Farmers lean to EU remain vote as billions in subsidies at stake

Farmers lean to EU remain vote as billions in subsidies at stake

British vote June 23 whether or not to stay in the European Union.

by Whitney McFerron

British farmers are leaning toward voting to remain in the European Union just a week before a referendum that threatens to affect billions in farm subsidy payments and trade.

Thirty-eight percent favor staying in, 34% leaving and 28% are undecided, according to a National Farm Research Unit poll of 2,337 farmers across the country. Separate surveys by the National Farmers’ Union have shown a wider margin for remain, with only 20 to 25% backing Brexit, President Meurig Raymond said.

There is a June 23 referendum in Great Britain on membership in the European Union. (Photo: Fredex8/Thinkstock)

Farmers represent a tiny slice of U.K. voters but have billions of pounds at stake on the outcome of the June 23 referendum on EU membership. British growers receive about 3 billion pounds ($4.25 billion) in subsidies a year from Europe, and most of Britain’s food and agricultural exports are shipped within the 28-country bloc.

The campaign to leave has pledged to maintain funding for farming through 2020, David Campbell Bannerman, a Conservative member of the European Parliament who backs Brexit, said on a panel Wednesday at the Cereals Event conference in Cambridgeshire.

For Keeps

Jim Paice, a former U.K. agriculture minister who favors remaining, said farmers can’t know what future governments will fund. Many rely on EU subsidies to stay afloat after years of falling crop prices and oversupply of everything from grain to milk.

“This is not like a general election where if you don’t like the result, you can change it in three or four years time," Paice said on a panel. "This is for keeps.”

Robert Law, who farms 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) near Royston, southern England, said he favors leaving. The bloc’s subsidy program isn’t efficient, with some growers taking advantage of the system by accepting money from Brussels without producing crops. He thinks an independent U.K. might cut bureaucracy, spur innovation and help young farmers get started in the industry. Concerns that Brexit could damage the economy are overblown, he said in an interview.

Door Opens

“Where every door shuts another one opens, so there will be new opportunities,” said Law, who grows crops including wheat and barley, and has about 2,500 sheep. “There will be structural changes in farming in this country, but my goodness, they’re needed.”

Adam Bartkowski, who moved to the U.K. two and a half years ago from Poznan, Poland, said the British agriculture industry needs immigrants because it already contends with labor shortages especially in horticulture. Bartkowski, who has a master’s degree in agronomy, started out working as a laborer for a British nursery before finding a job as a field manager for a company that grows poppies for the pharmaceutical industry.

“I have no idea what will happen,” Bartkowski, who’s nervous about how the referendum’s outcome might affect his immigration status, said in an interview at the Cereals Event. “The Leave campaign are just shouting that immigrants are taking jobs, taking benefits, and it looks like we are not working or doing anything. If I’m here to work, I’m here to work.”

To contact the reporter on this story:

Whitney McFerron in London at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story:

Lynn Thomasson at [email protected]

Tony Barrett

© 2016 Bloomberg L.P

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