Norfolk Farming Conference 2015: How it unfolded
PUBLISHED: 15:42 12 February 2015 | UPDATED: 16:45 12 February 2015
A line-up of industry leaders debated the challenges facing future agriculture at the Norfolk Farming Conference, at Norwich’s John Innes Centre today.
Speakers included Defra secretary Elizabeth Truss, NFU policy director Dr Andrew Clark, Anglia Farmers chief executive Clarke Willis, Agri-Tech East director Dr Belinda Clarke, farmer and Nuffield scholar Jake Freestone, agricultural videographer Susie Emmett and Sir Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
The event began at 9.15am. The conference unfolded below:
09:24 - Liz Truss said that since the start of this Parliament, the government has reduced farm inspections by 34,000 as part of an effort to reduce bureaucracy. We’ve also cut Defra guidance by 80pc.
09:25 - She continued by saying that we all know that the three-crop rule is bureaucratic nonsense - we want to grow what people want to eat, not what Brussels tells us to.
09:32 - Liz Truss has said that to make sure the industry is world-beating, farmers must have access to the best technology and have a level playing field with other countries.
She said this is why she has been pressing the European Commission for Britain to have decisions on pesticides and GM foods, based on the best available scientific evidence.
She said she wanted to make it clear that more decisions must be taken here in Britain. She said: “The process is cumbersome and decisions are being made on precaution, rather than overall impact on the industry.”
09.39: Finally, Liz Truss said that competition is fierce from overseas, but expanding export markets in China is a “strategic priority”.
09:44 - Ms Truss said she wants to launch a “vigorous campaign” to get more protected designations for Norfolk foods.
09.59 - Dr Andrew Clark, NFU policy director, said that “managing volatility” is a key theme.
He said: “Boom and bust is not a good way to boost a confident industry that is able to invest in its future. When farmers are facing this kind of switch-around in incomes year on year, it becomes very difficult to manage your investment profile.
“Going into this next election, the next government has to look at the fiscal arrangements to give farmers the opportunity to manage their investment in a sustainable way.”
10:17 - “We need to celebrate agriculture’s contribution to the economy,” said Dr Clark. 2013 farmers’ contribution to the economy has grown by £2.4 billion - up 35pc to £9.4 billion.
10:25 - Dr Clark said that projected outcomes of the general election suggest a coalition, whether led by Labour or the Conservatives: “What this says to me is that it is absolutely critical that we engage with every political party in every constituency, because we don’t know which party is going to be making decisions in the future of our farming industry.”
Dr Clark said self sufficiency in wheat, potatoes, beef, lamb and milk have all dropped since the 1980s. “We have to reverse the long-term decline in self-sufficiency, particularly in these staples where we should have a competitive advantage,” he said. “We’re not talking about growing mangoes and avocadoes. These are products that we should not only be growing at 100pc self-suffiency, but we should be able to export those to other parts of the world.”
11:06 - Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, said East Anglia has a “unique” concentration for research in food and agriculture in Europe.
She said: “We’ve never had it so good in terms of the funds in research for agri-tech. We can present the east of England as a cluster of global agri-tech innovation.
“Where you’ve got ICT, Engineering and Bioscience meeting, they can develop new innovations not just as a solution to a general problem but in response to your specific challenges.”
Dr Clarke added that the group have been working with partners to put on Agri-Tech Week 2014 and 2014 to make the East of England the “go-to place” for agricultural innovation.
“We’re keen to work with the younger generation as well and had the Young Innovators Forum here, bringing young farmers together.”
11:30 - Dr Clarke concluded: “If you want to stay as you are, Agri-Tech probably isn’t for you. We’re here to work with farmers, producers and companies who are prepared for change.”
11.50 - Jake Freestone, Nuffield scholar 2013, talks about a “disconnect with the public.” He said: “We need to reconnect with our urban populations in a way that builds trust in food and farming. They need us, and we need them – and the need to reconnect with them comes back to the farm gate.”
“By 2050, 70pc of the world’s population will be urban. Misconceptions about that the farmers community do will be harder to correct. Other societies have a much more appreciative relationship with their farmers,” added Mr Freestone.
12:15 - Susie Emmett, Norfolk farmer and videographer: “We need to listen to the soil - that’s what farmers in other parts of the world think is fundamentally wrong with how we’re doing it here.”
12:30 - She challenged the audience: “Why wouldn’t you get involved in The Spring Fling and Open Farm Sunday to communicate with the public?”
12:35 - A rallying sign-off from Susie Emmett: “You tell people that farming is difficult and volatile, and that they should ‘Buy British’. What kind of a message is that? What we have to do is eloquently, passionately and honestly, with the sheer love of it, tell people what farming means. It is a very gentle thing and if you do it, you will find you get the biggest buzz out of it.
“Make sure you are not the problem. Farming is magic, and there is so much potential out there, and isn’t it good to be a part of it?”
14:00 - Sir Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said: “We need to say that we as a farming industry are prepared to invest in our own future. There is money, it is up to us to see it is wisely spent.
“There are 4bn Euros available to help us meet the challenge of producing this much food and being more competitive. Understanding those opportunities is absolutely the point.”
14:20 - Clarke Willis, Anglia Farmers chief executive, said: “This isnt about broadband, this is about digital connectivity across all platforms in the region. “
After asking for a show of hands, it turns out six members in the audience out of 400 have 24mb broadband in their homes and businesses.
Mr Willis continued: “Some of this we’re going to have to do ourselves, you know. By end of 2017, 10pc of homes and businesses will still be without fixed broadband.”
14:33 - He asked why no one knows about Project Beacon, a huge 4G roll-out programme across the UK. This is the kind of “digital connectivity” we really need, he said.
14:50 - “If we don’t help the industry, no one else will” - responsibility remained top theme from Mr Willis. Meanwhile, the Importance of skilling up young people was shown in an Edge apprentices video, followed by a chat with featured young businessman and award-winning pig farmer Tom Wright.
14:53: Mr Wright said hard work and perseverence, turns a new idea into profit.
15:03 - Emily Norton, farmer at Nortons Dairy, said: “Putting pressure on farmers to do more than their expertise in farming, like in marketing, is a big ask.”
15:10 - Oliver Arnold, Spring Farm Partnership: “The hardest thing is finding a very keen young person, picking them up and training them. Actually, it’s a lonely job - but it’s an exciting challenge and one we have got to deal with.”
All three young entrepreneurs talked about what it’s like to work with big companies like Waitrose and Bernard Matthews, concluding it is a positive and challenging experience overall which gives some stability to business.
15:22 - Emily Norton said: “I don’t know if I agree that growth is the best measure of success in farming, though I respect those who grow. Resilience might be the best measure. And I want to still be talking to my family in 20 years - I’m grateful for the support that is needed in this sector.”
15.30 - The event concluded at the Norfolk Farmers Conference with possible topics for next year including the changed EU landscape. The 400 in attendance left well-fed, and with food for thought.