Photo via Flickr user George Redgrave

We Asked UK Farmers What Leaving the European Union Would Mean for British Food

As the UK votes whether to quit the EU in June, British farmers are divided over the impact this could have on their livelihoods.

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Apr 18 2016, 10:02am

Photo via Flickr user George Redgrave

In a vast shed holding thousands of cows, sheep, and pigs ready for sale, farmers are debating politics.

"I would love to come out the EU," says Peter Morley, talking in the passage between the livestock pens. "It's a gravy train. There'd be less bureaucracy if we left."

A Dutch sheep buyer walks by. "I think they should stay in," he interrupts. "It will be better for UK farmers."

Ashford livestock market in Kent shows the deep ties Britain's food producers have to the continent. But with the country voting in a referendum this June on whether to leave the European Union, those links could soon snap.

The market is closer to Calais across the Channel in northern France than it is to central London. In the height of the migrant crisis last summer, lorries arriving with animals were diverted miles when the motorway was blocked. Ashford is also popular with sheep traders and two-fifths of Britain's sheep meat is exported to the EU. In fact, the livestock farmers buying and selling here today are among those who depend the most on EU subsidies to make a living.

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Ashford livestock market in Kent. Photo by the author.

In the market canteen, Frank Langrish eats a full English breakfast. He is one of the south east's biggest sheep farmers and believes the enormous, open market of the EU is essential. He worries other countries would slap high tariffs on British exports, forcing down what farmers are paid.

"I can see France on a clear day from where I farm," he says. "There are 500 million people over there in Europe. For the industry, leaving would be catastrophic."

Langrish says he is unconvinced British farmers would be free of red tape after Brexit.

But on the next table, cattle farmers Eiron and Bethan Vaughan are torn: they say EU rules and regulations bog them down. Each time they plough, harrow, or plant a field they have a make a record, which they claim no one checks. At the same time, the Vaughans desperately need their EU subsidy to make a living. Rearing beef cattle in West Wales is a precarious job and whether the UK would keep paying the cash after Brexit concerns them.

READ MORE: Angry Farmers Are Marching Cows and Sheep Through Central London

"I would vote 'in' if it was tomorrow," says Eiron. "Even if the government promised to protect us after we go out, I wouldn't believe them. They are not interested in farming."

Later that afternoon, dozens of farmers cram into a nondescript hotel conference room, a few miles to the north. This was Kent's turn in a string of local meetings on the referendum, run by the National Farmers Union (NFU). The NFU, which represents most of the industry, isn't taking a campaigning stance, but did carry out a poll producers who turned up.

Afterwards, William White, the NFU's director for south east England, tells me he was "gobsmacked" at the attendance and the vote was "incredibly close."

Explaining this divide needs a brief sketch of Common Agricultural Policy, or "CAP." Each year, the EU spends €58billion on the scheme, just under 39 percent of its budget. It pays cash subsidies to farmers across all 28 member states. In exchange, they have to meet quality, welfare, and environmental standards.

"I can see France on a clear day from where I farm. There are 500 million people over there in Europe. For the industry, leaving would be catastrophic."

British farmers were paid €3.084bn in 2014, according to a primer by the National Farmers Union. The average payout was £26,000. Those subsidies make up a huge chunk of farmers' livelihoods: they account for 55 percent of total agricultural income in 2015.

But the EU is about more than just subsidies, the NFU report says. British farmers are able to trade tariff-free with the world's biggest economic bloc. Other EU countries bought 73 percent of the UK's agri-food exports in 2014. About 6 percent of the UK's farm workers come from elsewhere in the EU, even before including seasonal labour like fruit pickers. Brussels also makes continent-wide calls on sustainability and welfare, like protections for pigs and bans on certain pesticides.

So far the "Remain" and "Leave" camps have battled through that sexiest of medium: open letters to national newspapers and official reports.

The latest study came from economists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, commissioned by the NFU. It said food prices could rise after Brexit in the two most likely trade scenarios, which should delight farmers. But, if subsidies disappear, up to a quarter of farms could be dragged into a loss.

Like the wider political campaign, farming has semi-official groups leading each side.

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Sheep waiting to be sold at Ashford market. Photo by the author.

Farmers for Britain, which wants to leave, has two big arguments: that the UK pays more into the CAP than it gets back and that European regulations tie down British farmers. They like to point at the "three crop rule," which forces farms over a certain size to grow three different varieties.

"The policy does not suit the UK industry," a Farmers for Britain spokeswoman told MUNCHIES. "If we left, there would be some, if not more, money spent on agriculture."

Their opponents, Farmers For IN, have influential, establishment backers. The group's letter to The Times was signed by farming's current and former leaders, including three knights and a lord. They shout about the EU giving access to a huge market, which creates jobs, protects food quality, and keeps tariffs low.

Britain's government is embarrassingly split. Farm minister George Eustice wants to quit, pledging subsidies would carry on after Brexit. His boss, secretary of state Liz Truss, has stuck behind prime minister David Cameron, who wants to stay in. A spokeswoman for her department told MUNCHIES there were no guarantees. "Leaving is a leap in the dark," she said.

"A lot of older generation farmers are set in their ways. When it comes to my generation stepping in to fill their boots, staying in will cause us problems"

The crowd at Ashford includes no one under 40. Farming's EU debate seems dominated by the middle-aged. The next generation is mostly hanging out on Twitter.

Will Slade is a 22-year-old vet student at Cambridge University and dairy farmer's son. He thinks it is time to leave, as Brexit would be good for his family's business. Their organic milk goes into cheese which goes not tothe EU—but the US.

"The subsidies are keeping a lot of farmers farming who probably should not be," he says down the phone from Devon, before collecting the cows from the field for milking. "Getting rid of them would open the door and let younger farmers in."

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Photo by the author.

Jodi, a 27-year-old sheep farmer who tweets and blogs as The Solo Shepherdess would also vote for Brexit. White it wouldn't affect her directly right now, she is taking a long-term view, concluding that the money spent on by Brussels would be put to better use helping British food producers.

"With respect, I feel a lot of older generation farmers are set in their ways, change is not welcomed by a fair few," she says, in a snatched moment while lambing. "When it comes to my generation stepping in to fill their boots, staying in will cause us problems in the future."

READ MORE: British Farmers Are Ditching the Supermarkets

Chris Manley chairs the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. The network has 24,000 members across 640 clubs, aged between ten and 26. The federation won't tell young farmers how to vote, but will hold a big Brexit debate at its annual meeting in Blackpool next month.

"Young farmers are quite enthusiastic about the vote," Manley says. "But the reality is when we get to the 23 June, we are not going to know all the facts. Agriculture by number of people is quite small, but the actual involvement and what it means is quite significant."

Food could be at the heart of Britain's EU question. But less than 400,000 people in a country of 64 million have jobs in farming, fishing, or forestry.

When it comes to Brexit, the voice of Britain's farmers—especially the young ones—may struggle to be heard.