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For Some U.K. Farmers, Business Looks Better Without 'Brexit'

May 24, 2016
Originally published on June 2, 2016 2:47 pm

On a drizzly spring day in rural East Anglia, north of London, Will Dickinson ducks into his centuries-old farmhouse to file some paperwork.

"The wet day has driven me inside to the office — where I hate to be!" says Dickinson. His home, Cross Farm, in Hertfordshire, has been in operation since at least the year 1086, when it was listed in the Domesday Book, a land survey of England and Wales written that year in medieval Latin.

"I am just filling in the form for my subsidies. I just pressed the 'submit' button," he says. "The subsidies are a vital part of my business income at the moment."

Those are farm subsidies from the European Union — government payments to support farmers, ensure the food supply and regulate the cost of commodities. They make up about a third of Dickinson's income. The other two-thirds comes from the sale of his crops — wheat, barley and canola — and rental of his livery stables to horse owners in the area.

He's more diversified than most British farmers. On average, 60 percent of U.K. farmers' income comes from EU subsidies. About 40 percent of the entire EU budget goes to farmers.

That's one of the reasons this 55-year-old farmer says he'll vote next month to stay in the EU. Britain holds a national referendum June 23 on whether to stay in the EU or pull out and go it alone, an option dubbed "Brexit."

It's what everybody has been talking about for months, Dickinson says, when he gets together with fellow farmers in his local branch of the National Farmers Union. The NFU has said it prefers to remain in the EU, but won't tell its members how to vote either way. It's prohibited from campaigning ahead of the June vote.

"Most of the people I've spoken to at NFU meetings are in favor of remaining within the EU," Dickinson says. "I think that comes from insecurity."

Insecurity about losing those farm subsidies, and possibly also losing access to foreign labor. Up to three-quarters of Britain's seasonal farmworkers come from other EU member countries, according to Pamela Robinson, a food supply chain economist at the University of Birmingham.

A recent Oxford University study found 96 percent of these farmworkers would not meet current visa requirements to stay, if Britain were to leave the EU. Some kind of emergency arrangement would have to be made to avert a labor crisis in rural Britain.

The man who'd likely be tasked with arranging that is George Eustice, Britain's farming minister — a sixth-generation farmer himself. He's in favor of leaving the EU.

"I've wrestled with lots of regulation coming from Brussels. It's stifling. It attempts to codify and regulate almost every conceivable thing," Eustice told NPR at Britain's Parliament. "I just think the benefits of taking back control and making our own policies far outweigh the costs."

The Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and several big banks predict financial calamity — higher prices, lower wages, a possible recession — if Britons vote to leave the EU. But Eustice says those are scare tactics designed to protect vested interests.

Britain would have a two-year period in which to renegotiate trade deals so farmers shouldn't worry about being able to sell their crops in Europe, he says. Eustice promises no disruption to farmers' subsidies. The money would just come from London, rather than Brussels.

"If we took back control, we would simply design our own national policy," Eustice says. "That would give us the ability to strip away a lot of the pointless bureaucracy and administration and have the ability to design a policy that's fit for purpose for us."

Confusingly for U.K. farmers, while their farming minister is in favor of leaving the EU, their environment secretary wants to stay. The British Cabinet itself is divided.

"Farmers are a little torn, I'm afraid," says Robinson, from the University of Birmingham. When she asks them what would happen if there were an exit, they tell her food prices will have to go up, she says.

"They believe that's the only way they'd be sustainable, because they need to cover their costs of production," she says. "They want to see pressure on supermarkets to accept increases in commodity prices, and pass that onto the consumer. But very few governments want to see food inflation."

That's one reason British Prime Minister David Cameron says he favors remaining in the EU, and is urging Britons to vote that way next month.

For many Britons, their vote will come down to identity — whether they feel more British or more European, or possibly both. But for Dickinson, it comes down to his bottom line.

"As an Englishman, I would say, 'I want to be an Englishman. I want to stay as an Englishman with my own identity, on my own island,'" he says. "As a farmer, I want to stay in business."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Will they stay, or will they go? We'll all be watching as people in Britain make that decision next month. They're voting on whether to leave the European Union. And as the vote approaches, some are thinking about what value they see in their lives from being part of the EU family. For farmers, that value comes in the form of a monthly check, the EU farm subsidy. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from rural England.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: On a drizzly spring day, I sloshed past cows and horses and up to the door of a farmhouse in East Anglia, about 25 miles north of London.

WILLIAM DICKINSON: Hello.

FRAYER: Hello.

RICH: Are you Will?

DICKINSON: I am.

RICH: Hi, Will. I'm Rich.

DICKINSON: Hi, Rich. Come in. Come in...

FRAYER: And I'm Lauren.

DICKINSON: ...Out of the wet.

DICKINSON: My name is William Dickinson, and I live at Cross Farm. And the farm has been here, as far as we know, forever, since the Romans.

It is quite wet isn't it?

FRAYER: Dickinson lends me a pair of wellies, rubber boots, and gives me a tour of where he grows wheat, barley, canola, just like his father and grandfather before him.

DICKINSON: As it happens, the wet day has driven me inside to the office, where it's a place where I hate to be. And I am just filling in the form for my subsidies.

FRAYER: He may hate the paperwork. But about a third of his income is from European Union subsidies, government payments to support farmers, insure the food supply and regulate the cost of commodities. Nearly half of the entire EU budget goes directly to farmers like Dickinson. He says he'll vote to stay in the EU. And it's what everybody's talking about at his local branch of the National Farmers Union.

DICKINSON: Most of the people I've spoken to at NFU meetings are in favor of remaining within the EU. And I think that comes from insecurity.

FRAYER: Insecurity about losing those EU farm subsidies and also access to foreign labor. Up to three quarters of Britain's seasonal farmworkers come from other countries in the EU. A recent Oxford University study says 96 percent of them would not meet current visa requirements to stay if Britain leaves. Some kind of emergency arrangement would have to be made to avert a labor crisis in rural Britain. There's a man who says he'll do just that.

GEORGE EUSTICE: I'm George Eustice. And I'm the farming minister.

FRAYER: A sixth generation farmer himself, Eustice has come out in favor of leaving the EU. I met him at Britain's Parliament and asked him why.

EUSTICE: I've wrestled with lots of regulation coming from Brussels. It's stifling. It attempts to codify and regulate almost every conceivable thing.

FRAYER: He says he'd give farmers the same amount of money they get in EU subsidies. But it would come from London, not Brussels.

PAMELA ROBINSON: Farmers are a little torn, I'm afraid.

FRAYER: Pamela Robinson is a food supply chain economist at the University of Birmingham.

ROBINSON: When I speak to farmers and I say to them - well, what happen then if there were an exit? They say to me well, food prices will have to go up because they need to cover their costs of production. And they want to see a certain pressure on supermarkets to accept increases in commodity prices and pass that on to the consumer. Now, very few governments want to see food inflation.

FRAYER: For a lot of people, their vote next month comes down to identity - whether they feel British or European or both. But for farmer Will Dickinson, it comes down to his bottom line.

DICKINSON: As an Englishman, I would say I want to be an Englishman. I want to stay as an Englishmen with my own identity on my own island. As a farmer, I want to stay in business.

FRAYER: The EU, he believes, might help the Dickinsons stay on their family farm for generations to come. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Harpenden, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.