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Wet weather struggles bring new focus to farming policy debate

A waterlogged farm field at Little Melton. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

A waterlogged farm field at Little Melton. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

The agricultural industry’s struggles in the wet weather bring a new focus to the debate about the value of food production in emerging government policies, says KIT PAPWORTH of north Norfolk contractors LF Papworth Ltd.

Seed drilling in north Norfolk on a rare dry day just before Easter. Picture: Kit PapworthSeed drilling in north Norfolk on a rare dry day just before Easter. Picture: Kit Papworth

In a good year, all of our sugar beet and spring barley would be emerging from the ground by now, most of our potatoes would be planted and the focus would be on keeping those crops free from weeds and disease.

This year most of those seeds are still waiting to be drilled and the land remains wet and cold. This will have an inevitable impact on yield when we come to harvest. We can only hope that this is also reflected elsewhere and that prices improve as a result.

While this situation is frustrating for arable farmers, it is livestock farmers who have had an extremely tough winter. Shortages of feed and straw are now exacerbated by a late turning out of livestock onto their summer grazing, whilst many sheep farmers are working long hours lambing their flocks in much worse weather than they would have hoped for.

While we are struggling with the weather, the consultation on Defra’s “Health and Harmony” command paper goes on. This signals the biggest change in agricultural policy in my lifetime and will change the way we farm and the way the countryside will appear for generations to come – something of an agricultural revolution.

Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth.Norfolk farmer Kit Papworth.

Michael Gove, the Defra secretary of state, has admitted this week that there is too little focus on food in the paper. This would appear to be a surprising admission given that the primary function of farmers is to produce healthy, nutritious food in a sustainable way whilst enhancing the environment.

The millennial generation, who the Conservative party struggled to engage with at the last election, appear to be more focused on food provenance and standards than ever before. Given the importance of this paper, it is vital that everyone who has an interest in food, the environment and the countryside makes their opinions clear either directly, or via the National Farmers’ Union.

This week, I was fortunate to attend a dinner and lecture in London hosted by the Worshipful Company of Farmers. The two speakers had been asked to give their views on the future of agriculture. While they approached the subject from different angles, as I travelled home on the train past sodden and waterlogged fields my conclusion was that as farmers we would need to be specialist, low cost producers of food with high environmental and welfare standards in an increasingly volatile marketplace – something most farmers are already trying hard to do.

• Kit Papworth is joint managing director of L F Papworth Ltd, based at Felmingham.

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