Five fundamental challenges facing East Anglia's farmers in 2022 

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford pictured with a combine harvester in a wheat field

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford has outlined five of the key challenges facing farmers in 2022 - Credit: Pagepix / Ieuan Williams

East Anglia's farmers and food producers must overcome a raft of challenges in 2022 says Gary Ford, regional director of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Here, he outlines five of the main priorities.

Labour availability 

Seasonal workers cutting celery inside a rig for G's Group. Picture: G's Group.

Seasonal workers cutting celery inside a rig for G's Group - Credit: G's Group

As the NFU’s food security summit highlighted, this is an issue impacting every farm business. A joint food industry report, published in August, highlighted an average vacancy rate of 13pc across the food chain, from farm to fork, and estimated there were more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

We’ve seen the first ever mass cull of healthy pigs in the UK as a shortage of abattoir workers in both the pig and poultry sector had a significant impact on farms, a shortage of seasonal workers that has resulted in fruit and veg being left unpicked in fields, a shortage of lorry drivers and a limited choice of products on supermarket shelves.

We desperately need an end to short-term fixes and the implementation of long-term solutions if we want to avoid this crisis continuing. 

Tackling rural crime 

A combine harvester at work at Thrigby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Thefts of valuable GPS units from farm machines are a major rural crime concern - Credit: Denise Bradley

Rural crime is an issue that is of huge concern to farmers across East Anglia. Our 2021 rural crime survey showed that 67pc of respondents had experienced hare coursing in the previous year, 62pc fly tipping and 38pc theft. We’ve seen gangs targeting high-value GPS equipment in Norfolk and other parts of the region and concerning incidents of livestock worrying. 

These crimes leave rural residents feeling more vulnerable and they also have knock-on effects on farm businesses – "a tax on business", as one NFU member called it. 

We will continue to work with the police and Police and Crime Commissioners to help ensure rural policing receives the resources it needs, and rural communities deserve.

Coping with volatility 

Norfolk Free Range pigs in west Norfolk

A shortage of carbon dioxide at slaughterhouses added to backlog pressures within the pig industry in 2021 - Credit: Ian Burt

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If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected in 2022. For example, the carbon dioxide crisis of 2021, caused when some chemical factories closed due to high wholesale energy prices, came out of the blue and had a huge impact throughout the supply chain.  

Farmers are having to cope with the legacy of that now, through the soaring cost of fertiliser, up by more than 180pc year-on-year, alongside a huge spike in energy prices. 

Short-term measures that could help include ministerial intervention on the Environment Agency’s interpretation of the Farming Rules for Water, which are inadvertently preventing the spreading of organic fertiliser on farms.  

We’re also calling for an urgent review of Defra’s Future Farming Programme for England, including the temporary postponement of direct payment subsidy reductions in 2022 and 2023, as farmers and growers continue to deal with multiple challenges which are causing severe disruptions to food producing businesses.

Replacing subsidy losses 

Gulls following the plough on a field in Langley near Loddon

The EU system of land-based farm subsidies is being phased out in a favour of a new system of environmental payments after Brexit - Credit: Nick Butcher

The new year will be a year of change for farm businesses in East Anglia, as the post-Brexit transition from the EU's system of direct subsidies under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) gets under way. We know where the government wants to be by 2028, when BPS is due to end, but many of the details of how it will reach that destination are still sketchy.   

Alongside the volatility that our businesses are facing, it is vital that this agricultural transition is a smooth one, with schemes that attract farmers in sufficient numbers to deliver the benefits government is looking for. Every farm should be able to access and receive a fair recognition and opportunity as they adapt away from the old system. 

The government's new Sustainable Farming Incentive, for example, must acknowledge the significant costs farmers could incur in delivering "public goods" and recognise that in the payment rates, at a time when direct payments are being phased out.

Environmental pressures 

A female Blackbird enjoying the plentiful supply of Hawthorn berries

Environmental protection and habitat creation are becoming increasingly important factors on farms - Credit: Richard Brunton / iWitness24

The environment is of huge importance to farmers, consumers and government alike. Farmers are, after all, the custodians of the countryside and are responsible for maintaining the countryside in its current state. 

However, maintaining and enhancing the environment causes significant challenges to commercial food production, be that the very divisive Farming Rules for Water, which limit autumn applications of manure, availability of water, which is business critical to so many of our members, or contributing to achieving "net zero". 

Our industry is almost uniquely placed to be part of the solution to climate change, as both an emissions source and a sink.

If we’re to meet the NFU’s ambitious goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040 we must use 2022 to build on the progress that’s already been made.

And we need concerted support from government, industry and other key groups to help deliver this carbon neutral goal.