Brexit and how farmers can survive it: how the next 11 months will shape the sector
PUBLISHED: 10:11 14 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:09 14 February 2020
Andrew Blenkiron/Euston Estate
It would be foolish to think that farmers in lowland areas such as East Anglia are going to get "a whole load of money" from government under any new post-Brexit farming regime, a Suffolk farming conference heard this week.
Andrew Blenkiron - who runs a Suffolk estate rich in biodiversity - suggested that lowland areas are unlikely to be the biggest beneficiaries of any new 'public money for public goods' farm subsidy regime under the Agriculture Bill currently making its way through parliament, and that it would foolish to think otherwise.
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Particularly in "our lowland situation", this is going to be "a big challenge", suggested the director of the Euston Estate near Thetford.
It was far too early - with details of the bill still unclear and trade negotiations still to be done - to know exactly how farmers would be affected by Brexit, he added.
However, he was already taking stock of the wealth of rare biodiversity on the estate - which sits on the edge of the Brecks - from around a dozen regular stone curlew visitors to 60 to 70 coveys of grey partridges - to see how the estate could benefit from any future environment-heavy subsidy regime to help smooth out farm volatility issues.
Brexit and its effects on the county's key agricultural sector was under the farming spotlight as the county's agricultural community gathered at Suffolk Rural in Otley - formerly Easton and Otley College - for an annual winter meeting.
Three speakers - Andrew Blenkiron, Nick von Westenholz, National Farmers' Union (NFU) director for European Union exit and international trade, and Will Hobbs, Barclays' chief investment officer - were there to shed light on the theme of the event - Brexit - is the devil in the detail?
Euston is one of around 20 farms to get together to form a Breckland Farmers Wildlife Network. It was planting hundreds of acres of cover crops every year, and digestate from an anaerobic digestion operation on the farm was helping to cut the need for artificial nitrogen-based fertiliser to feed the crops, said Mr Blenkiron.
What they needed now was to capture funding for conservation work they were already undertaking. Such payments - if forthcoming - would help to take some of the volatility out of the business.
In terms of crop growing, the problem farmers faced was that many of the technologies vaunted as solutions to their problems and ways to cut their inputs just weren't field-ready, he pointed out.
Another worry was that the farm tech companies would, like the agrochemical firms, end up making "more out of it than we are", and that therefore the promised returns would never quite materialise.
One big stumbling block for UK farmers was that - unlike on the continent - they had failed to fully embrace the co-operative model which brought all the benefits of pooling resources, he said.
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It was important that farmers focus heavily on their staff and on training, and that they have a clear view of their costs in order to assess whether what they were doing was profitable, he suggested.
NFU Brexit expert Mr von Westenholz set out some of the particular challenges that farming will face as a result of the decision to exit the European Union - with much still up in the air around future trading arrangements.
"Agriculture is probably going to be impacted more by Brexit than any other sector," he said. The sector, along with fishing, would be central to many of the political debates we are likely to see this year.
The "future relationship" part of Brexit was the "really important stuff", he said. While to all intents and purposes the UK is a member of the EU for the next 11 months, the very tight deadline set for concluding a deal was "a very high risk decision".
"Eleven months is an extraordinarily short time to agree a trade deal. No other trade deal has been agreed in that time," he said. He hadn't met a trade expert yet who believed it possible, he said, but he suggested a camouflaged extension might emerge. "Either we will crash out with a very thin deal or there will be some sort of botch or ruse to extend to next year," he predicted.
Trade negotiators were astonished by the speed at which the government hoped to achieve its trade agreements, and the scale of its ambition in trying to achieve five big ones in 11 months, starting with the US, he said.
"Their jaws have stopped dropping at the way we are doing this," he said. "You don't pick the most fearsome trade negotiator, the US, for the first trade deal."
A key policy area with "massive" implications for farming was immigration policy, as the vast majority of the sector's overseas workers were from the EU, and government emphasis on "high-skilled" immigration could adversely hit farm businesses.
At the same time, while there had been some important improvements regarding areas such as food production to the Agriculture Bill compared to the original of a year and a half go, there was also very little indication from policymakers on how they might support farmers through volatile times, he said.
Potentially very high future tariffs on UK goods heading to the EU versus low tariffs on foods heading here was a key concern for the NFU. The UK had some of the highest food standards in the world, but that came at a cost. "It's not at all clear that the government has got our backs on this one," he said.
All of this led him to believe that Brexit was a long way from over.
"It could be a really bumpy ride over the next few years," he predicted. "If we have a very hard Brexit and have imports from the US and elsewhere produced to different standards, that's going to make life very tough for us."