Pessimistic farmers need to ‘talk about the positives’, says new industry leader
PUBLISHED: 10:54 20 February 2020 | UPDATED: 10:54 20 February 2020
Brian Finnerty / NFU
A newly-appointed East Anglian agricultural leader is urging farmers to champion their industry as they adapt to the major challenges of life outside of the EU.
Third-generation Fenland farmer Mat Smith is taking over as chairman of the Cambridgeshire branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) at a pivotal time for the industry - with a new agricultural policy under development, trade deals to be negotiated and growing concern about the potential impact of climate change.
"Brexit is the biggest political challenge we face," he said. "I think the NFU, and everyone involved in farming, must keep promoting the importance of food, our standards and the work we do looking after the environment.
"I don't feel there is a lot of optimism among farmers at present but, like all businesses, we have to adapt to the situation as it is. Farmers are good at saying what we don't like doing but we should talk about the positives as well."
Mr Smith, 44, farms in a family partnership at Ramsey Mereside with his brother Lloyd, who is currently chairman of the NFU's Ramsey and Whittlesey branch.
They host trials on the family's 400-acre arable farm, looking at crop protection products and different seed treatments, and also work with the RSPB on environmental measures, including about four acres set aside for lapwings.
"I'm a big believer in conservation," said Mr Smith. "We don't make any profit from it but we both think it's the right thing to do. We've definitely seen an increase in wildlife in the margins around the farm, as well as protecting our water courses."
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Mr Smith sees climate change as a huge issue for the industry, with the NFU setting the ambitious goal of reaching "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions across agriculture in England and Wales by 2040.
Like many farmers, he is looking at how to adapt the business, including investigating changes to the crops grown and introducing livestock to the crop rotation to help improve soil structure.
"I don't think that simply planting trees across the fenland landscape is necessarily the answer," he said. "We only have three trees on the farm, but we have miles of dykes providing wildlife corridors.
The new NFU county chairman said it is also vital to get the balance of water resources right as the region's population grows, to ensure the environment is protected and farmers can still access water for irrigating food crops. There is also the potential for land managers to be paid to store water on their land, he said.
Mr Smith, who previously served on the NFU's national sugar board, is married to Sharon, who helps with the farm business, and they have two children, Tom, 16, and Ellie, 15.