We sheared our sheep today, beneath a sky full of gloomy grey clouds. There were hours of chasing sheep up the ramp to the men on the trailer. The radio blared out country songs and an occasional news bulletin informing us who was charged with doing what in our new government. We finished and got the wool bulging bags safely in the barn before it started raining. The lads on the clipping trailer weren’t sure what this new government meant for their lives, and frankly neither am I.

During the election campaign, Keir Starmer promised there would be a “New Deal for Farming”, but, as with so much else about his campaign, he was fairly vague about the details. The Labour manifesto had 87 words about farming in it.

The vagueness kind of worked. But in truth, most of us would have voted for a lettuce rather than subject ourselves to five more years of Tory incompetence.

The post-Brexit Conservatives saw farming as something to be “disrupted”. Every time they were given the chance to choose to support farming, they chose the wrong way. In his book Politics on the Edge, Rory Stewart recalls his first meeting with his new boss Liz Truss — remember her? — when he was a junior minister at the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. She told him to stop being “interesting”.

The Conservatives of the past idealised farming and rural places; the new ones wanted to unleash a culture war on it — taking on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and its legacy. The problem was that it was stupid politics. It set the Conservatives at odds with its core constituency — rural areas — turning them from protector to threat, from ally to enemy. They cared more about traders and bankers than farmers, and it was always felt as a betrayal. Now, huge swathes of rural England are no longer blue. In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.

“In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.”

So now we have a new government, what will its New Deal look like? Truthfully, there isn’t one yet.

The current, unwritten policy is that we can largely allow the market to sort out what happens on the land — a massive food and land-based economy that turns over way beyond £130 billion a year. Then we try to mend any damage that economy does by matching the agriculture budget we had when we left the EU — about £3.7 billion (some of which isn’t being spent on mending anything). It’s like trying to pull a half-mile-long super-tanker backwards with one of those daft paddle boards you can hire on beaches on holiday. The government intervention is massively overwhelmed by the huge commercial realities making things worse. We know the farming landscapes the free market gives you — and it is ugly.

If I had the ear of the new Defra team, I’d tell them to first work out what they want to see in the British countryside: what is the big progressive vision? Until you have that, there is only drift, contradictions and confusion.

You can throw money at farming and the environment and deliver not much; your policies need to be coherent and aligned. And yes, that’s a massive thing to wrap your head around, but that vision will affect everything about how we live.

Do we want our landscapes to be the product of global industrial systems — sterile, monocultural, ugly and poisoned — or do we want something different? I’m convinced that the vast majority of British people want something different — and that this crosses political tribes and demographics. Most of us want a beautiful countryside that feeds us and is full of nature and beauty.

We need a staggering amount of food to feed our growing population, and we only produce about half of what we eat now. We need amazing farmers, loads of them, because we live in a volatile world. Do you trust Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, the Chinese or the EU to feed us in an emergency? I don’t.

Every other nation is securing their future food supplies, making sure that in a future world of scarcity, they’ll have what they need. In Britain, much of our future food is going to have to be grown from our own land. Masses more food needs to come from horticulture and orchards, so we produce a whole healthy diet of real foods. The just-in-time globally distributed food systems we have come to rely on are massively risky. We need a food system that is robust enough to cope with worse global disasters than Covid, when our shelves were empty at times.

That means you need some basic food production within walking distance of where you live — wherever you live. Local food systems need to be developed, protected, supported, nudged to change and regulated to create a different outcome from, say, the American Midwest. You can’t just “leave it to Tesco”, the NFU or single-issue campaigning groups. And you then have to help the poorest people in our society to access and afford nutritious food, as they do in civilised countries. This should be a basic human right in modern Britain; no one need go hungry. And then there is the powerful link between our health and what we spend on the NHS. A healthy food system would massively reduce the cost of the NHS.

The world will be saved, or destroyed, by what we consume — so a major part of the battle is what appears on our supermarket shelves, and what doesn’t. But the government can’t put all this on the “consumer”. Contrary to the mantra, the consumer isn’t always right. Processed foods are designed to make us crave their sugars and fats — to make us zombies.

And the consumer, more often than not, is still a mum, and she’s juggling her career and parenting, so she’s knackered and feeling broke, and she’s often distracted by kids hanging from her arm. That consumer doesn’t have the time, food knowledge or money to make perfect food and environmental choices. People need government, retailers, farmers and environmentalists to work together and do a heap of environmental and healthy diet thinking, and legislating, for them.

We need tougher regulation to ensure higher environmental and welfare standards. And we need to enforce fair dealing between supermarkets and farmers. That relationship often seems to be bullying and exploitative. A powerful Groceries Code Adjudicator is needed — one our over-powerful supermarkets are scared of. We need to ban “loss leaders”, where the supermarket gives away the farmer’s product, inflicting the loss on them. And we need to end the deeply misleading labels often found in British supermarkets, usually in the form of British flags above shelves of imported products. Does the Red Tractor logo even mean anything, anymore?

Our island is crowded and imperfect and we need lots of different things from land, ranging from dinner to renewable energy, carbon capture, commercial forestry, and healthy populations of insects and birds. Our landscapes are going to have to become much better at delivering multiple outcomes. Having a national “land use framework”, a plan for how we fit our disparate needs into our landmass, would be a good start. Navigating these choices is the work of grown-ups who know their stuff and who can find compromises.

The worrying news is that the messaging from the new government is that there will be “no significant change from current policies” in Defra. It is part of the “don’t scare the horses” strategy that won the election. But that isn’t a position you can hold for more than a few weeks. We’ve been drifting too long already; we need this government to be brave and bold.

The truth is you have to grapple with and manipulate things across the whole rural economy if you want our landscapes to be more progressive. Either you make this a priority and work across departments to get things done or you have to spend massively more on the farming and environment budget to mend the damage, probably both.

One of the key jobs is to grow the emerging Environmental Land Management (ELM) system for supporting farmers to deliver more nature. In England, we no longer have agricultural “subsidies” (unlike most of our commercial rivals and other devolved nations within the UK whom we compete with). The government doesn’t pay farmers to keep sheep or cows — they pay for environmental outcomes: buying woodland, wildflower meadows, or the flooding of fields by the hectare. If we want more nature, we have to buy it through this system. You now get exactly as much, or as little, as you pay for. But the budget was set at the moment we left the EU, years ago, and through inflation is declining rapidly in real terms. We are going backwards. So, there will be no “nature recovery” until this government commits to spending more.

A simple first step, that would cost nothing, would be publishing the latest numbers for the ELMs scheme. We simply don’t know if the post-Brexit agri-environmental schemes have the farmer take-up and reach to create the change that’s needed. Let the light into Defra and let the numbers out. Every farmer who can’t access such a scheme is an opportunity lost for change to more sustainable or regenerative practices.

Defra ministers need to get down to the Treasury and win the arguments about where money is needed and why. The NFU estimates that raising the agriculture budget from about £3.7 billion to £5.5 billion could bring about the transformation we need to see, and, though I might spend the money differently from them, it is probably not a bad estimate of what’s needed: £2 billion of new money. Raise that, when possible, to £4 billion in new money and you could radically transform our food system and our landscapes. For context, that’s how much was spent on unused PPE in the first year of the pandemic.

And, please Defra, avoid the same mistakes many previous governments have made. No new websites. No new schemes. No new abbreviations. No lengthy “consultations”.

“Let the light into Defra and let the numbers out.”

The basic infrastructure for what is needed exists already. The knowledge for making the countryside better already exists. So focus on the resources and the delivery process. Make sure the existing schemes are open to as many farmers as possible, and ensure there are skilled staff at Natural England to process farmer’s applications: progress can die in those bottlenecks, as I suspect Liz Truss and others long ago realised.

We also need strict planning and emissions laws that make it impossible to create monster chicken, pig or dairy farms. And yes, when we stop our farmers doing that, the quid pro quo is we can’t then allow them to be displaced on the shelf by less ethical imports. When we do better than the global race to the bottom, we have to support the more ethical system we’ve created with our trade policies, something every prime minister says they’ll do then renege on.

On top of this, we must stop land being a tax dodge for the super wealthy. Nature-friendly small farms need support to continue, but the wealthy descendants of Norman warlords from 1,000 years ago don’t. Cap any farming support payments for vast estates, wealthy NGOs and pension funds. And while we are at it, land reform would be great in England — with a community right-to-buy of the biggest estates. It may sound like I’ve gone fully communist but fuck it… Imagine communities up and down Britain having their own food systems: their own orchards, their own horticulture, their own regenerative herds of cattle and sheep, their own eggs. Imagine how healthy, robust and resilient such communities could be. Imagine how green and pleasant that England could be.

We all really need that “New Deal” for farmers. I just hope that Keir Starmer has worked out what that means, and how bold he now needs to be.

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