The farming community was hoping, until a few days ago, that Michael Gove might be moved to pastures new in the reshuffle that hardly happened on Monday. One Yorkshire neighbour of mine with a big muckspreader used to refer to the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs as ‘the Grim Reaper’. But in Gove’s speech to the Oxford Farming Conference last week, he seems to have pulled off the political trick of winning headlines about ‘delivering a Green Brexit’ that pleased the urban middle classes but might previously have had farmers reaching for their pitchforks — while in fact reassuring most of them that, contrary to previous indications, he has their interests at heart and understands the need to cut red tape, promote high standards and reward conservation in a balanced way.
Welcome news was that UK farm subsidies of £3 billion from Brussels will be matched until 2022, but in future will no longer be paid in proportion to size — a system that absurdly favours wealthy landowners such as the Duke of Westminster, Sir James Dyson and the racehorse breeder Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud, without encouraging better practice. In a sector where the average farm is just 160 acres, few will object to that shift. More worrying was Gove’s talk of rewarding ‘public goods’, which many farmers fear means wider public access to their land as well as more acceptable objectives to do with bird and wildflower diversity. But Gove also talked about ‘supporting innovation, improving productivity [and] training a new generation of entrepreneurial young farmers’ — which is what smart farmers themselves care about most.
These days, farming is a highly scientific business that is gradually shifting from chemistry to biology in its quest for better results and is replete with acronyms such as ‘YEN’ — a pioneering crop yield enhancement network run by Adas, the Agricultural Development & Advisory Service. But progressive farmers are frustrated by public and political ignorance, and health scares such as the row over glyphosate, the key ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup, which the World Health Organisation declared ‘probably carcinogenic’ though several other reputable agencies disagreed. Gove, to his credit, was quick to take the right side of that argument: my neighbour also calls him ‘our new glyphosate champion’. Out of place as he may look in his green wellies in farm-visit photo ops, the minister can at least be confident he won’t get sprayed with FYM (that’s farmyard manure).