The farmers versus the ‘Soil Stasi’: GUY ADAMS joins the fight against Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford’s Kafkaesque plan to save the planet by forcing farmers to give up a fifth of their land and imperilling Britain’s food production

A game of ‘cat and mouse’ played out on the highways and byways of North Wales this week. The ‘cat,’ or rather cats, drove great big tractors. The ‘mouse’ was Mark Drakeford, the country’s outgoing First Minister, who was attempting to conduct a farewell tour of rural provinces.

Predator finally nailed prey in Rhyl, a grim seaside resort which, after 25 years of rule by Mr Drakeford’s Labour Party, has achieved the distinction of being not only the most deprived town in Wales but the second most crime-ridden in the entire UK.

Here, around 200 farmers gathered outside the local sixth form college, where the First Minister was due to open a new engineering building on Wednesday.

As his motorcade swept past, they jeered, booed and honked the air horns of dozens of tractors parked up on narrow pavements. Then, to the consternation of police, the crowd swept through the venue’s gates and gathered outside the front door.

When Mr Drakeford left, the whole thing played out in reverse, with evening news cameras on hand to capture his diesel-guzzling Volvo fleeing the scene.

Farmers using their vehicles to protest against cheap meat imports drive past the Port of Dover in Kent last week

Farmers using their vehicles to protest against cheap meat imports drive past the Port of Dover in Kent last week

Cops detained one protester who stepped in front of the car. A second man was led away after a minor scuffle with a hi-viz-wearing official. Mr Drakeford then scuttled back to Cardiff, cancelling a string of scheduled appearances in Colwyn Bay on Thursday, which were also due to be picketed, citing ‘serious security issues’.

The cancellation marked a significant escalation in the daily protests that had originally begun the previous Friday, when a convoy of tractors blocked one lane of the A48 in Carmarthenshire.

Highlights have so far included a kerfuffle in Newtown, Powys, where two of Drakeford’s potential replacements were attending a hustings meeting (police manhandled one person) and in Wrexham, where farm vehicles gathered outside the constituency office of Lesley Griffiths, Labour’s rural affairs minister, and a farmer’s son was arrested on suspicion of throwing eggs at her door.

In short, the peasants west of Offa’s Dyke are revolting. An enormous crowd, many travelling in free coaches laid on by livestock auctioneers, will now converge on the Senedd, or Welsh Parliament, in central Cardiff on Wednesday, where Mr Drakeford’s senior lieutenants are due to discuss rural affairs.

So could this be a Celtic variant of the enormous ‘farmer protests’ that recently brought much of Europe to a halt?

Having spent my week visiting the increasingly febrile frontlines, I can say one thing with absolute confidence: while agricultural machines aren’t yet blocking motorways, much of Wales — especially the green bits — are already a no-go area for Labour’s ruling class.

‘Wherever Drakeford and his colleagues go, they will find tractors on the roads and people on the streets,’ says Steve Evans, a Pembrokeshire dairy producer who is a leading figure in the movement. ‘The longer they refuse to listen, the bigger the protests will grow. I’ve been farming my whole life, and have never known anger like it.’

This increasingly fractious dispute involves an old-fashioned fight for survival.

At its centre is something that the Welsh Government call its ‘Sustainable Farming Scheme’ which was designed to replace the old, pre-Brexit EU subsidies. According to Mr Drakeford and his Left-wing chums, the scheme, to be phased in from 2025, will combat the ‘climate and nature emergency’.

To help Wales achieve ‘Net Zero,’ the scheme requires farmers to plant trees on ten per cent of their land. Recipients of the subsidy, which replaces almost all previous financial support, will also have to turn an additional ten per cent of their acres over to nature.

To put things another way, if the proposal goes ahead, Welsh farmers will have two choices: they can either become the only food producers in the developed world who don’t receive subsidies, or they can more or less stop farming one fifth of their land.

Both eventualities will push thousands of farms, many of which have been in the same family for generations, into bankruptcy. That’s not a scare story. It’s the sober analysis of Mr Drakeford’s own government, among others.

Its ‘impact assessment’, which was quietly published as part of a consultation due to end early next month, says the Sustainable Farming Scheme will lead to the loss of 5,500 farming jobs. This equates to roughly one in nine people who currently work in agriculture.

Rishi Sunak speaking with farmers after he delivered a speech at the Welsh Conservatives Conference in Llandudno, North Wales, today

Rishi Sunak speaking with farmers after he delivered a speech at the Welsh Conservatives Conference in Llandudno, North Wales, today

‘It’s a huge number, which will devastate rural communities: the village schools, the auctioneers, the vets, and people who run the local store,’ adds Evans. ‘Farmers have been copping the rough end of policy failures for too long, and we won’t take it any more.’

The figure for expected job losses is also, as it happens, almost twice the number of steel workers who were recently handed redundancy notices at Port Talbot.

Labour described that development as ‘devastating’. This one, involving a demographic that is roughly 45 per cent Welsh-speaking — but wears green, rather than blue collars — appears not to faze the party’s Corbynite high command in the slightest.

Little wonder that just three per cent of Welsh farmers now ‘trust’ the government, according to one recent poll. They believe the country’s ruling class has been captured by tree-hugging quangos and charities intent on turning rural Wales into an economic wasteland on a par with Mr Drakeford’s crime-ridden Rhyl.

‘It’s a mad scheme designed by people who have never had to make a living from the land,’ says Ifan Jones, who farms 200 acres of the Vale of Clwyd.

‘If you lose 20 per cent of your land, you need to cut your livestock and reduce the size of your business. But we have no idea what the farm payments they’ll give us in return would be. A lot of farmers will just pack it in. They will have no choice. But maybe that’s what the Government wants.’

Celia Williams, who farms 350 acres at Rhuddlan in North Wales with her husband Robert, tells me: ‘We have two sons, one of them in agricultural college, but it feels like the Welsh Government is doing everything it can to ensure that we cannot survive. We’ve been told to diversify, so we’ve built a camping and caravan park, allowing people to come to North Wales and pump money into the economy, only for them to announce a tourist tax.’

Asked for her views on Mr Drakeford, a former sociology lecturer, she adds: ‘An absolute numpty, who has never been anywhere near business and never earned a living in the private sector.’

To explain how ill-conceived his administration’s 20 per cent figure is, consider this: the demonstrations that saw European farmers blocking roads and city centres across the continent last month were triggered by an EU plan to force farmers to set between four and seven per cent of land aside. Wales is planning a scheme between three and five times more radical.

Against that backdrop, the views of the wider farming community were perhaps best summed up via two social media posts which went viral this week.

One was the work of Ioan Humphreys, a fourth-generation livestock farmer from mid-Wales, who fought back tears as he said: ‘I get we need to change some farming practices. I get that. You always have to change, you always have to evolve.

‘But what the Welsh Government are trying to do is just kill us off — just completely wipe us out — just to fill their quotas, to fill their net-zero quotas, to tick a box. I will do anything to fight back against the government, but it’s not really a fightback, I’m just fighting for my right to continue to farm.’

The other was by celebrity farmer Jeremy Clarkson, who declared: ‘I’m trying to see the Welsh farming policy from the government’s point of view. And I just can’t. It’s completely daft . . . I look at him [Mark Drakeford], I look at him and plainly he’s a man who likes a pie. And you don’t get those from trees.’

Farmers and supporters during a protest outside Tesco in Whitfield, near Dover, last week

Farmers and supporters during a protest outside Tesco in Whitfield, near Dover, last week

To fully understand the havoc Labour’s Sustainable Farming Scheme will unleash, one must trawl through a 90-page ‘consultation’ document in which the whole thing is laid out. Then you realise that the headline-grabbing plan to remove 20 per cent of farmland from production is just one of a series of, at times, utterly surreal policy proposals the party intends to foist upon the sector that produces the nation’s food.

The document states that, to receive subsidy, farmers will in future be required to complete 17 ‘universal actions’, each involving Kafka-esque levels of bureaucracy, every single year.

One involves completing at least six online ‘personal development’ courses, in subjects such as ‘health and safety’. As one farmer puts it: ‘I spent three years in agricultural college and two decades farming full time, but the politburo wants to send me for re-education.’.

Another requires them to regularly send off dozens of soil samples each year to a monitoring organisation, now known as ‘the soil Stasi’.

A ‘universal action’ governing hedgerow maintenance stipulates that every hedge must be a certain width and height, and be able to contain livestock without the use of wire fencing. Another requires each farmer to build at least two large ponds, regardless of whether they own suitable land.

Every time a sheep is lame, it must be reported to the Government, for ‘animal welfare’ purposes, while farmers will be expected to improve biosecurity by installing ‘wash stations’ at every entrance and exit of their property to disinfect the shoes, hands, car wheels of every person who visits.

‘It’s very bureaucratic,’ is how Abi Reader, who runs a mixed farm just outside Cardiff, puts it. ‘It feels as if the Government is trying to interfere with every little stage of the farming business.’

Reader, who is deputy president of NFU Cymru, points out that the scheme’s headline measure — reducing the amount of land being cultivated — will only reduce carbon emissions if the people of Wales magically start eating significantly less food.

Unless dietary habits radically change, the country will simply import more meat from places such as Brazil, where rainforests are being chopped down to build cattle ranches.

In other words, this damaging scheme could have the exact opposite of its intended effect and bankrupt 5,500 farmers in the process.

‘The impact assessment says the scheme will eradicate 45,000 dairy cows,’ Reader adds. ‘That means 300,000 Welsh homes will have to drink milk that has been imported on a lorry from Ireland or England.’ Food security will be similarly harmed.

Also missing from the Welsh government’s calculations is the fact that woodland is significantly less valuable than productive farmland.

‘Pasture is worth £25,000 an acre,’ says one dairy producer from the Vale of Glamorgan. ‘Woodland is £3,000 an acre. If I turn 10 per cent of my farm into trees, then the capital value of my business will fall by around half a million pounds.

‘I have loans secured against that land, which banks will be entitled to call in. Mark Drakeford and his socialist chums don’t get this, because they have never worked in the private sector, but it will wipe people out.’

Then there is the benefit that farming subsidies bring to the wider economy, estimated to be around £8 for every pound that is spent, often in parts of the country that need it most.

In rural Ceredigion, for example, around 70 per cent of local jobs are provided by two processing plants. One is owned by a meat firm called Dunbia, the other by Volac, which turns dairy products into fitness supplements. In the hugely deprived valleys town of Merthyr Tydfil, the Kepac slaughterhouse employs almost a thousand people.

‘Sheep farming in Wales is collaborative,’ is how one rural campaigner puts it. ‘If your neighbours give up, it has an impact on you: the local abattoir shuts; vets can no longer wash their face; there’s an erosion of an entire culture, often Welsh speaking. It’s fragile and nobody in Cardiff seems to give a s***.’

Relations between rural Wales and Labour high command had already been tense for some time. Almost all of Mr Drakeford’s cabinet members represent urban seats, and you could fit roughly half the entire Senedd’s constituencies into the rural county of Powys, which has just a single assembly member. Which means there is little electoral gain in sticking up for countryside interests.

‘There are no votes in farming for Labour, and plenty of their activists see this as a way to settle scores for the miner’s strike 40 years ago,’ is how one politician puts it. ‘They are also in bed with the eco brigade and have a formal relationship with Extinction Rebellion.’

Says another: ‘The entire legislation has been captured by left-wing NGOs (non-governmental organisations). You go into meetings about the future of farming, and there will be 30 or 40 charities and wildlife trusts, and a couple of organisations representing agriculture. The ministers are nodding dogs who do whatever the eco-lobby tells them.’

Long before the Sustainable Farming Scheme reared its ugly head, Welsh Labour gave every impression of wanting to antagonise rural folk.

During Covid, the Government arbitrarily decided to ban shooting businesses — which support 2,400 jobs and pump £75 million a year into the country’s economy — from receiving support grants.

In 2021, Julie James, the Climate Change minister, declared it immoral to consume meat daily, saying: ‘Personally I’m a lifelong vegetarian. There is nothing wrong with eating meat, but we just have to be eating it as a high days and holidays kind of thing.’

Last Autumn, a Labour member of the Senedd called Joyce Watson told struggling livestock farmers impacted by TB (often due to her own government’s refusal to countenance an English or Irish-style badger cull) to ‘find another job’.

In keeping with this combative modus operandi, Mark Drakeford glibly told a press conference on Monday that it wasn’t up to farmers how subsidies should be spent, and on Tuesday told the Senedd that farmers only had themselves to blame for his party’s Sustainable Farming Scheme because they previously ‘voted to leave the European Union’.

As the NFU’s Abi Reader says: ‘That has made everybody explode. First it’s not true. All the polling suggests that farmers voted almost exactly the same way as the rest of Wales in the referendum. Second, even if it was true, a First Minister isn’t supposed to be designing policies so he can punish people for not voting the way he wants.’

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, as protesters were packing up their tractors in Rhyl, a video emerged of the moment Mr Drakeford had entered the college building.

While shaking the hands of his host, he was congratulated for getting past ‘all the tractors’. He appeared to respond by tartly stating that those demonstrating had ‘nothing better to do, apparently’.

Is that what the First Minister of Wales really thinks of the men and women who feed his nation? Is it any way to describe a community protesting against a Government plan to drive one in nine of them out of business? As the farming protests intensify, we shall doubtless find out.

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