Farmers, politicians and other key stakeholders met over the breakfast table last week and there was one topic dominating the conversation.
The Denbigh and Flint branches of the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) hosted three breakfasts in January with Cilcain’s Village Hall offering a suitably cosy venue for what was a wet and windy morning in Flintshire.
The breakfast campaign provides an opportunity to promote the quality premium local produce that farmers grow for us every day of the year with the FUW shining a spotlight on the importance of our rural economy.
But as tasty as the bacon and black pudding was, there were also plenty of strong words from the farming community when it came to Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a “hard Brexit” which could leave farmers facing an uncertain future.
“To be honest for the last 20 years everything has been hunky dory,” said Eurwyn Roberts, county chairman of Flintshire FUW and a farmer in St Asaph.
“We get our subsidy through which is very comfortable and decent prices for our livestock.
“For every three lambs born in Wales one has to go abroad and they’ve been going to Spain or France, but in two years time are we going to lose all that market?
“As a farmer you have to plan two years ahead because it takes 24 months for an animal to grow, be fed and go on the market.
“We have to plan now but we have a cloud hanging over us.”
The FUW fears its members will face barriers to trading in Europe while the link-up with markets further afield such as New Zealand, Australia and America could see Welsh lamb and beef priced off the shelves.
A white paper on Brexit launched by Welsh Government First Minister Carwyn Jones and the leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood has called for continued participation in the single market as well as a ‘balanced approach’ to immigration linking migration to jobs.
Derek Vaughan, Labour MEP for Wales, said: “The farming community is facing great instability at the moment because they just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“The FUW president Glyn Roberts put it very well when he described it as a perfect storm for farming.
“Because of Brexit, farmers are likely to lose their subsidies after 2020 and there’s a possibility that farmers will face tariffs on their exports to the rest of the European Union when we leave.”
After meeting New Zealand PM Bill English at Downing Street, Theresa May said she hoped a trade deal could be reached in a ‘reasonable space of time’, but farmers and politicians both raised fears that there were few benefits to Wales of a trade deal with New Zealand.
“A quick free trade agreement with New Zealand and Australia will mean increased amounts of lamb coming in,” added Mr Vaughan.
“This is making it very difficult for farmers and they face a period of great uncertainty and because that trade deal will be made quickly it’s highly likely it wont be to the advantage of the UK’s farmers.”
The prospect of leaving the single market has come as a shock to some farmers, many of whom believed they would have tariff-free access post Brexit and with access to EU markets – which currently account for three-quarters of all the UK’s agricultural exports – playing an important role in the industry, the confirmation that the UK would quit the single market was a huge concern for many at the meeting.
“In the run up to the referendum I talked to a lot of farmers and it’s fair to say that many of them voted to leave,” said David Hanson, Labour MP for Delyn.
“They wanted to be free of some of the regulations they had and take their chances, but now that decision has been made we need to secure a strong farming industry in the UK whether people voted leave or remain.
“The farmers are in a critical position because they get a large level of subsidy and investment from the EU, but they also have to export their goods to Europe and outside.
“We are in a strange time where we don’t know when we’re going to leave or what the trade agreements are going to be.
“Cheese, lamb and beef exporters don’t know what the tariff will be or if any subsidy is going to be replicated by the UK Government.
“There are savings the government will make from not being in the EU, but the key question is does a future government put that level of investment into farming?
“We have important industries, such as Airbus, that manufacture a European product, so we need to navigate through this two year period and make sure access to the single market is as far as possible replicated otherwise there will be job losses in Flintshire.”
Despite the doom and gloom from many around the breakfast table, North Wales AM Mark Isherwood was keen to suggest there were positives for the region’s farmers and that farming was not being forgotten in the Brexit negotiations.
“There are threats but there are opportunities too,” he stressed.
“Farming and the rural economy is a priority because 90 per cent of the food made in Wales goes into the European market so whatever people’s views this need to be recognised with future tariff agreements.
“Farming must be prioritised in discussions with Europe and it must be celebrated and supported.
“My message to the farmers would be to keep shouting loudly, keep engaging and talking to us, but be assured we do understand how important your sector is and we are prioritising that in the work we’re doing.”
Whatever the future holds for Welsh farming there remains a scepticism that the need for farmers to have clarity so they can continue to run their business and plan for an uncertain time ahead was being ignored.
“My message would be to be honest with us,” added farmer Alan Gardner.
“If there are genuine concerns with farming, come together with the industry, listen to our concerns, come around the table and let’s see if we can thrash out some way of going forward that will keep farmers farming and a secure food supply.
“They must allow us to do what we have become very good at doing.”