WATCH: New Norfolk farming leader's message to food growers - and the public
The new figurehead for Norfolk farming has urged food producers to find their voice and champion their industry - and for the public to "go out and appreciate the farmed environment".
Nick Deane, who farms at Hoveton, has been confirmed as the new chairman of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
He said the next two years will be a pivotal time for the industry’s future, so he approached the “immense privilege” of his new role with a “degree of trepidation as well as excitement”.
“Whatever the final outcome of Brexit, the decisions will have massive implications for farming in Norfolk so we need to be astute in getting our messages across and explaining how agriculture will be affected,” he said.
“Farmers are good at adapting to change – the past 100 years have shown that – but we do need to know the direction of travel. It’s the uncertainty that’s haunting the industry at the moment.”
Mr Deane, 56, has been farming in Norfolk since 1984, when he took over the 300-acre family farm after graduating from Wye College in Kent.
He later joined forces with two other landowners in 1989 to establish Bure Farm Services, a contracting group that now farms more than 2,000 acres. He formally took over the Norfolk chairmanship during the NFU’s national conference in Birmingham this week, and he said outgoing chairman Tony Bambridge had “left a big pair of wellies for me to jump into.”
We asked his views on some the key challenges facing Norfolk farming during his two-year tenure.
BREXIT AND TRADE
“What we would like is an agricultural policy that promotes sustainable food production, in conjunction with looking after the farmed environment,” said Mr Deane. “The two go absolutely hand in hand.
“We are approximately 63pc self sufficient at the moment, so there are big opportunities for us to be able to replace a lot of the food that we currently import.
“For example we consume 1.1m tonnes of frozen potato products a year in the UK, but we only produce 400,000 tonnes ourselves. So clearly there is an opportunity there to fulfil that market, and I’m sure there would be other markets and other opportunities.
READ MORE: Farmers call for new commission to protect food standards after Brexit
“We might have to adapt what we are doing by growing different crops, but I am quite sure farming can change. It has in the past, and it will continue to do so. We just need to know the direction of change.
“And we need to be able trade. As farmers we are traders as well – the products we produce are traded globally, and the raw materials we produce go into products that are traded globally. So a lot depends on the trading environment that we come out of Europe with. We need to ensure as much as possible we get frictionless trade with our nearest and biggest trading partner.”
WATER ABSTRACTION LICENCING
At this week’s national NFU conference, Mr Deane challenged environment secretary Michael Gove about the Environment Agency’s review of water abstraction in the Broads, saying the proposals to revoke 21 irrigation licences could “destroy some farming businesses”.
READ MORE: Michael Gove told: Loss of water licences would ‘destroy’ Norfolk farms
“None of us who live here, and work here, in any way want to see the Broadland habitat damaged by farming operations but we all have businesses to run and there’s a huge need for food to be produced,” he said. “It’s about getting that balance right between the two.
“No farmer would want to be seen in years ahead as the generation that ruined the wetland habitat. Having said that, this environment has developed because we have agriculture. Without one, the other won’t happen.
“The two have evolved together over time and therefore we have to continue that evolution in future, so the balance of the agricultural water abstraction that is needed for high-value crops like UK-produced fresh fruit, which is a great success story, the lettuce leaf and celery that is produced on the coast around the outside of Norfolk, and obviously huge amounts of potatoes are grown for Kettle and Lamb Weston and for the [Albert Bartlett] factory at Westwick. All of these need water to continue, so it is about getting that balance right between the two.
“There are 250 licences up for review, and it could have very serious ramifications for some farmers if this water supply is curtailed or cut off.”
“We have got to work harder to make sure people understand what we are doing, why we are farming, how we produce this food, and how we look after the environment,” said Mr Deane.
“Our voice needs to be heard. Every farm is part of a community, so at a basic level they [farmers] should be talking to that community, be that at social gatherings or parish council meetings. At that level anyone can contribute.
“You can just put a simple board up at the end of the farm explaining what you are growing the cereals for, or if you are putting in a buffer strip or a beetle bank – just that little bit of explanation is really important.
“You see one or two boards up saying people are growing Maris Otter barley for the brewing trade, or something like that. But it would be nice to see a little bit more of that done so the public can understand what we are doing.
“We are proud of what we are doing as an industry, but we are not good at promoting it. We are too shy as an industry.”
Mr Deane said he wants to see more young people coming into agriculture, to replace an ageing population of farmers and farm workers.
“We do need to attract younger people into the business and we have to ensure that agriculture is rewarding enough, and motivational enough, for them to make a successful career within it,” he said.
“By that I mean showing them the sort of industry they would be joining. They would be joining a hi-tech industry. They would be joining an industry that works in the environment, in the fresh air. They will be joining an industry that is moving fast and changing fast and they will be joining an industry that potentially contributes so much to national wellbeing, be it through good food or the environment where we live.
“It is not a job of sitting on a tractor for 12 hours a day or sitting in a straw yard leaning on your hay fork.
“We need people who are bright, motivated and will get well paid. And we need to make sure careers departments and sixth forms are putting agriculture out there as an exciting industry to go into.”