Rupert Cox: Uncertainty in agriculture

(c) Jeremy Long / JCL PHOTOGRAPHY

(c) Jeremy Long / JCL PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Archant

Our columnist looks at the future of the farming community

Last month I touched on the challenges of Brexit, but it is clear that the uncertainty in agriculture continues unabated with the recent publication of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s report, highlighting three scenarios for the farming economy after the UK’s exit from the European.

The conclusions are not that positive, but the reality is that farmers will just have to get on with it, as they have done for generations when faced with political, economic and meteorological challenges.

The Dairy Show, hosted by the Royal Bath & West, gave us a clear indication of both the drive and the ambition of the dairy farm community.

It is clear that many farmers are now starting to understand the impact that Brexit will have. Access to suitably qualified and committed staff could be a major issue if the UK does not achieve a balanced economic immigration policy. This is compounded already by the fall in the pound and the growth of the Polish economy which is starting to drive the Polish working community back home. For us in Somerset this could be compounded further as Hinkley Point C courts the labour market with the road to Hinkley perceived to be paved with gold.

The county’s food processors are rightly shouting loud about the need to secure robust markets within and outside the EU, but with very little progress being made by our politicians, this is starting to become a problem. If we can’t secure new markets, then who will be buying British products in the volume required to maintain a stable food economy?

Finally, Somerset farmers, particularly those in less favourable areas, need certainty from Government on what financial support might look like post-Brexit. It’s likely that an Agriculture Bill will be put before parliament during the summer of 2018 and that although the industry might have to face being ‘weaned off’ direct subsidy support, this transition process could take up to 10 years.

But it is important to recognise that subsidies to create a ‘pretty countryside won’t feed the population, so the price of food will rise for the consumer.

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The message to Somerset’s farmers is that it is important to focus on what can be controlled and don’t fester on what is out of our control. The most efficient farmers are best equipped to handle economic uncertainty and the most likely to survive the inevitable shrinkage in farm support from Government. However, the smaller family farm will need to up their game if they want to survive and be sustainable to manage the challenges of multi-generational succession. Reviewing diversification options, adding value to existing produce and consideration of a mixed portfolio of farming activity are all positive measures that should be considered.

The immediate future for farming could be fine assuming the pound remains as weak as it is.

The uncertainty of the next two years will be a challenge, but those farmers who use this hiatus to plan for a long-term future with less or even no Government support should have a positive future.

The message for the consumer meanwhile should never be forgotten – in a changing world, cheap food does not guarantee regular supply of quality produce.

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Rupert Cox is the CEO of the Royal Bath and West Society. For more from Rupert, follow him on Twitter! @rupert_rbw