Stood on the summit of Pen-y-Fan, the highest peak in south Wales, hikers are rewarded with dramatic views over a verdant patchwork landscape dotted with sheep and higgledy-piggledy hedgerows.
To the north, beyond Brecon, the Cambrian Mountains rise out of the swirling carpet of green of lowland mid-Wales.
To the east mighty glacial valleys sweep down towards the Talybont reservoir, red kites cruising overhead.
To the south keen eyes can pick out the distinctive shapes of Flatholm and Steepholm islands in the distant Bristol Channel and even the puffs of white from the chimneys at Port Talbot.
It is a view thousands have enjoyed over the years. Yet few will have stopped to consider the small farmsteads, dotted among the lush green, home to numerous families who make a living in this landscape which can be truly unforgiving at times.
Often working 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, farmers have to wrestle with drought, failed harvests, foot and mouth, and TB. More recently, however, a bigger threat to their survival looms: Brexit.
That means the familiar landscape of Pen-y-Fan, which has seemingly stood for millennia, is also under threat.
A threat to a way of life
In the shadow of Pen-y-Fan, Stella Owen farms sheep with her husband, Andrew, in the small hamlet of Cantref. The couple, who have two children Lexi, seven, and Cam, three, live on her husband’s family farm. She is worried about life after Brexit, she says: “Really worried.”
It’s not just sheep the couple farm as Andrew’s parents also farm sheep and cows for beef and Andrew runs an agricultural contracting business too. “Beef and sheep farmers keep the contracting business going – they are our bread and butter,” Stella said. “We are highly reliant on them.”
The couple also hire a couple of local lads to help out the contracting business and rent some additional land for their own flock of ewes. She is scared that if Brexit takes a wrong turn and the UK leaves with no deal livelihoods will be lost.
Cattle, sheep, and pork farming contributes £688m to Welsh agricultural output and makes a significant contribution to Welsh communities and the way of life. Stella, who is also a representative for the NFU, said: “For our farming customers and for ourselves we are really worried about Brexit. I’m not quite sure people are as worried for themselves as we are for them.
“There is quite a divide in our constituency, Brecon and Radnorshire, which was 52/48 split in the referendum and reflects the nation. We want our customers to be profitable and for future trade markets to be available – a no-deal scenario would in my opinion just be a nightmare.”
That nightmare could take a number of forms. Top of the list is if a no-deal exit means no-one wants to buy their lamb. Not just their lamb but Welsh lamb as a whole.
Kevin Roberts, chairman of the Welsh red meat levy board Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales), gave a stark warning on the first morning of the Royal Welsh Show in July, saying the October 31 Brexit deadline will expose the Welsh sheep industry to a “Halloween horror story” if it brings a no-deal scenario and tariffs.
“The impact would no longer be seismic – it would be off the Richter scale and produce a fault line fissure right through Welsh farming’s immediate future,” said Mr Roberts.
Recent research, published by Hybu Cig Cymru, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and commissioned by the Andersons Centre, calculated that combined beef and sheep meat exports to the EU could decline by 92.5% after Brexit. That could see the lamb export trade “almost completely wiped out”, which would hit market prices badly.
Assuming a no-deal scenario the 37,000 carcasses a week that are usually sent to Europe could be stopped and this meat would “flood” the domestic market. The knock-on effect of this could see lamb prices at market drop by a quarter.
It’s not just sheep farmers either. A no-deal scenario could see beef exports from the UK fall by 87% while non-EU imports into Britain could rise substantially.
For Stella and Andrew they have never faced so much uncertainty as to where their future markets might be as now.
“We are at an age and point in time now where we want to improve on things and move forward,” said 38-year-old Stella.
“We know which type of ewes we want to and we are trying to progress. But will there be a market for our lambs? Do we buy new ewes in to replace old ones?”
Stella does not shy away from the fact that Wales as a whole voted to leave the EU. “I’m accepting the vote and I respect democracy but three years down the line nothing has happened,” she said.
“I am hugely frustrated by the politicians who were supposedly in charge. We can’t keep rolling along like we are – October 31 will come before we know it.”
With regards to the new prime minister Boris Johnson, Stella cautioned the farming industry was in his hands. The worst thing he could do would be to rush through something quick that increases the amount of red tape required to access new markets.
“I wouldn’t want the current rules and regulations to be ratcheted up any more than they are now,” she said.
“I really don’t know what more we could do because there is already more than enough red tape. We just need a trade deal to allow frictionless trade going forward to bring some certainty. I just hope that all sectors can prosper post-Brexit but this will take some time to resolve.”
It is a situation made slightly more complex by devolution in Wales. Stella needs Mr Johnson to deliver a UK trade deal even though agricultural policy is managed by the Welsh Government. Both are equally important for the future of farming in Wales, she said.
Brexit has brought the harsh realities of managing the landscape and food production sharply into focus. You cannot separate the two, Stella said.
“At the end of the day it’s about food production,” she added.
“For anyone who drives up to Pen-y-Fan the landscape they see: that is the result of farmers working hard over many years. It is their hard work – economically, financially, socially and culturally. If we want to keep this we’ve got to fight now. People need to be thinking about buying Welsh produce.
“We need to be asking people to look at the labels on what they are buying. It’s the whole package deal they are buying into. That’s what underpins the food industry.”
‘What’s more important than producing our own food?’
Thirty miles west of Brecon, on the northern limits of the Black Mountains, Garry Williams farms 730 breeding ewes. The truth is public access to the countryside has never been better, says the third-generation farmer. And that should and must come at a price, he added.
“The Welsh countryside covers 80% of the total land area in Wales yet receives only 10% of taxes,” said Garry.
“I say that’s pretty good value. Who else is going to manage the land? Name me something more important than producing our own food in this country?”
After Brexit farmers must still be rewarded for this, he said. The Brecon Beacons National Park is an incredible, unique asset, which is not just about farming. It’s also about health, exercise, fresh air, mountain biking, walking and village pubs. Arguably the character of the place is the ultimate public good.
If you want to provide open access, repair the hedges, create wildflower diversity, then farmers should be supported for that, argues Garry. It is difficult for visitors to this landscape, with its twee Welsh villages, swathes of moorland, and views over rolling hills and coastline to realise that, beneath the beauty, both farmers and the businesses that depend on them are struggling with tough realities.
Garry, 49, was born at the farm in Gwynfe, Carmarthenshire, which is now home to him, his wife, and their three children. His father, a farm servant, arrived in the area in 1956 in an old postal van and married his mother, who hailed from Brecon. Times have changed since his father’s day and even in Garry’s own lifetime.
“There’s a real sense of belonging with farming land and the surrounding community,” Garry said.
“When you know how hard your parents have worked to take on the farm it’s not just a farm, it’s our home and our history.”
Gwynfe is a remote village and Welsh is still the language of choice for most of those living in the area, said Garry.
“People round here know the land – they’ve lived and breathed it for years. We all send our sheep up to the mountain for grazing. Some of them are more comfortable speaking Welsh and there are different Welsh names for different parts.
“In June, when it’s time for shearing, everyone helps each other out – it’s cooperation.”
But it’s a dwindling community. Of the 12 or so farmers who graze the mountain behind Garry’s farmhouse only three of them are under 50. “There were 30 farms 20 years ago, now there are just 12,” he added.
Sitting in a traditional Welsh farmhouse, with the stereotypical dog flopped in front of the Aga, Garry waved in the general direction of the mountains, which loom up from the farmyard outside. On the day I visit it is one of the hottest days of the summer so far and the hills look idyllic.
The sheep, spread out on the hillsides, are sent to the St Merryn abattoir in Merthyr Tydfil where they are slaughtered and packaged up for the mostly domestic retail market. Garry’s smaller, lighter lambs go to the growing ethnic market.
The UK Muslim population accounts for one in 16 people yet UK Muslims eat one-fifth of all sheepmeat bought in the UK, according to Pew Research Centre data collected in August 2018. Nearly two-thirds of all UK sheep are consumed here in the UK. If exports are no longer an option after Brexit the home market will be flooded by over-supply, driving prices down, Garry said.
In the sunshine it might look like a rosy scene but there is a worrying trend, said Garry.
“There are fewer and fewer people living in rural Wales. Schools have closed, three pubs have gone, the post office has closed – people have to ask does that matter?” he asked.
“For too long food production has been taken for granted. Either pay for it through environmental schemes or pay more for our food.”
Currently Welsh farmers receive £300m in subsidies from the EU each year through the Common Agricultural Policy. Around 60% of all Welsh farms receive subsidies through the CAP. Beef and sheep farm incomes are especially reliant on CAP funding, which in Wales is administered through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and Glastir. It has enabled many farms to continue operating, particularly in upland areas.
So far the UK Government has promised to maintain the current level of subsidies, although how that will be delivered in practice is still being discussed. The latest Welsh Government proposals, called Sustainable Farming and our Land, promises to hand out subsidies to farmers for what they do best – producing and growing food – but only if they work in an environmentally-friendly way after Brexit. But Garry is sceptical.
“Under the current draft proposals every farmer is going to have to have an adviser on farm to tell them what environmental measures they could take and that’s going to cost,” Garry explained.
“I’m concerned about the cost of that. There are 18,000 farms in Wales so where are they all those advisers going to come from? The thing about farming is that there are consultants for each different element – grassland experts, animal health experts for example. The grassland experts know nothing about animal health and vice versa.”
Farming in the Brecon Beacons is a tough way to make a living. The harsh reality is,that without the £28,000-30,000 he currently gets from the basic payment scheme and Glastir Garry’s business would not be “plausible”, he said.
According to the Farm Business Survey in 2017-18, the average income from the basic payment scheme in Wales was £22,705 for cattle and sheep farms in “lesser-favoured areas” – typically upland farms in areas like the Brecon Beacons. Dairy farms typically received £16,651 while cattle and sheep farms in lowland areas received on average £14,229.
The importance of subsidies cannot be underestimated.
Real returns on farming have declined dramatically over the past century. The average income for a farm in an area such as the Brecon Beacons in 2017-18 was £27,000, according to government data, which includes the EU basic payment but excludes the cost of labour of the farmer and family and of capital investment in machinery or buildings.
Effectively this means that, even when you take into account the subsidy, most farmers in the region are barely scraping by.
For Garry there would be no future for his farm without subsidies. I ask him whether his children want to take on the farm after he retires. He answers: “There are easier ways to make a living but, if they want it, it’s here.”
His eldest son Owen, 15, wants to be an electrical engineer while daughter Seren, 13, wants to be a teacher and son Dewi, nine, wants to be a farmer when he grows up.
Garry is frank about how he can take advantage of financial rewards for environmental management schemes on his land.
Whether that be through creating hay meadows, lower input grazing, or woodland planting he said: “I look at the numbers and see what I can do. I look at what I need to spend and what’s the payment?”
That must continue after Brexit, he urged.
Like most farmers these days he has also explored diversification options. Garry said: “We are not sitting still. We have spent £330,000 doing up old farm buildings, called Rhiannnydds Cottages, which we rent out for holidays.”
The 12-bed converted barn attracts visitors mainly from the south east, London, the Midlands and Cardiff, he said.
“It’s hard work but it is also quite rewarding. There’s no half-arsed attempts. We will put in 12-14 hours of work in a day if necessary.”
He added: “But first and foremost we are food producers. Everything we do should be focused on maintaining soil health and keeping this land ready for ramping up food production if required.”
A notoriously uncertain market
Rhys Edwards, 26, hasn’t had a single Sunday off in the last six weeks. He has been too busy sorting sheep out at his farm, which he runs alongside his father.
The father-and-son team manage the 600 ewes and 140 ewe lambs at Hendre Ifan Goch Farm, in Bridgend.
Rhys’ mum runs the popular Our Welsh Farm campsite, which was set up on the farm in 2013 to bring in some additional income. The family have also converted an old farm building into a wedding venue and collect rainwater to feed a hydroelectric generation project, which produces 20,000kwh each year.
They also receive a chunk of money for their basic farm payment. Rhys is apprehensive talking about Brexit, unsure how it might affect his family’s business after Halloween and unwilling to ruffle any feathers.
Rhys said: “We’ve done the calculations and the sheep enterprise is just about holding its own. It could be that the bottom third of farms go by the way but then there would be fewer lambs in the market, which would help with the prices.”
Farming is a notoriously uncertain market. Lamb prices, for example, have fluctuated by more than a quarter over the past year, making it difficult for any farmer to produce a business plan. It is controlled by supply and demand throughout the year.
While the basic farm payment helps smooth over cashflow problems Rhys is confident his family’s safeguarding measures will help them weather the Brexit storm.
Rhys said: “If we did have to sell our sheep tomorrow then we would survive because we have safeguarded. But we shouldn’t have to do that, especially when you consider the amount of work it takes to farm. For the last six Sundays in a row I’ve spent all day sorting sheep out. No-one else expects their Sunday to be given over to extra work.”
For Rhys it should be simple: Brexit is an opportunity for the UK to become self-sufficient in food production. Like Garry Williams, his lambs go to the St Merryn abattoir, which ultimately decides where they end up.
This is where sheep breeding comes into play, said Rhys. The hill sheep farmers in Brecon tend to breed smaller lambs, because of the landscape, which are preferred by the continental market. Therefore those hill farmers are much more reliant on the EU trade, Rhys explained. The domestic market is more favourable, he said.
In all honesty Rhys was unsure about exactly where his lambs ended up and said he didn’t really need to know. He said: “As long as I get paid our job is to rear the animal, not to market them.”
Rhys’ priority is getting a fair price for his product. He said: “We’ve been safeguarding for years. We are a hill farm with a lowland output. We’ve looked at genetics, bigger ewes, health plans, and just generally spending a lot of time with the sheep. It’s about the basics and keeping on top of it. If the market sorted itself out then it would be fine.
“If we could get £80 a lamb all year round then you could thrive on that. But it’s such an unknown market. If the prime minister doesn’t know then how do we know?”
In the first week of August in Wales a standard new season lamb would typically sell for £62.
Trying to offer some certainty to the situation, Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last month. He said: “I would point to the market in Japan that has just been opened to Welsh and British sheep for example. Now that is a new market for us, so exports are already taking place there, but that is a significant market for which we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.” This claim caused a backlash as some people claimed the deal struck between the UK government and Japan over sheep exports would lapse in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
In basic terms if there is no deal we are likely to have to trade with other countries according to tariff schedules agreed under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. That could mean tough times for Welsh farmers in particular as Wales is home to just under a third of all the sheep in the UK. More than a third of all Welsh lamb is exported overseas and nearly all of those exports go to the EU. The fear is that if European importers suddenly start having to pay considerably more for Welsh meat they could well switch to suppliers in other countries.
The cost of those WTO tariffs are uncertain but they could be anything from 38% to 91% to the price of British sheep meat for EU buyers, based on 2017 prices and depending on the exact product. It should also not be forgotten that non-tariff barriers to trade – like increased paperwork, health and safety regulations and labelling rules – can raise the price of goods as much as direct tariffs themselves.
Rhys is adamant that fewer exports from the UK could also mean fewer imports of foreign meat in what would be a “win for meat production,” he said. This would help address the impacts on climate change, reduce the carbon footprint, and help re-energise Welsh farming, he said.
“There is no better way for the market to access my product,” he said.
“It comes from Wales and stays in Wales so the carbon footprint is small. It’s up to the consumers now. If you forget about us now we won’t be here in 20 years time.”
It’s not quite that straightforward, however, said Rebecca Oborne, an analyst at the AHDB, saying seasonality had a big factor to play. Traditionally most Welsh lamb is produced in the spring, meaning the UK imports fewer carcasses through the summer. But imports are needed through the winter to even out supply.
“The main barrier to global trade is the access to the market,” Miss Oborne said.
“Globally the lamb supply is pretty tight relative to demand. In fact, in the last five years, demand for lamb has increased by 1m tonnes. Some of that is partly constrained by what we can produce. But, regardless of the cost of doing business and the tariffs lumped on, access to the market is the biggest barrier to trade.
“For example we don’t have the market access to China.”
She pointed to how recent droughts in New Zealand and Australia, two of the biggest lamb-producing countries in the world, have caused their exports to drop off.
Farmers are used to dealing with uncertainty – they can never guarantee the weather or predict what might happen to their markets, which are often controlled by global supply and demand. But if they are looking to the national government for reassurance they could be disappointed.
Just days after being sworn in as the new PM Mr Johnson headed to the farm of NFU Cymru poultry chair Victoria Shervington-Jones to outline his ambition for farming and food production. Welsh farming groups took the opportunity to urge the PM to “stop playing Russian roulette” with farming and warn him that leaving the EU without a deal could spark civil unrest.
Yet during his trip Mr Johnson declined to give specific details about how his government would help agriculture in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He declined twice to provide details on what sort of help farmers would get beyond saying they had the support they needed and that the government would help them to find new markets if other ones became trickier to do business with.
“We have interventions that are aimed to support them and their incomes,” he added. “The more you prepare and the more confident you are about the measures you put in place the less likely it is that there will be difficulties when it comes to October 31.”
Mr Johnson maintained he thought a no-deal outcome was unlikely and said it was up to the EU whether the UK left the bloc without a new withdrawal agreement. “It’s their call if they want us to do this,” he said.
Helen Roberts, from the National Sheep Association in Wales, said it would be “absolutely catastrophic” to leave with no deal and could lead to civil unrest among sheep farmers.“I’d want him to stop playing Russian roulette with the industry,” she said. She also pointed out farmers were willing to demonstrate and cause civil unrest by using tractors to block roads.
She said: “It is time to stand up for ourselves… I suspect there will be protests.”
Meanwhile Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers Union, said there would be no market for 40% of the UK’s lamb meat in the event of a no-deal Brexit. “You would be in oversupply because you wouldn’t be able to get over the barrier of a tariff to Europe,” she said.
‘We’re farmers. You just have to get on with it’
Just a few miles inside the Welsh border, in Monmouthshire, dairy farmer Emma Robinson is upbeat about the future. She has no time for the media and the headlines which scream how rural life is “ endangered” and how a no-deal Brexit is a “Halloween horror story” for farmers.
“We’re farmers,” she said. “There are no weekends off. You just have to get on with it.”
Getting on with it has meant looking at ways to supplement their income at Grosmont Wood Farm after the milk price plummeted to 11p per litre several years ago. At rock-bottom prices they were losing money with every litre their pedigree holstein cows produced.
Emma, 51, and her husband, Robert, were “sick of it” she said. So they looked at selling their own milk, raw and unpasteurised, at the farm gate.
Emma explained: “We stock it in two-litre cartons. We built up a local market for milk. Now people come from as far as Newport and Cwmbran to buy it. Some make cheese – we had one lady come to pick up 60 litres to make a traditional cheese for her community.” Emma sells the milk at £1.50 for two litres.
“It’s not going to make us millions but at the end of the day it’s a bit of money coming in,” she added.
Farmers in Wales are typically paid around 27p per litre for their milk when it is bought by a processor.
Selling your own milk, raw, to the public is not something available to everyone. Not only do you have to obtain the necessary documents but current regulations state that if your herd is identified as a TB risk you cannot sell raw milk to the public.
Despite being in a high-risk TB area Emma was optimistic. But just a few months after the Robinsons started selling their milk direct to customers they were shut down on TB restrictions.
“Sure enough we went down with it,” sighed Emma. “So I started pasteurising it here on the farm until we went clear again. I would say it hardly affected our custom.”
The family has also diversified in other ways. Alongside the cows the family run sheep, arable land, and a horse retirement yard. Emma said: “We haven’t always relied on our milk cheque. Now we are coming up to this window of change you can’t as a farm rely on this. You’ve got to come up with ideas to supplement that income.”
The Robinsons moved to Monmouthshire in February 2014 ago after “family reorganisation”. The family had previously farmed 600 acres in Bedfordshire.
In that first year in Wales the payment of their basic farm payment was delayed, coinciding with the dismal milk prices. It was a good grounding for facing the uncertainties associated with Brexit today, Emma said.
“We had to work on the assumption that this money wasn’t going to come in,” she said. “Things like contractor bills and all the other stuff still had to be paid for. Doing the horses and the milk are two good incomes and that’s really important.”
It means Emma is a lot more optimistic about what might get thrown their way after October 31.
Emma said: “The changes are ahead and no one really knows what’s going to happen. We are ready to embrace that. We are already working with the public by selling our milk and we have a number of public rights of way across our land. I think whatever they throw at us we are ready.
“Whatever schemes they would like us to do we will fill in the forms and crunch the numbers. We will do whatever it takes.”
The sheep side of the farm has suffered a little bit as uncertainty around Brexit refuses to go away, Emma admitted.
“With sheep there is a grey area there. We went to market last week and bought 25 replacement ewes just to keep the flock numbers where they are,” she explained. “But we wouldn’t buy any more right now. If a market is going to get hit that is it.”
Instead the couple are throwing everything into making their farm as self-sufficient as possible. Emma said: “We grow everything that we feed so we are pretty sustainable. We grow wheat, oats, wholecrop – my husband is very good at rotating crops and you’ve got to work the farm hard to make it work for you.”
Farming is a lifestyle choice, said Emma, and one she feels extremely lucky to be part of. She said: “Family farms are the backbone of our country. Each and every one of us is doing the same thing.
“When I think of Monmouthshire I think of dairy, beef, and lamb. Every day you’ve got to milk the cows and do this job. There are animals who rely and depend on you.”
What sets Welsh farmers apart is their attention to animal welfare, she stressed. That message should become ever more prominent in a post-Brexit era as consumers might be faced with cheaper imports produced at lower standards than those in Wales.
“Animal welfare – that’s what we are so good at in this country,” she said.
“We have to push and promote that message. Welfare and quality are second to none. It’s even more imperative in the current climate when consumers demand cheaper and cheaper food. You will always have people who want cheap, cheap, cheap.
“You watch them in the supermarket and they aren’t looking at the packet for the red tractor label. But some consumers do want traceability and quality.
“We’ve got to educate the next generation on how good our food is. People come to me and buy my milk. It’s raw, unpasteurised and they can see it comes from just one herd of cows on a family farm – they like that. They are buying into us. They can see the cows outside grazing, happy.”
Farmers across Wales are passionate about their role as food producers. In Wales we should be proud of the high-quality produce available to us whether that be lamb, beef, milk, or eggs. It really is up to the consumer to help steer the ship for farmers in the post-Brexit storm. Support local and buy British is the key message from all our farmers.
Failure to heed those warnings, however, could mean farmers aren’t around in 20 years and Pen-y-Fan might not look so resplendent when you hike up it next.
You have been warned.
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