Our land will continue to be farmed in future – but how? Farmers face Brexit dilemmas
PUBLISHED: 15:44 15 February 2019
East Anglian farmers face an era of ‘survival of the fittest’, they were told this week.
A host of farmers gathered on Wednesday (February 13) for Easton and Otley College’s Farmers’ Winter Meeting, which was held on the Otley campus at Rural Enterprise East.
There was only a lukewarm response as they were asked for a show of hands on whether they thought they would still be farming in five years’ time and if so, if they thought they knew how they were going to get there.
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Helping them to get to grips with the theme of the conference, preparing the typical East Anglian farm for Brexit, were speakers Carl Atkin, of Cambridge-based agribusiness management firm Terravost, and arable farmers Tom Jewers of Rattlesden, near Stowmarket, and David Lord, of Lord and Hunt Ltd, near Clacton-on-Sea. The event, sponsored by Barclays Bank, was chaired by Savills partner Emily Norton.
Carl Atkin, a Lincolnshire farmer’s son who has advised companies in the agribusiness supply chain for 20 years, including in East Anglia and in Eastern Europe, explained the Brexit process as far as it is known to date, with most scenarios showing a drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“It’s very difficult to see the direction at the moment. The fittest will survive, I am sure, and our land will be farmed,” he said. “I think we will see a closer analysis of scale and the way people decide to drive business efficiencies.”
Environment secretary Michael Gove’s Agriculture Bill was repatriating a raft of European Union legislation currently residing in Brussels, he explained, with the tapering down of direct payments starting in 2021, and some farmers looking at taking out their direct payments as a lump sum to retire.
“My one very practical recommendation would be: ‘be very careful with structural changes or tenancies over the next five years,’” he said.
For those remaining active farmers, there was an opportunity to get on the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) being developed.
This was “essentially stewardship on steroids”, the conference heard, with enhancing‘natural capital’ the goal, and payments for eco-system services, but there may be challenges, he warned, in how payments are worked out. “In terms of complexity and the monitoring of it, it may be difficult,” he said.
There were still massive technical inefficiencies in some parts of the market to be overcome, he added, and warned delegates to be “really careful” about investment decisions, especially in less robust sectors.
Tom Jewers urged conference-goers to move away from the ‘farmer with the pitchfork’ image and adopt a more professional, business-like approach.
Farmers may be faced in future with not being able to plough at all, in a bid to improve soils and the environment, he predicted, as he encouraged delegates to baseline their farm to see where they are now.
But he feared that while UK farmers maintained standards, “don’t think for a moment” that food wouldn’t be imported here that was grown to lower ones.
In order to get the best from ELMS and the Agriculture Bill, he urged farmers to ‘bang the drum’ for the industry and get the farming view across to government about what they wanted the scheme to look like.
He explained some of the cutting edge technologies he was involved in, including being part of an advisory group for the Small Robot Group, which was developing farm robots, including one to detect weeds and another to kill them by laser or electrocution.
He felt progress could be made post-Brexit in taking advantage of advances in gene editing in plants. It was frustrating that technologies developed here, such as for potato blight, were being sold in other countries but not here, he said.
He pointed to breakthroughs such as the University of Nottingham’s N-Fix, a technology which enabled plants other than legumes to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air. “It’s there, it’s ready, it’s made in Redcar, and it’s shipped to the US and Canada to be used there,” he said.
David Lord explained how he was taking care of his soil, which he saw as his main resource, and what he saw as the main strengths and weaknesses of his own business, which had to support a number of people. He predicted those farmers with the lowest cost system and the most resilient would prosper post Brexit.
“I’m slightly more positive than negative on what could happen and if as an industry we can come together and learn from each other, I think there’s a positive outcome there,” he said.