Uncertainty dogs Suffolk farmers as Brexit deadlock continues
PUBLISHED: 06:12 28 March 2019 | UPDATED: 11:20 28 March 2019
Suffolk farmers fear their industry will be at the sharp end of Brexit, and feel deep frustration at the way in which it is being handled by politicians.
Their views echo the results of a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) survey in January which found mid-term farmer confidence had hit an all-time low, and short-term confidence had turned negative, dropping by 19 points. It also showed that 21% of farmers were intending to decrease investment over the next 12 months, as a result of Brexit.
With 70% of agricultural exports sent to the EU, the market is seen as key to the industry, and the NFU is pressing for ‘free and frictionless’ trade in any Brexit agreement.
MORE – ‘UK agriculture will suffer dramatic shock post Brexit’
However, despite the current political turmoil and uncertainty, more everyday issues such as weather – and drought fears – will be key to how East Anglian farmers view the success or otherwise of their 2019 growing season.
“As a farmer, the biggest fear is the uncertainty,” admits Glenn Buckingham, who runs a farming operation at Helmingham, near Debenham.
He took part in a farmers’ meeting with Suffolk MPs in London recently and the word was used again and again, he said.
“With NFU members on the same day we met a senior member of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) EU Exit team – conclusion in one word, uncertainty.
“No doubt once the dust settles the industry will continue to provide,” he added.
“The fear is inadvertently getting a poor trade deal anywhere which disrupts our interconnected agricultural system to a point where it affects all, and is broken.”
The best hope for this year was for the UK to achieve a bespoke, flagship food, agriculture and environment policy “which delivers a sustainable, wholesome food service, whatever the diet for our own society, one that allows for local connectivity from farm to plate, that is respected and good for the UK and local economy”.
He pointed out that a local food system is much more difficult to disrupt and “probably better for the planet considering the climate chaos we face”.
“Continually wanting to trade in all parts of the world goods that can be grown and used in the country of origin for the sake of trade balance is an issue that needs to be thought through,” he said.
“Our national debt continues to rise and recent commentary suggests our capitalist system is not working for the good of all and the natural systems that sustain us. I believe (environment secretary) Michael Gove understands this, and it calls for radical action by government to lead us in a new direction with the society engaged on the way.”
He praised action being taken by schoolchildren, who have been protesting about climate change by leaving their classrooms and taking to the streets to take part co-ordinated protests.
“I admire them for getting out there, it is their future and we adults need to wake up to that. I wonder why we adults are not joining them.”
Weather prospects key
Bruce Kerr, who farms near Woodbridge, said: “Not wishing to be flippant, I’m more concerned about the weather prospects for the year, with lower than average rainfall over the winter after last summer’s drought and the effect on crops.
“We can’t deal with Brexit fallout until we know the outcome, but I am very concerned about the availability of seasonal labour for our hand picked vegetable crops during these uncertain times.”
Richard Anscombe, chief executive of Fram Farmers, said his fears were around changes to policy which could have profound effects on farmers.
“My biggest fear is that the complex changes required to policy, especially with regard to the governments emphasis on environmental good will be poorly formed, complicated to understand and potentially delayed,” he said.
This would add uncertainty to farming plans and once set, could then be amended “too frequently to enable farmers to initially change their farming plans and subsequently deploy an environmental policy against a known set of rules and guidelines”.
“My hope is that we have clarity with a clear outcome and closure on the dreadful situation that our politicians have created.”
Fear UK will be flooded with food imports
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at Euston Estate, said: “My biggest fear is that our borders will be thrown open to food that has been produced to considerably lower standards than our own.
“If this occurs, all we will have done is exported our social conscience on environmental and animal welfare issues.
“My hope is for fair tariff system and trade deals that allow British farmers to be able to compete in a global market place not only on our own doorstep but also around the world.”
Grain export fears
Mike Porter of Porters Farms (Walpole) Ltd said: “As a farmer, my concerns are the implications of export of grain, as to whether there will be tariffs applied so that we are immediately at a price difference to the EU states, especially being reasonably close to Ipswich Docks for the export of wheat.
“Also, our linseed is exported to France for the French cow farmers to feed to their cows – high in Omega 3.
“The whole fiasco has been a total shambles on behalf the government. Even now they do not know where they are going – nor do we.”
Farmer William Hudson, part of the management team at a large farm near Ipswich and a director of British-grown pulses and grains firm Hodmedod, said his biggest fear was Brexit, and his second biggest fear “is that the idiots that are in parliament continue to be in parliament”.
His biggest hope is “we remain in Europe but with much better politicians representing us”.