THE biggest change in agriculture policy could take its toll on farmers, according to man who heads a rural watchdog.

Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Landowners and Business Association says much of the Government's agenda in the Agriculture Bill, which represents the biggest changes in agricultural policy in half a century, is commendable, notably tying payments to the provision of environmental and other public goods .

"But there is a sting in the tail: sharp cuts in the phasing out of direct payments will start in six months’ time, and there is still no clarity on how the new system, the Environment Land Management scheme (ELMS), will work in practice. It will take four years before it’s available to more than a very limited number of farmers involved in pilots.

Farmers could lose up to 50 percent of their direct payments by 2024; for some there might be room to tighten their belt and do things differently, but for many others is means risk of failure, particularly among small, tenanted farmers, or larger farms who have financed innovation and growth through debt, and new entrants.

The farming industry is the foundation of the UK food industry and the Covid-19 outbreak has underlined their role in an adaptable and resilient supply chain. So it is vital that the sector is helped to adapt, and that reform proceeds in a manageable way.

This is not about stopping change, but giving farming businesses the time to adapt and make what could be profound changes.The best way to kickstart this much-needed agricultural transition is not to remove such a large proportion of current payments before farmers can access the replacement payments.

It must begin with a manageable reduction, the provision of information about cuts to individual businesses, and details of future programmes so farmers can plan for the long term with confidence. This means better value for money for the UK Government.

The CLA is supportive of the new agricultural policy but it is vital that thought is given to the cumulative impact of the planned cuts in the first phase of transition.

It was initially the case that farmers would have more than two years’ notice before direct payments were cut. It is now likely that farmers will have less than six months’ notice. In agricultural planning time, this is not nearly long enough.

The CLA believes that no farming business should see their direct payments cut by more than 25 percent before the Government’s new ELMS scheme is available to all. DEFRA also needs to set out, for each individual farmer, what the funding profile of the transition will look like, so they can plan. This will give farmers the information they need to adapt—something that Brexit and now the coronavirus pandemic has made more difficult.

Though farming has continued during lockdown, tourism and recreation, which provide crucial additional income for diversified farming businesses, have suffered; more than two-thirds of all farm businesses have diversified income streams, making up almost a quarter of their overall profit."

· This was published in the Conservative Home first.