British farmers crave independence but fear cost of EU exit
CAPEL-LE-FERNE, England (AP)
Rob Warnock is a proud British farmer and the son of a proud British farmer, and he hopes his son will follow in his footsteps one day.
He's also a European Union farmer, but that is not a legacy Warnock wants to pass on to his 6-year-old son. Warnock plans to vote this week for Britain to leave the EU, even though it could cost his struggling dairy business dear.
'As soon as I heard there would be a referendum, I knew I'd be 'out' without even thinking about it,' he said, as sheep and calves grazed in a field on his family farm. 'It's just what my heart says.'
Many British farmers feel the same emotional tug. But while their hearts tell them to leave, their heads urge caution. The EU is helping farmers stay afloat at a time when many are struggling.
The benefits of membership in the 28-nation EU may seem intangible to many Britons, who view it as a distant body of byzantine bureaucracy and obscure regulations. But farmers know exactly how much they get from the bloc. In Warnock's case it's 40,000 pounds ($60,000) a year — his share of the subsidy millions of farmers across the continent receive under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.
'People say, 'You're mad to vote out when you could lose 40,000 pounds,'' Warnock said. '(But) I think what we could have in the end would be better.'
He desperately needs things to improve. The price of milk has been plunging for more than two years, hit by what Warnock calls a 'perfect storm' of factors, including Russia's ban on EU imports, Chinese stockpiling of powdered milk and production increases in other EU countries.
That's disastrous for 44-year-old Warnock, who tends 450 dairy cows and grows barley and wheat on 650 acres (263 hectares) perched above the English Channel on Britain's south coast.
``We're being paid 18 pence a liter for our milk at the moment, and it costs us 28 pence a liter to produce,' he said. 'Every time that (milk) tanker drives out the yard, it's another 600 quid (pounds) that we've lost.'
Sian Davies, dairy adviser for the National Farmers' Union, says dire market conditions may be nudging British farmers toward the EU exit door.
'A lot of farmers will be looking at their referendum vote as a vote for change,' she said. 'It could be looked at as 'Anything's better than what we have at the moment.''
That is firmly Warnock's view. He thinks that losing the safety net of EU subsidies would force the British government to think seriously about the importance of agriculture to the country.
'They think: 'The farmers are all right, they're getting the subsidy, we don't worry that they're having to produce food at way, way below the cost of production,'' he said. 'I think that if we come out of the EU it might make the government sit up and realize actually how important food production is to this country.'
Warnock's father Jim is not so sure. He intends to vote 'remain,' worried the subsidies will disappear.
'I know they are saying at the moment if there is a change then we will still get it,' he said. 'But knowing politicians and knowing the pressure they are going to be under...'
'Leave' campaigners have vowed that the British government will step in to support farmers if the country leaves the EU. The 'remain' camp says the pledge is unrealistic: the 'leave' side has also promised to boost funding for the health service, maintain defense spending and much more, at a time when the government is committed to cutting public-sector spending.
Farmers have a long list of gripes about the EU, from its complex paperwork to its environmental regulations, which limit which fertilizers and pesticides they can use.
But Davies says the EU has done more than the British government to help dairy farmers weather the current crisis.
'Everything we've seen ... that has helped or tried to help farmers, has come from Brussels,' she said, citing EU support for storing stocks of butter and milk powder until prices rise.
British governments in recent decades have taken a comparatively laissez-faire attitude to agriculture, reluctant to shield domestic producers from international competition.
It's a different story across the Channel in France, where agriculture accounts for a bigger slice of the economy and looms larger in the national consciousness. Militant French farmers regularly stage protests — blocking roads, dumping manure and even herding sheep in the Louvre museum to demand more support from the government.
Wyn Grant, a political scientist and agriculture expert at the University of Warwick, says countries like France 'where there are particular cultural attachments to farming,' have helped shape EU agricultural policies in ways that have benefited British farmers.
'In a sense, British farmers get a certain amount of political cover from farmers elsewhere in the EU,' he said.
Warnock believes the years of ups and downs have made British farmers resilient. He describes himself as a 'passionate dairy farmer' — but worries that if something doesn't change soon, passion may not be enough.
Two decades ago there were more than 35,000 dairy farmers in Britain. Today there are only about 10,000, and the NFU has estimated that 10 to 20 percent could go out of business by the end of 2016.
'You always hope to hand the farm down to the next generation that's coming on,' Warnock said. 'But I seriously have to question whether I'm going to have the chance to do that.
'Farming's been in our family for five or six generations. But whether it goes on to a seventh, who knows?'