Norfolk farmers explain their issues to environment secretary Liz Truss
© Archant Norfolk 2014
Norfolk’s agricultural leaders outlined the priority issues which they want the new environment secretary to address as the minister visited a dairy farm near Dereham.
South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss, whose promotion to the cabinet was confirmed earlier this month, was given a tour of Grange Farm at Shipdham, run by Ken Proctor, Norfolk chairman of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
Also attending were NFU country adviser Alex Dinsdale and Norfolk council delegate Tony Bambridge.
The minister was presented with a barrage of challenges, from falling commodity prices, to legislative demands on the use of pesticides, the increasing need for land to be used for renewable energy projects, and the need for a solid Defra strategy to improve Britain’s self-sufficiency.
In response, Ms Truss said she was keen to promote British exports, open up public sector markets for local producers in the UK, and simplify the introduction of ecological measures to be enforced within the revised Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), negotiated with the EU.
Mr Proctor said: “Above all else we want to see sustainable agriculture which is going to drive this industry forward, feed the world and produce energy, while protecting the environment at the same time. That is a difficult balance that she has got to handle.”
Ms Truss said one of her first priorities was to fine-tune the implementation of the “greening” element of CAP reform, which makes a proportion of farm subsidies dependent on setting aside 5pc of land as “Ecological Focus Areas”.
She said: “The top of the priority list is making sure payments are on time, making sure the new computer system works, and making sure farmers understand it. It has been a complex set of negotiations, but I am determined to make it as simple as possible for farmers.
“Another thing which is really important is opening up public sector procurement to more British farmers, and making it easier for schools and hospitals to buy local produce. I’m very keen on expanding our exports, but also to make more of the significant domestic opportunities we have.”
FARMING ISSUES RAISED WITH THE MINISTER:
Mr Bambridge said he would be pushing for a more formal strategy to promote home-grown produce. He said: “We have got a growing population, but we are less self-sufficient than we were ten years ago. Successive EU regimes have opened up European borders and the ability to import from as far afield as New Zealand has increased. So we have got a deficit.
“Farmers have been telling Defra for some time that there should be a food strategy. So far, no-one has said: ‘We want to produce 75pc of our own dairy products, or 80pc of our own potatoes’. So we all go along jollily allowing the market to find its level.”
The dairy deficit:
Mr Proctor’s farm milks 430 dairy cows, and he aims to expand his herd to 500 this winter. But he said more farms need to grow if the nation is to overcome its reliance on imports and correct the £1.27bn deficit in dairy products – still the UK’s largest agricultural sector, although one which has diminished in Norfolk.
He said: “We need to expand, but it has got to be a productive industry and we need to grow our herds in order to do that. We have got to become competitive worldwide.”
Mr Bambridge said there needed to be a “science-based” approach to the debate about pesticides.
He said: “There is a huge debate on endocrine disruptors (chemicals which can affect the hormone systems of animals) but I think Liz Truss will see that there needs to be a scientific rationale for any removal of pesticides. They have given us tremendous benefits. The reason we are as self-sufficient as we are is due to the tremendous increase in yields and quality that pesticides have given us.
“That is the scientific argument that Owen Paterson (the previous environment secretary) was particularly strong on, rather than focusing on the emotional arguments.”
Nitrate Vulnerable Zones:
Mr Proctor appealed to the minister for help with the legislation which governs the storage and spreading of slurry in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZs).
He said: “We need a freer movement and spreading of slurry. At the moment we build up time-bombs of slurry because we can only spread it at certain types of year. The irony is we are exporting it to someone else who is in the same catchment. We need to prove if that legislation is absolutely necessary.”
Mr Proctor said: “We have had three price rises in the last three months. If you’re talking about producing three or four million tonnes of milk, every time you take a penny it makes a huge difference. We are working within a world market, and there’s not much that can be done about that – but we do need help with the legislation.”