Farming opinion: Putting together a productive post-Brexit agricultural policy

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tanant Farmers Association - Credit: Archant

The major headlines dominating the Brexit landscape centre on the size of the divorce bill the UK will have to pay, citizens’ rights including what will happen to the free movement of labour, what our new trading relationship will be both with the EU and the rest of the world and just how much will the UK see as a financial saving once our exit is complete. Somewhat less prominent are the ongoing discussions about what a post Brexit agricultural policy might look like.

If we accept the need for greater productivity, what are the key elements that need to be factored i

If we accept the need for greater productivity, what are the key elements that need to be factored into a new strategy, asks George Dunn. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

The buzzword in these deliberations to date has been productivity. Rightly or wrongly the politicians foresee a future where public support for agriculture is markedly reduced and want to set UK farming on a trajectory of greater productivity, firmer resilience and future profitability. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the premise of the Government’s position it is difficult to disagree with the prescription it has written for the future of agricultural policy. So if we accept the need for greater productivity, what are the key elements that need to be factored into a new strategy?

Research and development is a good place to start. For years we have seen underinvestment here particularly on research that is the most near market and relevant to the industry. What research there has been has suffered from a lack of coordination and adequate dissemination. This leads into access to skills and knowledge were again there has been a lack of continuity in provision and whilst there is any number of courses and opportunities to learn about technical skills, there appear to be fewer opportunities for learning around business development, leadership, benchmarking and marketing. These are certainly areas which are ripe for development.

Consideration needs to be given to whether or not we have the right structure as an industry. To date this has focused to a large extent on issues surrounding both entry to and exit from the industry but just as important is how we encourage progression. Lots of new entrants get stuck on early rungs of the farming ladder as opportunities to move on are constrained due mainly to the expansionist policies of established farm businesses. Getting the right balance will be essential. Policies to lengthen average farm tenancy terms are will be important to move this forward.

A massive issue for the post Brexit environment is the functioning of supply chains within which it is widely recognised that farmers are generally the weakest link. Ensuring primary producers are adequately rewarded and are not treated unfairly need to be key objectives. There is a role here for an expanded remit for the Groceries Code Adjudicator but we cannot rely solely upon that. We need greater transparency, more collaboration amongst primary producers and a fair regulatory framework particularly on the application of standards.

If we accept the need for greater productivity, what are the key elements that need to be factored i

If we accept the need for greater productivity, what are the key elements that need to be factored into a new strategy, asks George Dunn. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

There is a good argument for continuing Government investment in building business resilience within agriculture through providing targeted support for investment into fixed equipment, cost reduction initiatives, processing capacity, diversification, marketing, cooperative initiatives, producer organisations, climate change adaptation and environmental improvement. Historic Constrained levels of profitability and unattractive rates of return has caused investment from within the sector to be muted for a considerable period of time. The volatility of returns is also a limiting factor to the development of the industry and if we could provide tools to help farm businesses manage volatility alongside the other policy levers highlighted, we would have a powerful, impactful policy creating a successful UK agricultural industry.