Farming faces ‘massive disruptor event’ as UK government takes sector in new direction

PUBLISHED: 11:06 28 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:27 28 February 2020

NFU president Minette Batters and environment secretary George Eustice in conversation at the NFU conference in Birmingham  Picture: SIMON HADLEY

NFU president Minette Batters and environment secretary George Eustice in conversation at the NFU conference in Birmingham Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Simon Hadley/

A large farmer on the Suffolk-Norfolk border fears the industry could be facing “a massive disruptor event” as the UK government moves away from the European Union (EU) farm subsidy model.

NFU president Minette Batters addresses the NFU conference in Birmingham  Picture: SIMON HADLEYNFU president Minette Batters addresses the NFU conference in Birmingham Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Euston Estate director Andrew Blenkiron - who is deputy chair of the Suffolk NFU branch - said there remained a lack of clarity over what appeared to be a large funding hole for farming - in the short term at least.

Mr Blenkiron was responding to government announcements at a key National Farmers' Union (NFU) conference in Birmingham this week, at which new environment secretary George Eustice laid out some of the government's plans for the future of farming, which is supposed to get the same amount of funding, but in a different form.

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But with the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) based on a "public money for public goods" model still looking a long way from oven-ready, Mr Blenkiron questioned why the direct payments system under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was being stripped away before farmers were in a position to adjust their business models to a new policy currently only being piloted and not yet properly formed.

Delegates at the NFU conference 2020 in Birmingham  Picture: SIMON HADLEYDelegates at the NFU conference 2020 in Birmingham Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Taxpayers in most countries around the world support their farmers either directly or indirectly through some kind of subsidy system, and UK farmers fear they will be put at an immediate disadvantage when their land-based subsidies are cut next year - and incrementally through future years - with the aim of getting them to zero by 2028.

Although not as harsh as what happened in New Zealand, when farm subsidies were stripped away overnight in 1984 with minimal government support, farmers are worried about the possible impacts, particularly when combined with the potential effects of Brexit on the sector. But Mr Blenkiron fears some farmers still haven't fully woken up to the potential impact on their businesses.

"If you do away with that payment, incomes are going to go down - there's no doubt about that," he said. "It just astounds me that some people haven't made that connection."

To pile on the pressure farmers will face, it's not clear what kind of tariff regime will be in place on food coming out of EU and into it because Brexit trade negotiations are ongoing, and farmers and growers are already feeling the effects of a recruitment squeeze as migrant farm workers vote with their feet and look to other countries to find work. NFU president Minette Batters used her conference platform to urge government not to undercut British farmers by accepting imported food produced to lower standards.

Delegates listen at NFU conference 2020 in Birmingham  Picture: SIMON HADLEYDelegates listen at NFU conference 2020 in Birmingham Picture: SIMON HADLEY

Mr Blenkiron welcomed the publication of what the 2021 UK farm subsidy reductions will look like, but was concerned the picture for future years had still not been clarified.

"It looks to me like they are looking for this to be a massive disruptor event," he said of the government.

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He predicted it would be very painful for a lot of people, particularly with the "gap in the middle" before farmers were able to access new forms of funding, and feared in some places this could even lead to "land abandonment".

"Survival of the fittest is what they are looking for," he suggested. "I think there's an element of determination at the way they have got it planned."

It was clear from conversations with colleagues at the conference that a number of older farmers were considering taking what is effectively a lump sum retirement route offered under the government farm subsidy cuts plan, he said.

He felt "resigned" to the change in the subsidy regime, but "disappointed in other people's inability to see the enormity of the challenge we are going to face".

As they returned from the conference, NFU leaders from East Anglia expressed their concern at the trade situation, and continuing lack of clarity, with some expressing disappointment at what Mr Eustice had to say.

East Norfolk farmer Richard Hirst, who represents the region on the NFU's legal board, said: "I felt no real confidence about trade, our food standards, and this issue of importing food that is treated with crop protection products that we can't use.

"That's happening now, for example with oilseed rape treated with neonicotinoid seed dressings, and it's going to get worse. There is a real concern around the industry about that happening because we need a level playing field."

NFU Norfolk county chairman Nick Deane said it was disappointing that George Eustice "appeared to say nothing new, just repetition of the mantra that we have heard before".

"He seems to be someone who understands the issues we face, but there were no firm commitments as to how those issues are going to be addressed, particularly on protecting our food and farming standards."

NFU Suffolk branch chairman Glenn Buckingham said while the mood at the conference was "cautiously optimistic", anxiety over trade deals remained. "It's difficult to see through the haze," he said. "Considering our largest export market is the EU and the threat of no alignment then there has to be concern."

North Walsham farmer Tim Papworth, who chairs the NFU's regional horticulture and potato board, said: "George Eustice was left in no doubt about the serious situation we face on farm labour. It's absolutely vital for farmers and growers in Norfolk that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is extended for next year and we will continue to make that case."

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