Arable farming post-Brexit

The Farmers Club was the venue for a major seminar looking at prospects for the arable sector post-Brexit, jointly organised with the British Crop Protection Council and the Voluntary Initiative. Andrew Blake reports

  • NB. This event preceded Mr Gove’s more recent announcements on farming and the environment

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Farmers must show the government and public more clearly how they produce food while caring for the environment post- Brexit.


That was the underlying message at a major seminar held at The Farmers Club on Monday 10th July entitled Arable Production: Science and Compliance preparing for an Uncertain Future.


Highlighting the many as yet unanswered questions concerning that future the BCPC’s Stephen Howe urged farmers to seize the initiative and be positive, quoting from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Going back will be as hard as to go on.”


Strutt and Parker’s Head of Farming Will Gemmill’s figures showed that although it should be possible for efficient cereal growers to remain profitable – with 25% even more so than at present - only the fittest would survive. “There will be no bonfire of regulations.”


Formulating farmers’ post-Brexit rule book is a huge task, according to DEFRA’s Guy Horsington. But for the first time in 70 years the country can fundamentally re-think its own agricultural policy, he pointed out.


Acknowledging he offered little detail Mr Horsington felt it significant that the recent Queen’s speech included bills on both fisheries and agriculture. Harking back to the parliamentary debate on the transforming 1947 Agricultural Act he noted it covered the same key areas – stability, efficiency and the importance of agriculture to the economy – as today.


“Ministers have made it very clear that we wouldn’t seek to introduce legislation without consulting properly. We will take time to listen and find out what your views are,” he stressed.


Welcoming Mr Horsington’s presentation Mr Howe suggested new Secretary of State for Agriculture Michael Gove should consider himself “MD of British Agriculture Ltd”. As such he could provide not only stability but political support and encouragement for a “highly complex industry doing its best to compete on global markets and look after our precious countryside at the same time.”


Reconciling split views on Brexit had proved “nigh on impossible”, said NFU Vice-President Guy Smith. “But the decision has been made; and it’s really important that our industry and the NFU unite round our commonalities, and see this as a time of opportunity rather than threat.”


Most countries subsidise their farming industries to give producers confidence against price volatility. One way to move away from the “rather crude” area support system might be to follow the US example of insurance or “catastrophe or disaster” payments. A pilot scheme, albeit only as a trial, could be introduced around 2020, he suggested.


Openfield Agriculture’s Head of Research Cecelia Pryce gave cereal farmers hoping to take advantage of world markets post-Brexit a “reality check”. UK production represents only 1% of the 181m tonnes worldwide trade in wheat, and only 4% of the 24m tonne barley trade, she noted.


“But those exports are vital to UK farmers.”


However, only 11% of UK cereals currently go to non-EU countries, and access to world markets is via ports able to load 60-70,000 tonne ships, she explained. Two of those three are at Immingham and Newcastle. “I hate to say it, but those two up north aren’t much use to grain growers in the south.”


Mrs Pryce highlighted the pressing need, in her view, to ‘brand’ UK cereals better by amalgamating data, for example on glyphosate and fusarium levels, from all UK trading standards bodies and agencies via an independent testing authority.


Outlining changes in farming practices since the 1970s, Jim Orson of the BCPC and VI noted renewed interest rotations, crop residue mulching, and cover crops as “almost a religious fervour”, to improve soils. The key unknown, needing more research with regard to over-winter leaching, is the fate of nitrogen from cover crops, he believed.


Given public money farmers must treat stewardship crops as well as they do any others, urged Northamptonshire farmer Andrew Pitts. “We’ve got to deliver.”


He showed how placing 7% of his worst performing land into HLS and managing more land for others to spread fixed costs and stay profitable had transformed wildlife levels. “Bird numbers have rocketed – up three-fold since 2009.”


Noting the success of farmers working together to enhance the environment on 10,000ha (25,000 acres) of the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, Chris Musgrave of Musgrave Management Systems feared for the survival of tenants farming less than 200ha (500 acres) should, as advised, direct support payments would be cut by 50% after 2022.


“As a group we represent a substantial force and wield far more influence on both natural and political landscapes than we could ever do as individuals.


“If we already have the confidence of working together with our neighbours on an environmental basis, could the same framework not be rolled out to our farming activities as well? We need to start thinking and farming more collaboratively.”