Article 50: What will it mean for East Anglia’s farmers?
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016
The farming industry could face some of the biggest changes of any sector as Article 50 is triggered to begin the process of Britain's departure from the EU.
Although ministers have given very little clarity on how Britain's new agricultural policy will work after the Brexit negotiations, it could have a dramatic effect on financial support structures, overseas trade, and access to workers.
Robert Sheasby, East Anglia's regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: 'These negotiations will have a profound impact on farm businesses in East Anglia.
'The shape of future trade deals is pivotal so we are calling for the best possible access to markets inside and outside the EU. If the government fails to secure a free trading arrangement with the EU, then measures to manage volatility, including direct payments, will be vital to help businesses compete.
'Farm labour is also crucial. Our businesses need controlled access to a flexible labour force that can sustain the sector's seasonal needs, as well as the workforce needed further down the food supply chain.'
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The Common Agricultural Policy makes up almost 40pc of the EU budget, with about 3bn Euros paid to British farmers in direct subsidies, aimed at supporting businesses through volatile times and ensuring a supply of affordable food.
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The government has said it will retain these payments until 2020 – but has made no commitment beyond that.
Many in East Anglia believe future support payments will be reduced, and become dependent on farmers providing public benefits such as environmental projects.
Among them are Kit Papworth, a director of north Norfolk contracting business L F Papworth, who told an industry seminar in Newmarket earlier this year that farmers must not expect future government handouts for nothing, and should shape their businesses to be more efficient.
He said direct support for landowners through the Basic Payment Scheme should be scrapped by 2025, in favour of redirecting all the available funding to environmental stewardship schemes, where there would be a clear public benefit to the investment of taxpayers' money, and research and development which could 'propel our efficiency going forward'.
'It is time for a change,' he said. 'This is taxpayers' money and the public still think we are doing a good job, so we should capitalise on this now.
'Let's tell farmers right now that there is not going to be a Basic Payment Scheme. You won't get paid to own land any more.
'More than half of farms make less than £20,000 a year, so there is a lot of lifestyle farming going on here.
'There is nothing wrong with small, but small has still got to be profitable. We cannot continue to support farms not making £20,000 a year.'
Other important issues for post-EU farming revolve around trade tariffs, with the National Farmers' Union (NFU) making 'full unfettered access' to the EU's single market one of its key policy demands for post-Brexit farming.
Tony Bambridge, managing director of B&C Farming at Marsham, and Norfolk chairman of the NFU, said: 'There are two ways to trade, and it is the inward trade that is potentially the biggest threat to us. If deals are done which open up our market to other people who for whatever reason may have some advantage over us, or some beneficial tariff, that could be quite damaging to our market.
'How do you set the priorities? Is it cheap food at any cost, or is it a more balanced view that we want to support our British farmers because they support our British countryside and we have food security concerns?'
Trade was also a key factor in the 'red lines' set out by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) which said the UK must not 'unilaterally reduce its tariffs from those it currently applies', and there must be 'minimal friction' for imports and exports between the UK and the continent.
Ben Underwood, the CLA's east regional director, said 'Brexit is an opportunity for farmers but our future is reliant on having a sound trading relationship which suits both the UK and the EU.'
Access to a flexible and competent workforce post-Brexit is another major concern for the region, with thousands of seasonal workers brought in from eastern Europe to gather fruit, vegetable and salads across East Anglia.
Some farming businesses say they are already struggling to recruit vital European seasonal workers for this summer's harvest, as a result of the Brexit vote.
The G's Group, based at Barway near Ely in Cambridgeshire, employs 2,500 seasonal workers at the peak of the season, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, to gather and process the firm's vast crop of salad and vegetables including lettuces and celery.
Beverly Dixon, group HR director at G's, said Brexit uncertainties and the plummeting pound have already prompted workers to seek jobs in countries like Germany and Norway.
'We managed to get through the last season, but now we are in the throes of recruiting for next season,' she said.
'So far we have had to invest a lot more time and money in recruiting these people. Because we have such low unemployment in the UK, we recruit from Romania and Bulgaria. We used to go to one place in each country and fulfil all our vacancies and be inundated with hundreds of people coming through the doors. This year we have had to go to two places in Romania, and two places in Bulgaria. We have got enough applicants to fulfil the roles but we are not massively over-subscribed like we used to be.
'If you are a seasonal worker and you know that things could change in the UK in two years' time then you would probably go and secure a job in Germany. Their heads have been turned because of their earning potential, due to the value of the pound, and because of the uncertainty of Brexit.'