Norfolk Farming Conference 2018: Minister fields questions on the future of Norfolk farming

Farming minister George Eustice speaking at the Norfolk Farming Conference 2018. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Farming minister George Eustice speaking at the Norfolk Farming Conference 2018. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

A government minister said Norfolk’s farmers should be confident about their future, after fielding concerned questions on the looming changes which could radically change their industry.

Norfolk Farming Conference 2018. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYNorfolk Farming Conference 2018. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Farming minister George Eustice was speaking at the 2018 Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought more than 350 delegates to the John Innes Centre in Norwich, hoping to hear some clarity on Defra’s post-Brexit policy ideas.

With a crucial time ahead for the sector as Britain leaves the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy, one of the key issues was the future of farm support payments, with the EU’s current system of subsidies based on land ownership set to be replaced by a UK system of payments which rewards farmers for providing “public goods” such as environmental work.

Mr Eustice said the government had committed to maintaining the existing £3bn budget for farm support until at least 2022, and was looking at ways to phase out the existing system of direct payments.

One idea is to place a cap on existing payments, which could be gradually lowered to wean farm businesses off the subsidised income.

“For the first time in half a century, we have got a genuine opportunity to design a policy fit for the 21st century from first principles,” he said.

“One of the ideas that has been put to us is whether we could have a cap on the maximum size of single farm payments and gradually, over time, lower that cap and gradually move farmers across to become early adopters of the new system.

“We need to get away from the concept of subsidies and stop telling farmers they should be grateful for it, and instead say that we are grateful for what you do for the environment – and we will reward you for that.”

When asked where the cap would be set, Mr Eustice said: “The honest answer is we have not taken a final decision yet. We have done some analysis and we could have a cap of £25,000 and 75% of farmers would be unaffected by that. We are doing a White Paper in the spring and we will be asking for your views on that.”

Conference chairman Guy Smith asked: “If agriculture is expected to pick up the bill for the environmental costs, we should not be expected to trade with other countries who do not bear the same environmental costs. So how can we ensure that the trade deals going forward will include a border adjustment – ie a tariff – where we don’t find ourselves fighting with farmers who have lower costs and lighter regulation?”

Mr Eustice said he valued the UK’s high environmental and animal welfare standards, and had “no intention of watering them down” in future trade deals. During his speech, Mr Eustice praised the “dynamic” farm businesses and productive partnerships in Norfolk including the sugar beet growers working with British Sugar, the Elveden estate which supplies potatoes to McDonald’s, and the purchasing group AF (Anglia Farmers), which organised the conference.

For more coverage from the conference, see Saturday’s EDP Farm and Country pages.

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