Three years ago, anticipating selling Riverford to its staff, my wife Geetie and I bought Baddaford: a 150-acre farm a mile further up our steep-sided Devon valley. Close enough to stay involved while co-owners want me; far enough to step back when they don’t.
We have a small composting operation, and experiments in agroforestry, alley cropping and various less conventional, more soil-friendly ways of growing vegetables, plus a resident producer of open-pollinated and heirloom vegetable seeds. Indulging these projects which I had spent 30 years suppressing (because I couldn’t work out how they would pay) is proving rewarding, if costly.
Like most farms, we are propped up by taxpayers’ money. Last week, I found a man in one of our fields with a clipboard and a satellite beacon poking from his backpack. He introduced himself as Ray from the Rural Payments Agency and Natural England, doing a spot inspection. Every year we are paid £18k for… Actually, I’m not sure why we deserve it.
About £12k is a straightforward subsidy called Pillar 1, paid by acreage just for owning the land. Given the size of these payments, often to the extremely wealthy, it staggers me that taxpayers have tolerated it for so long. However, most of my neighbours would not be farming today without it; subsidies make up more than half of the average farm’s income.
The other £6k is known as Pillar 2, paid for various environmental measures like organic management of low input, species-rich grassland, and allowing hedges to grow up. This, at least, might be viewed as better value to all.
A few weeks ago I spent an inspiring day walking the farm with the Devon Wildlife Trust, identifying wildlife features and developing plans to enhance them. But having checked the land, Ray said, slightly apologetically, that we are liable to be docked some money for the areas where nature has thrived; scrub or hedges encroaching into fields makes these areas ‘unproductive’ and therefore ineligible for Pillar 1.
The management being discouraged with reduced payments is almost exactly what the Wildlife Trust wanted to see more of; your money is being used to encourage us to damage the environment. Hopefully the Agriculture Bill (due to pass this year, with new farm payments based on ‘public money for public good’, focusing on environmental protection) will end the madness neither we nor our planet can afford.