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Under-pressure farming industry has never had ‘more on its plate’, says leading farmer

PUBLISHED: 12:59 04 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:00 04 March 2020

Jake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl Ellis

Jake Fiennes, general manager for conservation at the Holkham Estate. Picture: Carl Ellis

Carl Ellis

Farmers must look beyond their own borders and cultivate a new attitude to collaboration if they are to overcome their “biggest challenge in two generations”.

That was one of the messages emerging from a conference on the Holkham estate in north Norfolk whose key topic was the need to prepare for an impending period of change.

The industry faces an unprecedented set of challenges with EU support subsidies being phased out after Brexit, a shift of government policy towards environmental goals, a target to hit "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 and concerns over how competitive British farmers will be under the new post-Brexit trade deals being negotiated by the government.

To discuss survival strategies, around 100 people attended the Holkham conference which had evolved from a traditional annual meeting with agricultural tenants at the Earl of Leicester's home, and was this year widened to include more rural businesses and held at the estate's farming head office in Egmere.

Speakers included Emily Norton, head of rural research at property agency Savills, Caroline Drummond, chief executive of LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming), and Jake Fiennes, who is general manager for conservation on the Holkham estate and also East Anglia's representative on the National Farmers' Union's Environment Forum.

Mr Fiennes said: "At all the conferences I have attended this season there have been more talks than ever about climate change, soil degradation and the importance of the environment and protecting our landscape for the next generation. This is the biggest challenge this industry has faced in two generations.

"We are entering into a transition period over the next seven years where we will cease to get access to [EU] payments for the land we occupy, we are expected to deliver services for public goods and, as well as that, we are expected to reverse our impact on climate change and carbon emissions.

"The industry could not have more on its plate than it does at the moment. Then we have trade deals and Brexit adding to our worries - but where there is change and challenge there is always opportunity to innovate and be world leaders in what can be possible."

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Mr Fiennes said farmers needed to work together to help the industry adapt to these challenges - and the estate is at the "embryonic stage" of a project aiming to unite landowners and farmers across 20,000 hectares of north Norfolk to maximise their environmental efforts, using grants approved in December from the government's "facilitation fund".

"The conference was about understanding the need to prepare for change and the importance of collaborating and working together," he said. "I recently spoke to a long-standing tenant at Holkham who has farmed for decades and even he understood the need to go beyond his farm gate to work with his neighbours.

"I want to use this facilitation fund to get more people on board so north Norfolk can put itself on the map as a collection of farm businesses, landowners and land managers working together."


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