Farming industry must adjust to post-Brexit realities

A farmer ploughs a field near North Walsham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

A farmer ploughs a field near North Walsham. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

A veteran Norfolk Brexiter is confident the farming industry can thrive outside the EU – as industry leaders and politicians weigh up the potential implications for agriculture.

Stuart Agnew UKIP MEP for the East of England celebrating the EU referendum win.Picture: ANTONY KELL

Stuart Agnew UKIP MEP for the East of England celebrating the EU referendum win.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Stuart Agnew, who has a farm near Fakenham and is the UKIP MEP for the East of England, has been campaigning for an 'out' vote for 20 years.

Agriculture is the largest expenditure of the EU, making up 39pc of the overall budget, with subsidies worth three billion euros paid to British farmers.

The National Farmers' Union had concluded that British farming would be best served by remaining in the EU, amid concerns over the impact on trade links, access to the labour market and the continuation of those farm payments.

The NFU's regional board in East Anglia has organised an extraordinary meeting in Newmarket on Monday to prepare the ground for the lobbying effort to ensure the industry's priorities are addressed by policy-makers.

But Mr Agnew said he was confident that any future British government would continue to support farming.

'There will be some initial uncertainty, of course,' he said. 'But we are still in the EU for now and anyone who is in receipt of EU grants has been told they will carry on for two years at least. They will get plenty of notice. I want a soft landing.

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'There is this feeling that only the EU supports farmers. But there are 60 countries beyond the EU that support agriculture, and the EU is only mid-range in its support.

'Any elected government has got two primary duties – to keep people safe and make sure they have enough to eat. At the moment most sets of farm accounts would show a loss if not for the single farm payment, so if it was removed they would have to cease trading if they simply cannot see their way forward, which means they would stop producing food. We are talking about food security and as an island we are so vulnerable that no government would risk outsourcing their food production.'

Mr Agnew was also optimistic that agricultural trade would continue with the continent.

'We have a real whip hand here, because we import so much more food and drink from the EU than we sell to them. We sell £40m of beef to Spain and import £550m of fruit from them. We export £170m of lamb to France and we import £650m of wine. The French wine grower and the Spanish fruit grower are not be trifled with. We feel confident that we will have a good measure of tariff-free trade with the countries in the EU.'

Norfolk NFU chairman Thomas Love, a north Norfolk farmer who backed the Remain campaign, said it was time to move on and make the most of the new business landscape.

He said: 'We need to work with what we have got and we need to make sure that if we are outside Europe we get as many advantages as we possibly can, in the form of science and the development of agriculture, and we need to improve trade links with other countries.

'I am a Remainer, but we need to be positive now, and we have got to make it work for us. To sit back and say 'it's not fair' is no good. We have been dealt the hand, the British public has told us what they want and we have got make the best we can from it.

'I think it is madness to turn away from our biggest market, our nearest market. We have got to negotiate terms and who knows how that is going to go.

Mr Love said he did not share Mr Agnew's optimism about the government's future commitment to agricultural spending.

'I am not confident,' he said. '(Michael) Gove and (Boris) Johnson have always said they wanted to reduce the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) spending, so why should we think that they have changed their mind?

'We don't know what is going to happen but what we have got to do is look forwards and move forwards. We have lost the vote, but we must get as good a deal for the British farmers and the British public as we can.'

NFU regional director Robert Sheasby said: 'We need to know how our government is going to approach trade negotiations. We need to know we have got a secure future from this trade approach, and the ability to grow markets in new areas.

'Then we need to ask what does an agricultural support policy look like? We need to be clear that we have got a policy that does not disadvantage us against these core markets, whatever they may be, and a key point will be the ability of skilled labour.

'It is an extremely serious outcome and what is needed now is a clear head and a clear approach to finding solutions to our new challenges.

'We understand that the negotiations will take some time to deliver but it is imperative that there is early commitment to ensure British farming is not disadvantaged.'

Those negotiations will be pursued by whoever occupies the cabinet positions in the post-Cameron government.

Defra secretary and South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss was unavailable for comment today, but released a comment saying: 'The British people have spoken and we must now move forward. I will work with all my colleagues to achieve a successful outcome for Britain leaving the EU.'