I never expected to have a Conservative MP come and visit me to hear my views on agricultural policy, but that’s exactly what has recently happened. A few months ago I wrote to Sarah Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth, inviting her to attend a lunch/seminar arranged by the Landworkers Alliance at Westminster. She replied to say that she would attend the seminar, but would also like to hear my views and could she come and visit Karen, my partner, and I at Trevengleth?
Well, this was too good an opportunity to miss. I’m not an expert on agricultural policy, but I know a few people who are. So the meeting was arranged, Sarah Newton was informed that “a few friends and neighbours would like to come and meet her” and on a Friday we spent nearly two hours discussing what the UK should do if we have the opportunity to rewrite agricultural policy after Brexit.
I suppose the meeting could be described as an ambush. The ‘few friends and neighbours’ were mostly organic farmers and environmental campaigners with pretty clear ideas about how farming needs to change if we are going to deal with climate change. We met before Sarah arrived and decided to focus on just three issues. Firstly, the farm subsidy system is ridiculously complex and needs to be simplified. Secondly, subsidies should reward carbon sequestration and improving water quality and flood mitigation. Thirdly, planning obstacles to people who genuinely want to work on the land must be removed.
There was a great deal of expertise on these issues in the room. Chris Jones from Woodland Valley Farm has converted to a system of regenerative farming that has already sequestered 3,500 tonnes of carbon back into their soil and his reintroduced beavers and their dams have substantially reduced flooding in the village downstream.
Oliver Baines also attended. Along with Chris Jones, Oliver, from Bodinnick Farm, is part of an agri-tech funded study by Duchy College and Plymouth University to develop methods of measuring soil health and carbon sequestration. Other ‘friends and neighbours’ included local organic beef, dairy and vegetable farmers as well as the Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
We explained to Sarah exactly why our proposals were so important for making farming sustainable and combating climate change and she nodded, wrote copious notes and said “absolutely” about a hundred times. Tea and cake were shared and the MP departed.
So what happened next? To be fair, we expected very little. Our ideas were certain to be lost among Brexit and the impending election. Not quite. Just three days later Sarah spoke in the parliamentary debate on the Environment Bill and raised precisely the points we had made. Then, a few hours later, she announced that she wouldn’t be standing in the forthcoming election. Was it something I put in the tea?
Written by Chris Bird. First published in Country Smallholding magazine