Throughout 2019, I’ve met with local representatives from the farming unions here in Montgomeryshire and I’ve always been keen to support events held by the farming unions at the Senedd. I will continue my close working relationship with them in 2020.
I was also pleased to attend an event at the Welshpool Livestock Market in December. As always, hundreds turned out for the Christmas Carol concert, with money raised going to support the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. Every year, I attend the Royal Welsh Show, and one of the more enjoyable parts of my job is to attend as many of the local shows across Montgomeryshire as I can which showcase the very best of the farming community and rural life.
During 2019, many farming businesses have contacted me directly about their concerns. Principally, the industry is concerned about the Welsh Government's proposals (which are included in its "Sustainable Farming and Our Land" consultation) to support farmers after Brexit. Furthermore, following the announcement that 15% of the 2020 Basic Payment Scheme budget will be transferred to the Welsh Government, it has levers at its disposal to directly support Wales' rural economy and rural development in future years.
Both my own party and I had and continue to call on the Welsh Government to provide farmers and rural communities with greater confidence in the Welsh Government's plans; to fully recognise the importance of food production in Wales; and acknowledge the role which farmers play in developing the rural economy.
I endorse the view of members of the farming community who have said that the current proposals lack sufficient detail and raise a number of serious questions regarding how the Welsh Government’s new proposed scheme will work in practice.
The proposals lack a stability mechanism, which is vital to protect farmers from market volatility, whilst the lack of a clear eligibility system could potentially result in the large expansion of the scheme and result in some farmers losing out on funding.
As we enter 2020, I believe we need more detail about how the bespoke support for every farm will work and whether this will result in extra bureaucracy for farmers. This may mean that farmers are not able to deliver the projects which are expected of them, meaning that the aims of the new scheme will remain unfulfilled.
I have and will continue to urge the Welsh Government to carefully listen to the concerns of farmers and our rural communities and to urgently respond to these concerns to provide greater confidence in its plans.
Of equal concern to post-Brexit support, arable, sheep and beef farmers are concerned by the Welsh Government’s proposal for the all Wales Nitrogen Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) which they are planning on introducing in 2020. They haven't announced exactly when the new regulations will come into effect but there are fears that the measures of NVZ will only result in a paperwork burden for all farmers in Wales at a time when farming incomes are down due to the pressure of low commodity prices and the uncertainty over Brexit. The livestock industry is unprepared for this and is not in a financial position to fund expensive extra storage. I agree with the farming community when they say that it would be much more proactive to disseminate knowledge to inform farmers about the potential of pollution rather than legislate and penalise the vast majority of farmers who do not contribute to pollution. Furthermore, the proposal to restrict the ability of farmers to spread manure when appropriate could be counter-productive and actually increase the risk of pollution.
Turning to Brexit, the scrapping of the damaging Common Agricultural Policy could provide an exciting opportunity to directly support farmers and food producers, and to open new trading markets to enhance the agricultural sector, which will be so vital to the future of our mid Wales economy, and It is welcome news that the UK Government will match the current annual budget available to farmers in every year of this new Parliament and that agricultural funding will remain outside of the usual budget process to provide confidence and clarity to the agricultural sector. This funding will support farmers as they move away from the, in my view, the EU’s bureaucratic, unfair and environmentally-damaging Common Agricultural Policy.
Farmers have seen first-hand the detrimental impact the Common Agricultural Policy has had on the industry with diminishing levels of food security and lack of new entrants.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UK was 75 per cent self-sufficient, but worryingly this figure now stands at just under 60 per cent and unbelievably, the average age of a farmer in Wales now stands at just over 60. That’s no way to build a sustainable industry that can thrive for decades to come.
It’s why we need to make the most of the opportunity that Brexit provides us to reinvigorate our farming community and to produce the food our nation’s larder requires.
I firmly believe, as we leave the EU, we need a deal that protects vital industries such as agriculture, that are so important for us in mid Wales, and secures future funding and paves the way for our country to exploit the new opportunities that leaving the EU will offer.
The Welsh Conservative team have brought forward a number of proposals that we have asked the Welsh Labour Government to take up, and indeed we would bring forward if we came into Government in Wales in 2021. We would focus on Welsh produce, establishing a group of Welsh Trade Envoys to promote Welsh businesses in selected high-growth and developing markets around the world, which would help Welsh farmers to take advantage of the opportunities which new post-Brexit trade deals will provide by providing better access to new markets.
Finally, turning to animal welfare, I and my Welsh Conservative colleagues are committed, as the farming sector is also, to delivering high standards of animal welfare at slaughter, but Wales continues to lag behind the rest of the UK in this field. We must be a global leader by continuing to raise the bar and all animals should be treated with the utmost respect at all stages of life, and be subject to the highest possible welfare standards.
It is damning that the number of animals slaughtered in Wales due to Bovine TB has increased by 28% in the 12 months to August 2019 compared to the previous year. We would have a ‘’twin-tracked’’ approach to tackling the issue, ensuring that Wales has a healthy wildlife reservoir and a healthy farmed livestock industry. More action needs to be taken to try and reduce the prevalence of the disease within the wildlife population to prevent the contamination of livestock.
In short, I am committed to further strengthening Wales’ farming and food sector. This is why my own party has suggested the introduction of a dedicated new cabinet position, a Minister for Rural Communities, to work across different government departments to secure real change for our rural areas and to develop a strong, vibrant rural economy to take every possible advantage of the opportunities that Brexit will bring to Wales.