British farmers crave independence but fear cost of EU exit

Published 10:15 am Monday, June 20, 2016

CAPEL-LE-FERNE, England — Rob Warnock is a proud British farmer and the son of a proud British farmer, and he hopes his son will follow in his footsteps one day.

He’s also a European Union farmer, but that is not a legacy Warnock wants to pass on to his 6-year-old son. Warnock plans to vote this week for Britain to leave the EU, even though it could cost his struggling dairy business dear.

“As soon as I heard there would be a referendum, I knew I’d be ‘out’ without even thinking about it,” he said, as sheep and calves grazed in a field on his family farm. “It’s just what my heart says.”

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Many British farmers feel the same emotional tug. But while their hearts tell them to leave, their heads urge caution. The EU is helping farmers stay afloat at a time when many are struggling.

The benefits of membership in the 28-nation EU may seem intangible to many Britons, who view it as a distant body of byzantine bureaucracy and obscure regulations. But farmers know exactly how much they get from the bloc. In Warnock’s case it’s 40,000 pounds ($60,000) a year — his share of the subsidy millions of farmers across the continent receive under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

“People say, ‘You’re mad to vote out when you could lose 40,000 pounds,’” Warnock said. “(But) I think what we could have in the end would be better.”

He desperately needs things to improve. The price of milk has been plunging for more than two years, hit by what Warnock calls a “perfect storm” of factors, including Russia’s ban on EU imports, Chinese stockpiling of powdered milk and production increases in other EU countries.

That’s disastrous for 44-year-old Warnock, who tends 450 dairy cows and grows barley and wheat on 650 acres (263 hectares) perched above the English Channel on Britain’s south coast.

“We’re being paid 18 pence a liter for our milk at the moment, and it costs us 28 pence a liter to produce,” he said. “Every time that (milk) tanker drives out the yard, it’s another 600 quid (pounds) that we’ve lost.”

Sian Davies, dairy adviser for the National Farmers’ Union, says dire market conditions may be nudging British farmers toward the EU exit door.