Farmers packed a regional conference to make their views known on the future of the industry post Brexit and feed into Government.
Around 150 farmers and sector representatives from across the West Midlands focused on agri-priorities at the Worcestershire meeting and heard from high profile political and industry speakers.
MEP Dan Dalton set up last Friday’s meeting (3 Feb) at the Sixways Stadium, with the NFU and New Direction, after he was tasked by Defra Minister Andrea Leadsom to gauge the views of farmers and growers from across Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire.
Delegates heard from Mr Dalton as well as MP Neil Parish, Chairman of the EFRA select committee, Nick Von Westenholz, NFU director of EU exit and international trade, Charles Cowap, Harper Adams University senior lecturer, MEP Anthea McIntyre and NFU horticulture and potatoes board chairman, Ali Capper.
Mr Dalton said: “There’s probably no other industry that’s as linked to the EU as agriculture, it accounts for 40 per cent of EU spending and for the last 40 years our policy has been controlled fully by the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP.
“From what I see there are three key issues around this, the first being access to international markets both for British products abroad but also what access we give to our markets to goods coming from other countries in free trade deals, we will be doing lots of these and agriculture will be a key element of them.
“The second is what our British agricultural policy is going to be post Brexit because we now need to design one from scratch, that’s a huge opportunity to get it right because there have been elements of CAP that have not been right and hopefully we can get close to something much better than that.
“Last is, the general implications for rural areas, in term of work, in terms of finance and money going into these areas.”
He added the Government was listening and that going forward Brexit should be looked at as an opportunity and “a chance to strengthen the farming industry”.
While Nick von Westenholz, NFU director of EU Exit and International Trade, said while there was “deep uncertainty over Brexit” the union was busy picking out the key elements that need negotiating and with its members was making the case for farming and what was needed for the next two years and beyond.
He said agri-priorities were focused on trade, labour, a Domestic Agricultural Policy and regulation and while the path was paved with complexity the union was up for the challenge and would do its utmost to help the industry navigate through the issues.
He said: “Around 75 per cent of our agriculture exports are sold to the EU and come Brexit we have to avoid this being seriously disrupted but I also acknowledge there will be opportunities to trade with the rest of the world, we have to recognise that big opportunity and look at how we develop markets elsewhere.”
Delegates heard the environment would also be a key element of agricultural policy going forward, possibly even more closely tied to future support payments, and Mr von Westenholz said while this was valued by farmers, environmental services had to work alongside profitable and productive farm businesses.
“Throughout Brexit, our agriculture and horticulture has to feature right at the front of these talks when we are discussing trade with the EU and the rest of the world and everything else,” he added.
Market volatility, tariffs, research and development, animal health and plant protection, the next generation and many other areas of policy work were also discussed and debated at length.
Farmers were assured the NFU was taking the process “incredibly seriously, putting in a huge amount of time, resource and activity to make sure the best deal possible was secured for the industry and supply chain”.
This was echoed by NFU West Midlands regional director Rob Newbery who said: “There’s a lot to play for and we are the primary trade association representing farmers and we need to make sure our farmer and growers’ views get across.
“We represent big business and traditional, smaller family farms and we need the feedback from the grass roots up.”
Mr Parish, who is also a farmer, gave his thoughts not only on the domestic and European political scene but also on the international situation.
He said he expected British farming would prosper given the right levels of support and tools to be competitive and he urged the industry to collaborate and use its voice.
Delegates heard farming was the bedrock of the UK’s food and drink industry, worth £108 billion to the economy and providing jobs for 3.9 million people, and Mr Parish said the industry’s manufacturing pedigree helped to make a powerful case.
“We must not be frightened of saying that we produce great quality food and also champion the value of food production in this country,” he said.
After lunch there was a question and answer session with the panel and then a discussion where farmers tabled their key industry asks.
A video message was played to delegates from the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom, MP, Defra Secretary of State, and Mr Dalton will now put a briefing together from the conference which will go to the Minister.
An NFU regional delegation will then head to Westminster in the months ahead to meet the Secretary of State and further the case for the industry.
Following the conference Mr Newbery said he was pleased with the representation from farm businesses and it added to the extensive consultation work the union had undertaken so far to engage members in the Brexit process.
He said: “The NFU will continue to lobby hard for farmers and growers and I would urge any farm business not in membership to rally behind the union as we head into this challenging time for the industry and try to secure the best deal we can for our food producers.”
Notes to Editors:
For further details and farmer contacts please call Oliver Cartwright, NFU West Midlands communications adviser, 01952 400500 or 07771 542547.
The NFU is the voice of British farming and provides professional representation and services to its farmer and grower members.