Farming is a long term game. We make breeding decisions for cows, and it is the best part of three years before a calf born from that breeding is milking and then a further two years before vintage cheddar made from that milk leaves us.
So we have got to second guess what a post-Brexit Britain will look like and make the best decisions now that we will have to live with when Brexit has happened.
Exports of cheese
We export 38% of our cheese (year to August 16), and most goes outside the EU. All of our cheese is exported under EU trade agreements, and these will cease to operate under Brexit. The US and Australia have told us it won’t be top of the list to make trade agreements with us. Trade agreements, particularly in food and agriculture, have a track record of being painfully slow. Chances are that we will be operating under WTO default rules, that govern trade in the absence of specific agreement. That will mean a £1700/t price hike for all cheese that’s exported.
That’s a big ask for customers, so we need to work out how best we can manage that. We are looking now at what are options are. We need to be making such fabulous cheese, that is so desirable that we can work with whatever happens.
Historically the UK hasn’t been that keen to support farming and food production, unlike mainland Europe, where many people remember the winters of starvation at the end of World War II. Self-sufficiency in food has now dropped to 60%. The last time the Brits went gung-ho for free trade (the aim of many Brexiteers) food self-sufficiency in Britain went down to 10%. An influential group of Tory MPs, including the Chairman of the EFRA Committee, Neil Parish, has signed a letter calling for the Government to divert agricultural support into environmental programmes. If that happens, core farming will become hard scrabble. We’ll be competing with nations who don’t have the additional costs of producing animal welfare and high quality food with people paid sensible wages. That in turn will mean our farming gets very stripped down. We are making a good first go in building our new parlour to have our cows do much more of the work for themselves and gain much more of their feed from grazed grass. Anything we can’t do for world prices we will have to stop. We are reviewing, and will continue to review, how we do everything. We like producing a cared-for countryside, and we really hope we can continue to do that.
All farming and cheese production is very applied science: We take understanding of how natural processes work and guide them so that nature produces wheat not brambles, or grass not nettles, and delicious safe cheese rather than unsafe or dull or nasty cheese. We’ve always relied on scientifically knowledgeable, technically capable, practically engaged people to tell us how to do this best. Those people came from the universities, colleges and the Milk Marketing Board. In 1989, Margaret Thatcher stopped all funding of near-market science and technology, and in the 1990s, the MMB was closed. Our little industries haven’t been able to re-create the research establishment and develop those knowledgeable people to anything like the same extent. There are vanishingly small numbers of UK soil scientists or cheese technologists, for instance. Our universities have been very reliant on Europe for funding of the near market stuff we have done, and also to provide the near-market knowledge we don’t have within our institutions.
To compete in the world, particularly to compete under free trade, we need those knowledgeable people. The Specialist Cheesemakers Association is working with Paul Thomas for him to be that kind of expert in cheese. The Academy of Cheese is working to get knowledgeable people in the cheese supply chain, so those people can inform customers about why it is worth buying artisan cheese rather than the cheapest industrial cheese. We do need our universities and institutions to be funded to develop these people, and we need to be developing them within our industries. We have a 27 year gap to make up.
We have the benefit of some brilliant and knowledgeable people from overseas, many of whom have special skills, for instance in the technology of grazing cows at pasture in the most effective way. These skills aren’t valued or even recognised in the current, let alone future skills requirements for labour coming in to this country. Again, to compete on the world stage, we need world class skills in the areas we need them.