Tim Breitmeyer, the new president of the CLA, speaks to Kate Green about subsidies, diversification and why the rural economy is vibrant.
CLA presidents come in many estate sizes and guises – art collector, motorbiker, falconer and climber, to name more recent incumbents – but it’s been a few years since this rural business body was headed by a major arable farmer from East Anglia. Tim Breitmeyer, a racquets and real-tennis player and a passionate Africa traveller who was officially endorsed last week and is very much his own man, is visibly going to present a different stamp again.
‘The defining element of my presidency will be helping Government put elements in place to make British farming more profitable after Brexit,’ he says. ‘We’re going to have to help people run their farms as businesses and not ways of life.’
His words are competing with the deafening buffeting of Storm Ophelia as we inspect a vast grain store whose labyrinth of vertiginous ladders and platforms would lend itself to a James Bond film set. Windy creaking aside, everything is orderly: shiny tractors as tall as double-decker buses, their cabs glowing like aeroplane cockpits; precisely planted winter crops stretching into the eerie orange light; yellow roses in the courtyard of a piggery converted to business units; tidy woodland surrounding an ancient burial ground; and wildlife-friendly strips and a wildflower meadow.
It’s a surprise, therefore, to hear Mr Breitmeyer say pessimistically: ‘Margins are very, very tight. It’s questionable as to whether what we’ve grown will ultimately be profitable. Many farmers around here are saying that the only money is in diversification – and we’re supposed to be the big guys.’
The Cambridgeshire-Essex border may be the richest part of the country, yet it’s not immune to price volatility, not only of wheat (a variance of £40 per ton in just 18 months), but, he explains, of commodities such as red diesel, which rocketed from 9p a litre up to 90p before plummeting to about 58p.
‘In 2015, 87% of farming income was the Brussels cheque,’ he points out. ‘If we could be paid just a little bit more in recognition of the high-quality food we produce and a little less was taken by others in the food chain, then the notion of giving farmers a bung, which is dead in the water now anyway, doesn’t need to be there.’
Like most farmers, he reflects that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy isn’t perfect – ‘Some landowners did get paid for doing nothing, although a lot have also done beautifully off their own bat’ – and feels there’s an opportunity for future payment arrangements to be more straightforward.
‘We could turn round and say [to Government] that if you still want us to feed the nation, mitigate climate change and look after birds and bees, all of which are public services, then a contractual arrangement would be a more intelligent way of going forward, but we have to come up with something realistic and deliverable.
‘Measurement shouldn’t take in the “unmeasurable” – the songbirds that get eaten by badgers, the turtle doves shot as they fly over Malta – it should be based on what we’ve already done. Farmers have got to wise up to the idea of doing their bit for the environment, but if the system’s voluntary, simple and flexible, they’ll sign up to it.’
Mr Breitmeyer, a Wykehamist, says with self-deprecation that he won’t be a ‘university-educated president’ – he followed his father straight into the Grenadier Guards, reaching the rank of major – but he’s lucid about life’s important values. Unlike many of his members, he’s only a second-generation farmer and is the descendant of immigrants.
His German great-grandfather got into diamonds and was ‘in cahoots’ with Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. His son, Rhodes’s godson, set up at 1, Hatton Garden, but, with unfortunate timing, went to Berlin in 1912 to learn German and contracted TB, which ultimately resulted in the loss of the diamond business.
‘As Europeans, they’d always lived in rented places and the lasting effect on my father was that he wanted a little piece of England,’ says Mr Breitmeyer. ‘And, in 1962, he bought it.’
That ‘little piece’ turned into a 1,600-acre farm – plus the contract-farming of a further 3,200 acres – although the ‘big house’ was sold; the charming family home is two cottages combined. He left the army in his late thirties – he’s still a member of Her Majesty’s Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms – went to Cirencester and worked as a farm consultant for 16 years.
He grows wheat, spring barley and oil-seed rape and runs a sugar beet harvesting and delivery operation. His wife Henrietta’s hunters and her predilection for rescuing animals fill the livestock gap: two kunekune-cross pigs, Ed and Geoff, four donkeys and a clutch of guineafowl. There’s a private shoot and several dogs with names beginning with H.
Mr Breitmeyer is the first to admit that landowners such as him will benefit from the national need for housing – he’s trying to get a block of 12 built, five of them affordable. ‘Yes, I will make a little bit of money, but it’s also a conceptual thing. The landlord has a community responsibility. We’ve fought like tigers to get broadband and got it to everyone – except us!’
He points out: ‘All the villages around here could take another 10 houses, nicely designed. Ours [Bartlow] was dying – we’d become a daytime dormitory, the pub was going downhill, the shop was almost non-existent, the church looked shabby.
‘The village was fed up with having a grainstore in the middle of it, so we moved the farmyard out and that brought it back to life. Nine more households arrived, a social club sprang up and the village has come together over fundraising for the church. We’ve got to get the Government, which is becoming more and more urbanite, to understand that the rural economy is vibrant.’
The Brexit vote, which many of Mr Breitmeyer’s fellow farmers supported, could make his presidency particularly onerous and he admits to some trepidation, but he certainly can’t be accused of not leading by example.