Brexit roadtrip - James Mills (livestock farmer, York)

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James Mills worked for the British Agricultural Bureau in Brussels for two years, before coming back to the family farm in York. He now runs a livestock farm with his parents. They have 250 ewes on 80 acres, and 420 acres of arable crops like wheat, barley and pulses. To become more resilient as a business with an uncertain future context, last year, the Mills family has renovated an old barn on the premises into a ‘rural wedding venue’. Since Christmas they’ve taken 24 bookings.

They’ve started lambing last week, the setting for our interview is a beautiful red sunset accompanied by many very vocal ewes.

Having worked in Brussels, do you feel you have a different appreciation for the EU compared to other farmers?

“Just having done two years over there, yeah, definitely. I mean, it absolutely has its faults. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than what’s ahead of us? I think so. I can’t say what happens in 30 or 40 years, Britain might be a brilliant place. But it’s the hurt and the potential pain in that transition period that worries me. A lot can go wrong in a fairly short space of time, whereas it takes a long time to build something good.”

What do you anticipate happening on and after the 29th of March?

“The direction of travel is that direct support payments to farmers are going to decrease, whether or not we stayed in Europe. The only difference is that they’ll decrease even faster, now that we’ve left Europe. I voted to remain, but morally, now we have a majority voting to leave, we have to leave. Despite the lies, despite the deceit, I think in terms of democracy, it wouldn’t be far of a revolution if we wouldn’t leave. A second referendum will not solve anything. I think positions have become even more entrenched.” …

“Theresa May’s deal is awful. Fine, I know it’s only a potentially short term until we’ve worked out what our actual relation is. But having worked in Brussels, the worst part to me is the fact that we’ll have no say over any of our regulations. We’ve voted to take back control, and we’ve ceded more control than we’ve ever done before..”

What is Brexit about to you?

“It’s probably reflective of a certain section of society, who have become quite disenfranchised. And you can see this across Europe, I mean the Netherlands has had the same discussion. The rise of the far right, if you look at Poland, and Austria. People feel that there is so much disparity within economies now that they viewed it as an opportunity to protest as much as anything. But it’s the most ultimate protest I could have imagined.”

“Two years ago I moved back from Brussels, and sat in a meeting with a chap called George Eustice, who’s just resigned from the cabinet as Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries & Food. He sat there and said that UK farmers would receive as much money, if not more from the UK government, if we’d leave. This was a government minister saying this during the referendum. And he’s just resigned from the cabinet, because of Brexit, because he wants to be able to vote for a ‘no deal’. People were deceived in my opinion. But that’s shrugged of at the moment, people saying ‘That’s project fear’, because it hasn’t happened yet. It will only be in 20 years time that we really see what the effects of this decision really are.”

How the prospect of Brexit changed the way you make decisions about the future of this farm?

“For example, I put the rams with the ewes back in September, to produce lambs that will be sold in a post-Brexit situation. How do you plan for that? We’re not like Nissan, they can relocate. I can’t pick my lambs up and go to the Republic of Ireland and say: ‘Alright lads, this is where we’re going to produce lambs now’. So quite frankly, you cross your fingers, cross your legs, cross everything else you can to wish yourself luck and carry on. We as a business are trying to make sure we produce a product the consumer was, we try to make our cost of production as tight as possible, and we’ve tried to make sure we are resilient. This ‘rural wedding venue’ is my Brexit insurance policy. If farming goes badly, we have an alternative source of income, that is not politically influenced. People are always going to want to get married. And if we can make it a place where want to get married and hopefully have a beautiful surround, hopefully they’ll keep coming.”

Maarten Kuiper