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In the days following the announcement that we were to leave the European Union, I, like many others who had voted to remain, was baffled by where we were headed in this brave new world. Alongside many of my generation, I had believed that my future, and the future of this country, would be more prosperous and secure within the EU. However, the majority of people – who voted to leave – did not agree.

The question at the forefront of my mind was what this political departure would mean for food, farming and the environment. And I was keen to know how young people involved in these areas – especially those engaging with sustainable agriculture – see their future in a post-Brexit Britain.

While there remains a good deal of uncertainty, it is clear to me that Brexit provides an opportunity to advocate for a more sustainable approach to agriculture, to boost its profile on what will be a new national policy agenda for food and farming.

I’m interested to know how my peers feel the vote affects their prospects and opportunities and any reasoning behind this. Are they optimistic about the future of British agriculture and what do they want from a British Agricultural Policy (BAP)? Through social media and discussions with young farmers, I set out to discover their thoughts.

The response was predictably varied, although there was a unanimously acknowledged sense of uncertainty that has resulted from the decision to leave. While some saw positive value in the uncertainty, others feared a future outside of the EU. Of particular note was a sense that young people, regardless of whether they voted to remain or to leave, are largely optimistic about what comes next and can see opportunity in forging our own, national agricultural policy. Particularly those more ecologically-minded farmers who want to push agroecology to the forefront of agriculture.

In a recent letter to David Davies from over 80 organisations, Heidi Chow, a food campaigner from Global Justice Now, said:

“Brexit presents an opportunity to review how we subsidise farming in the UK. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has been the subject of constant criticism for favouring wealthy landowners, so any new UK subsidies for farming should instead be supporting sustainable, small-scale food producers.”

The Brexit vote clearly divided young people connected to agriculture, as it did the entire nation. In fact, if the poll of young farmers carried out in May by Farmers Weekly is anything to go by, a majority of young people involved in the sector wanted to leave. Out of the 656 members of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) who participated in the poll, 38% (251) showed a preference for remaining but 62% (405) said they wanted to leave. What is key now, as we progress towards the formulation of a new food, farming and environment policy, is to seek some unity between those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain, bringing people together once again.

It is important that young people have a voice in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, for they will be living with the consequences of the decision longest. The National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC) is keen to ensure that the voice of young farmers is not lost in the scramble of upcoming discussions. The organisation’s Agriculture & Rural Issues (AGRI) Steering Group is listening to the views of their members asking what they would like to see in a future British Agricultural Policy.

What has the European Union done for young farmers?

The EU has been particularly keen to support young people working in agriculture. It is widely known that the average age of farmers is increasing and a number of socio-economic factors have come together, acting as barriers or deterrents to young people who want to work on the land. Difficulties in accessing land and credit, as well as the lure of higher paying jobs in towns and cities, are common reasons to blame.

To encourage young people to work in farming, those under the age of forty receive a 25% supplement to their Pillar 1 subsidy payment for the first five years of their business. They also have access to Pillar 2 funding through various economic, environmental and innovation initiatives. It’s no wonder that some young people are concerned this support may fall by the wayside in a British Agricultural Policy.

For those starting out in the farming sector, unable to access their own land but wishing to gain experience by working for others, Brexit has again unleashed a good deal of uncertainty. I asked Kate Yells, who grew up on an organic farm in Devon, whether she thought that the decision will affect her future prospects. She said that, “In the long and the short of it, yes most definitely. The future of agriculture is going to look very different, but this doesn’t stop me still wanting to work in the sector. I just hope the changes that result from Brexit don’t close too many doors for me and all the other budding young farmers out there.”

Toby Simpson, a young arable farmer from Northamptonshire, told me of his concerns for his long term prospects. ‘’In terms of farming in the short term I hope that commodity prices will go up, due to the weak pound, but this will probably be negated by more expensive inputs that are imported. In the long term I feel it will probably get tough as we are exposed to world markets, GM crops and cheap labour – can we compete?’’ Concern for farming in a global context against a background of ‘GM crops and cheap labour’ will be critical to address within a new food and farming policy.

Smaller, sustainable farming systems have the potential to thrive independently of the problems faced by large-scale agribusiness, subject to the global commodities market. They offer an alternative model for food producers that, in the long run, could reduce food miles, allow a closer connection between people and the food they consume and improve the ecological value of farm land. Sustainable agriculture systems are usually more locally oriented and less subject to the ups and downs of global commodity prices.

Nick Johnson, a market gardener from Sheffield who is meeting the demand of his local market, remains optimistic for the future. He believes there are great opportunities in growing high-end salad crops for city restaurants and shops. When it came to Europe, he explained, his land fell below the 5ha restriction for the Basic Payment, so he is largely unaffected by the loss of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) support for farmers. He was concerned, however, that if there are restrictions placed on freedom of movement, he may see a reduction in the number of European volunteer labourers, who come through programmes like WWOOF, that he is heavily reliant on during the spring and summer months.

Brexit and the Environment

Concern for the environment featured strongly in my conversations, and it is clear that the environmental protection of agricultural land and conservation measures to ensure this, are high on the radar of many young people. I spoke to Jack Hirst who has a stake in both farming and conservation. Jack’s family farms in the Yorkshire Dales and he is pursuing a career as an ecologist, keen to bridge his knowledge of agriculture and the environment. He believes that his prospects will be far more limited as a result of Brexit: ‘’I feel the space for conservation within agriculture will be reduced and therefore the opportunities for conservation and agriculture specialists will also decline.’’ This concern for the future of the natural world has been shown vehemently in the youth conservation network A Focus On Nature, in their recent ‘Vision for Nature’ report.

Of the young people I surveyed, only a few didn’t cite protection of the environment as one of their key concerns in a post-Brexit framework.

Moving ahead

Brexit may have divided Britain, but a new British policy framework for farming must steer clear of doing the same. The formulation of a new agricultural policy has the capacity to bring urban and rural people together to kick start conversations about the future of the countryside.

Small-scale sustainable farming has a role to play in this, connecting people with local, good quality, sustainable produce and the people who grow it, thus providing education about the importance of sustainable food production.

While there is talk of a second referendum, the Prime Minister is clear that Brexit means Brexit. We should recognise the unique opportunity to shape a targeted food, farming and environment policy for the country, moving energetically forward from the decision that’s been made.

It is clear that young people are keen to voice their concerns and aspirations and they need to be listened to and play a key role in policy negotiations. They recognise the opportunities that taking full control of agricultural policy could provide. A British Agricultural Policy could support sustainable farming practices like never before, and the opportunity is here to make a definitive shift in the future of British farming.

Photograph: Simon Ingram