

On a sunny day in the yard, watching the sheep on the pasture or resting near the hedge and under the trees, all seems well and good in the farming world. But Britain has left the EU and farmers no longer receive money under CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy. The British government continued this ‘Basic Payment Scheme’ (BPS) in full until the end of last year. But starting from January 2021, BPS will gradually be phased out with payments halved by 2024 and ending completely by 2028. It will be replaced by ‘public money for public goods’ under the Environmental Land Management Scheme, ELMS. Under discussion are agricultural measures that help flood prevention and aid biodiversity, such as hedgerows, tree planting, fallow strips with wild flower mixes. But what exactly ‘public goods’ are and how they will be remunerated is still unclear. The first pilot schemes are finally under way. But many of the measures under review are already covered by Environmental Stewardship Schemes. These will be continued under ELMS, but that does not help farmers to make up for the loss of Basic Payments: there is only so much land a farm can take out of production and set aside for environmental measures. Environmentally conscientious farmers like the Taylors are already taking all feasible measures. They are likely to keep the benefits from the Stewardship Schemes, but they have no way of making up for the loss of the Basic Payments through delivering more ‘public goods’: they have ‘maxed out’ on the environmental options long ago.

A bleak discussion

For the Taylors, the Basic Payment makes up the difference between the farm scraping by and making a profit. What changes can they make to compensate for the loss of the BPS? A topic we discuss – socially distanced – in the utility room of the farmhouse with Andrew sorting eggs for the evening delivery and James lying on the floor because he’s done his back out. The farm business is already as diverse as can be. Everything else would require money for new facilities – a bigger barn for more cattle or managing the sheep more efficiently, a new building to extend the B&B or the acquisition of shepherd’s huts… And additional staff would be needed to keep things running – which would add costs. James thinks the number of sheep could be increased, they could be lambed outside though that is difficult with footpaths running through many permanent pasture fields and potentially higher loses in bad weather. There is not enough land to increase the number of animals much, doing so would mean buying in feed and compromising the ethos of the mixed system. The start of the meat box scheme has been promising, but getting serious about direct marketing means investing in and managing a website, packaging and distribution…. What about going organic? No longer using pesticides and chemical fertilisers would save a lot of money and organic meat could be sold at a premium. Not really an option though, says James. The farm income would likely go down during the three year conversion period and he is concerned arable yields wouldn’t be viable – would that leave them enough money to make the rent? In theory, Andrew could give up farming and James could find work elsewhere. But ending the tenancy would mean losing the farmhouse. Where would the Taylors live? We’ve all gone quiet and I almost regret having asked so many probing questions. Almost. The truth is, the discussion about the future of diverse family farms after Brexit needs to be had. Loudly and openly.

Government promises meet farm reality

Since January, Brexit has mostly made headlines because both, the export and import of agricultural goods, farm produce, breeding animals, fish and shellfish have become a nightmare. What the loss of the Basic Payment Scheme will mean for farmers is only now becoming apparent. ELMS will, at best, make up for a part of what farmers received through BPS. And according to calculations by the Labour Party, based on figures from the Rural Payments Agency, 9,500 agricultural jobs are at risk[1] because of it. Hardest hit will be small and medium sized, diverse family farm enterprises – the type of farm that is at the centre of what most of us want the English countryside to look like and be. Broughton Grounds Farm isn’t just the home of the dog on the Archers website, such family farms are the real life version of the Ambridge idyll. The government is keen on the ‘green and pleasant land’ imagery, on high quality food production and setting the trend for animal welfare. But the farmers who deliver it all cannot bank on much support. Brexiters have made it clear all along: Britain does not need farmers, the world is our oyster, we can buy food wherever it is cheapest while we “rewild” the countryside that cannot be farmed intensively. The Brexit-brigade is in charge now. Unfortunately, sustainable agriculture and food production, diversity and family farms don’t survive in a global market without some financial support – not if food prices are artificially low, often not covering the cost of production. Farmers, farming organisations and anyone willing to see the post-Brexit reality for what it is, need to make that point. Should British farmers eventually resort to the tactics French farmers have employed successfully over the years and lay siege on Downing Street with their tractors, they certainly will have my support.

[1] Farmers Weekly, 23. April 2021, page 6

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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