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Officials from Defra concealed an analysis that revealed bleak financial outlooks for farmers in hilly areas.
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Officials from Defra concealed an analysis that revealed bleak financial outlooks for farmers in hilly areas.

The Guardian has uncovered that government officials have concealed a report on the financial outlook for at-risk farmers in the UK due to its overwhelmingly negative findings.

The examination was intended to be a positive evaluation of the economic state for farmers in upland areas, who are among the most impoverished in the nation. However, records from meetings discussing these plans, obtained through a freedom of information request, uncovered worries about the unfavorable conclusions.

Agricultural organizations expressed disapproval over the decision not to release the analysis publicly, citing Freedom of Information documents that revealed officials refused to publish it due to potential disapproval from ministers.

Based on the recorded time:

  • An official expressed their concern that there may be no viable routes to achieve success. They stated their desire to only publish information if it is positive and beneficial for others.

  • Government officials acknowledged that highland farmers were facing a financial crisis and could potentially go bankrupt.

  • Authorities were concerned that once farmers in the highlands viewed the financial information indicating how profitable their land could be, they would choose to sell their properties.

  • Authorities thought that farmers living in highland areas showed a lack of concern for the natural surroundings.

Numerous farmers in highland areas are only able to sustain themselves financially thanks to the basic payment scheme (BPS) from the EU. However, this system will be gradually eliminated by 2027.

After the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, farming payments will be allocated to farmers who work to restore the natural environment. However, these payments will be more accessible to farmers who own their land. In particular, upland farmers who are commoners or tenants may face challenges as many of the profitable choices in the replacement for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), such as establishing wildflower meadows, promoting soil health, and decreasing pesticide usage, are more suitable for lowland arable farms. As a result, upland farmers are concerned about losing BPS and not being able to generate enough income through the new scheme to cover their expenses.

In 2022, ministers requested that officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs create a “pathways to success scheme” for upland farmers. This scheme aims to provide various methods for these farmers to achieve profitability under the new program.

During a series of meetings in that year, officials expressed apprehensions about the financial analysis and the overall plan. As a result, they decided not to make the information public. Several justifications were provided, including one official who stated that it was necessary to wait for the political climate to stabilize. Another official commented, “It is crucial that we ensure ministers are satisfied with the information we release to the public, considering the sensitivities surrounding it.”

During a meeting, one representative mentioned that they were waiting for Defra to provide the estimated number of individuals who would be forced to close their businesses. They also noted that some may choose to downsize or sell their farms. However, they expressed concern about including land sales as an option, stating that it could be a risky choice to promote. Instead, the focus should be on finding ways to support rural communities and keep them thriving. Another official agreed, stating that land sales may provide capital income, but it should not be seen as a reliable path to success.

Attendees at the meetings also expressed the belief that farmers in upland areas, many of whom operate within England’s national parks, are not concerned about the environment. They stated, “Many have been dismissive of the environmental aspect – it is difficult to get them engaged in it.”

Authorities stated: “We are unable to disclose any economic evaluations in the near future, and we cannot guarantee a specific date for when we can provide this information.” The data has yet to be shared with farmers or the general public.

Julia Aglionby, a practicing professor at the University of Cumbria, served as the chairperson for the Uplands Alliance, an organization that advocates for hill farmers and upland land managers, during the Defra’s pathways to success project. She expressed concern over the lack of publication for the analysis, calling it “irresponsible.”

Aglionby expressed disappointment and concern towards Defra for not sharing their modeling and impact evaluations of the new ELM policies for hill farmers. This lack of transparency has caused worry among this vulnerable group.

There is a significant opportunity in the highland areas to support nature and adapt to climate change while also protecting future livelihoods. However, even after seven years since the Brexit vote, Defra has not provided a comprehensive plan for the moors and commons. The promise of potential future benefits is becoming less believable.

The minutes from the meetings exposed the concerning state of upland farmers. During one meeting, an official expressed, “Numerous upland farmers are quickly approaching financial turmoil and impulsive survival actions will not result in meaningful outcomes in the future.”

According to them, upland farming businesses are struggling to see a viable future due to the nature of the transition. Upland farmers are not familiar with the necessary steps to successfully run a prosperous business.

The Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesperson, Tim Farron, commented on the impact of the government’s new payment system on farmers in his Cumbria constituency. He stated that the negative consequences are already evident for many hill farms in the area. Farron described the situation as a “diabolic rollout” and criticized the government for their handling of the situation.

The lack of skill and ability has greatly damaged family-owned farms in my region. This puts us at risk of losing a whole generation of farmers who not only provide our food, but also take care of the British countryside. This situation is devastating for both farming and the environment.

The deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association, Gavin Lane, spoke out about the potential effects of forcing upland farmers to sell their land. He believes this would disrupt long-standing traditions and have a devastating impact on local communities. While upland farmers are willing to contribute to addressing the climate crisis, they require fair compensation and a clear plan for the future.

A representative from Defra stated that British upland farmers play a crucial role in the success of our programs. We dismiss the allegations made about the pathways to success project and have utilized the knowledge gained from the project to shape policies aimed at enhancing upland farming.

“We are pleased to announce the most significant improvement to our farming programs since our departure from the EU. We have collaborated with upland farmers to raise payment rates, often for those already in agreements. Furthermore, we have created a variety of new measures for moorland that farmers can receive compensation for, providing more options for their operations.”

“We have options available for all types of farmers to assist them in producing food in an environmentally sustainable manner, while also preserving nature and improving the overall environment. We value feedback and strive to incorporate it into our programs to ensure they are as effective as possible.”

Today marks the start of the National Farmer’s Union conference.

Source: theguardian.com