If only ACME made machines to help farmers - Brian Henderson

Every so often there seems to be change in the air, a real feeling that the political and economic landscape is moving beneath your feet.

Many farmers are feeling like Wile E Coyote right now (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
Many farmers are feeling like Wile E Coyote right now (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

In the farming world, in the past at least, we’ve been good at scaring ourselves by predicting the end of the world each time the EU began to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, with Chicken-Licken like fears of the sky falling on our heads and predictions of the end of farming as we knew it.

However, back when we were tethered to the EU, the plethora of competing nationalities - the vast majority of which had a far more vocal and influential farming sector with access to politicians’ ears - tended to act as an extremely strong modulator on the degree of any change, while ensuring that the pace of that change was glacial at best.

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On the broader front, when the big banking crisis of 2008 struck there was a widespread feeling that society was set to change, that we simply couldn’t return to the old ways and that there was, just perhaps, an opportunity to move towards a fairer world.

But while the £500 billion thrown at the crisis by the British government towards the end of that year might look a bit like a drop in the ocean compared with what we’ve just been through, it didn’t take long for things to slide back to where they were before, with the same old emphasis on growing the economy by encouraging ever greater levels of consumerism.

So given this resilience, or blind determination, to return to normal, there might – just might – be a chance that the dire circumstances which we’re currently facing will, as has been claimed, be just another bump in the road.

But somehow it seems a bit different this time.

And while the Covid pandemic has – and indeed still is – at the bottom of many of the current difficulties which seem to grow legs and run in a new direction every day, I can’t see how even the most ardent Brexiteer could claim that either the timing or the settlement surrounding our exit from the EU has not been a significant factor in exacerbating the scale of the problems being faced not only by the farming sector but almost every other avenue of life and commerce in the UK.

During last year’s transition period in our divorce from the EU someone described the country as being in the same position as that in which the well known cartoon character, Wile E Coyote often found himself – having run off the edge of a cliff but, legs still frantically running, not yet realising his predicament – and still oblivious to the scale of the drop below him.

But now the plunge seems to have kicked in with a vengeance – and sadly as we plummet into the depths of the canyon, the ACME rocket we hoped would shoot us back to safety has simply blown up in our face.

So, unfettered from the rest of Europe, this time it really does look like the tectonic plates are shifting.

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And as the runaway locomotive of labour shortages currently catching us square in the back combines with the accelerant of spiking gas and fuel prices and knock-on consequences for fertiliser and other farm inputs, we find the fuse driving the heat of commercial and political pressure to address climate change has also been lit, rapidly thawing the glacial pace of change in farm policy.

For while the new agenda with its focus on climate change mitigation will undoubtedly play out in future policy direction, backed up by tighter requirements from our buyers on climate and other environmental measures there’s also a ticking time bomb on the doorstep of our primary resource – land – and the way in which it is both utilised and valued.

For not only are so-called “green lairds” snapping up vast tracts of the countryside to cover their likely future carbon offsetting requirements by planting trees, reinstating peat bogs and re-wilding what was formerly utilised as agricultural land, but, being a finite resource, carbon speculators are also moving into land – not only buying it up but also tying farmers into long-term carbon offsetting contracts which, without a universally accepted metric, could lead to decades of struggle.

And while I’d like to sign off the Looney Tunes state of affairs with a hearty “That’s All Folks”, I suspect there’s a good deal more yet to come down the track…

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