Norfolk Farming Conference 2018: Debating urgent issues in a vital food county
Farming faces its biggest potential changes for a generation - and there could be no more important place to debate the industry's future than in Norfolk, the heart of the UK's food industry.
That was the message from sector leaders ahead of the 2018 Norfolk Farming Conference, which will bring more than 350 farmers to the John Innes Centre in Norwich today.
The event’s national reputation is underlined by a heavyweight line-up of speakers including a video address from the Prince of Wales, Defra farming minister George Eustice, and McDonalds supply chain director Connor McVeigh. They will be joined by tech innovators, family farmers and young entrepreneurs to debate the challenges and opportunities ahead during an uncertain time for their industry.
Chief among them will be the implications of Brexit – including the future of support payments as the government seeks to leave the EU-funded subsidy scheme based on land ownership, in favour of payments which reward environmentally-friendly farming, and whether trade deals can be struck that protect East Anglia’s farmers from competition from cheaper, less-regulated imports.
All of these issues come into sharp focus in Norfolk due to its peerless value as a farming powerhouse – generating 7pc of the UK’s food and underpinning an agriculture, food and drink sector worth £3.9bn across Norfolk and Suffolk.
Conference chairman Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said the forthcoming policy changes could be the most important for 70 years.
“The command paper coming out in the next couple of months will lead to an agriculture bill which could be the most important piece of statute since the 1947 Agriculture Act, which changed the fortune of farming for generations,” he said.
“Obviously in these times when things are very volatile politically, there is a lot of uncertainty. Farmers want to know what is going to happen to their support payments in the immediate future, and how long will the transition period [after Brexit] last for? Are we going to see BPS [the EU-funded Basic Payment Scheme] capped?
“Then the question is what is the end game? What is the trade situation going to look like and what is the support system going to be, and what are we going to receive public money for? Is it entirely about the environment, or an increased array of productivity grants?
“There is this issue about Brexit-proofing our businesses. We can do that by finding efficiencies and getting closer to the end consumer and finding market opportunities, and there are some good examples of that on show here.
“Norfolk is predominantly a rural county, and farming underpins a lot of other businesses, particularly food and drink, which is a large part of the economy. “So if we have a bad Brexit and we are forced to down-size our agriculture so Norfolk farmers won’t be producing as much, there will be a knock-on effect for the wider economy.”
Jon Duffy, chief executive of Norfolk-based purchasing group AF (Anglia Farmers), which organises the conference, added: “The next 12 months are going to be incredibly important. There are political decisions going on that will have a deep impact on the future of farming. Therefore, getting farmers together in one of the most productive agricultural counties is very important.
“It is no surprise the conference this year is sold out.
“We want to look at what the opportunities will be, rather than sitting here looking at what has happened, or what might happen in the next few months.
“To do that you need food businesses, you need the political viewpoint, and you need the scientific community. And you need to bring all that down to individual farmers to see how they will implement it on their farms.”
The Norfolk Farming Conference is taking place at the John Innes Conference Centre on the Norwich Research Park.
The main theme for 2018 is “market opportunities” and the full line-up of speakers is:
• Chairman, NFU vice president Guy Smith.
• HRH The Prince of Wales (video).
Morning Session 1 – Opportunities for farming beyond 2020
• George Eustice, Defra farming minister.
• Connor McVeigh, McDonalds supply chain director.
• Robin Page, journalist.
Morning Session 2 – Part 1: Innovation Opportunities
• Dale Sanders, director, John Innes Centre.
• Belinda Clarke, director, Agri-Tech East.
Morning Session 2 – Part 2: Identifying Market Opportunities
• Malcom Steven, Banham Poultry.
• Tim Mack, Yare Valley Oils.
Afternoon Session 1:
• Jane Townsend, acting principal and chief executive at Easton and Otley College.
Afternoon Session 2– Seizing Opportunities – The Next Generation.
• Will de Feyter, de Feyter Agri.
• Charlie Crotty, Evolution Farming.
• Emily and Lucy McVeigh, Kenton Hall Estate.