Former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has hit out at comments made today at the Oxford Farming Conference by UK Environment and Agriculture Minister Michael Gove, saying they are “an insult to British farmers”.

Meanwhile, others have accused Gove of focusing on subsidies in his speech at the conference, rather than larger issues such as trade.

Farron – who is also the Liberal Democrat party’s DEFRA spokesperson – said: “For Gove to imply that farm payments are a reward for inefficiency is an insult to British farmers.

“It shows he has no understanding of the reality of farming in this country.

‘The market is broken’

“British farmers are some of the most efficient and dynamic in the world. Farm payments compensate for the fact that the market is broken, because supermarkets and processors dominate the industry and exploit farmers.

The overwhelming majority of livestock and dairy farmers would be in the red if it wasn’t for direct farm payments.

“Gove’s announcement also does nothing to address the impending tariff catastrophe facing farmers once we leave the single market,” he said.

Jonathan Stiff

Jonathan Stiff

However, Jonathan Stiff – head of rural division at Cheffins – said that while the announcement that Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments were likely to continue until 2024 was “positive”, he had concerns that subsidies were being focused on in policy rather than trade agreements.

‘Trade deals will have a larger impact on farming’

Stiff accused the government of being “single-mindedly focused on environmental measures”.

He said: “Not only does this give the farming industry a basis on which to plan and adapt their businesses through a five-year transitional period from the point of Brexit in March 2019, it should also give the government sufficient time to plan a replacement support system that is well-considered and hopefully more balanced in its approach; rather than being single-mindedly focused on environmental measures.

“However, it is disappointing that Michael Gove continues to focus on the replacement of the BPS scheme rather than focusing on the principles of our new trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.

“Ultimately this will be what has a larger impact on the farming industry than the restructure of the funding system.

‘Increase reliance on imports’

“Similarly, it is disappointing that he continues to focus on environmental measures without formulating any proposals for improving productivity, training or technological advancement

A shift towards purely environmental work will increase the UK’s reliance on imported food, which will have its implications for farmers and growers across the country.

“There is a failure from Mr. Gove to recognise the efforts of the huge numbers of farmers and landowners who work hard to manage the rural environment in a manner which facilitates quality food production and a cared for countryside for the public good.”

Gove also alluded to the possibility that future subsidies would be linked to public access to agricultural land.

He said public money would be spent on “public goods” instead of an “inefficient support system”.

Continuing, Gove added: “Public access is a public good.

“Public access I know can be contentious and I won’t get into the weeds of the debate on rights of way now. But the more the public – and especially school children – get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers,” he said.