2016 Norfolk Farming Conference seeks positive messages for agriculture

Norfolk Farming Conference 2016

Norfolk Farming Conference 2016 - Credit: Submitted

A government minister will lead the debate as hundreds of farmers gather in Norwich today to discuss the economic challenges facing their industry – and its positive commercial opportunities.

The 2016 Norfolk Farming Conference, held at the John Innes Conference Centre in Colney, will feature speakers including senior policy-makers, industry analysts, scientific pioneers – and the next generation aiming to drive the future of the sector.

The keynote address will be given by farming minister George Eustice, who will outline the government's plans for promoting the food and farming businesses which are at the heart of the East Anglian economy.

Other speakers at the EDP-backed event include Andy Wood, chief executive of Southwold brewers Adnams, and Gail Soutar, chief economics adviser at the National Farmers' Union (NFU). It will be chaired by NFU vice president Guy Smith.

Topics will include the uncertainties over how the forthcoming EU referendum could affect farm subsidies, and the market volatility which has seen farmers battling with months of low prices for commodities including milk, wheat, sugar beet and sheep meat.

But Anglia Farmers chief executive Clarke Willis, chairman of the conference organising committee, said he also wanted to draw attention to the positive stories of East Anglian firms opening up new markets, particularly in growing export markets such as China.

'I will be asking for a show of hands about how we feel right now,' he said. 'Are we glass-half-full or glass-half-empty?

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'There are opportunities and challenges. What the conference is all about is talking about them, and doing something about it.

'There really is an opportunity for us to grow and develop the industry, but we need to look further afield. That is where we can show resilience to the downturn.

'The launch of the Great British Food Unit (announced by Defra in January) is about increasing food exports, but also encouraging more foreign investment in UK food companies. That is one tool we can use, but we also need to ask: 'Who are we producing for?'

'There has got to be far more involvement from primary producers in terms of producing for the market. Yes, we can do something about our cost base, and the agri-tech strategy goes into that. But we need to ensure that what we are producing is what the market requires.

'Markets tend to be manically depressive, in that they go from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism – and that sums up farmers.

'So I want the message from the conference to be a positive message, rather than just doom and gloom – and talking about what we are going to do about it.'

For coverage of the 2016 Norfolk Farming Conference, see www.edp24.co.uk and look out for the full report in Friday's EDP.