Farmers must be willing to change to succeed, says new county chairman
- Credit: Chris Hill
Farmers must be open-minded and work together to make a success of the challenging years ahead, said Norfolk's new agricultural leader.
Jamie Lockhart, who officially becomes the Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) today, said the county is well placed for a positive future if farm businesses collaborate.
He set up a successful joint venture farming company while working for Watlington Farms in the early 2000s and, after a 16-year spell at Honingham Thorpe Farms, he is now investigating collaboration opportunities in his new role as managing director of Brandon-based Frederick Hiam Ltd.
“I’m genuinely optimistic about the opportunities but I think it’s going to be different - the status quo isn’t going to work,” he said.
"If farmers collaborate with others, look for new ways of doing things and be open minded then absolutely there are huge opportunities.
“Looking at Defra's new environmental land management scheme (ELMS) for example, if you want to unlock some of the opportunities that are available, those will require a larger footprint than a single business can offer so that will encourage joint working.
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“And once you get farmers talking to each other about one particular area, they start to open up on other areas of their businesses. It’s interesting to see how, from that initial collaboration, farms then start to collaborate in areas they didn’t expect to be doing at the outset.”
Both Mr Lockhart’s grandfather and father worked as farm managers so agriculture was in his blood and he did not consider any other career. After studying at Shuttleworth College in Bedfordshire, he worked with James Paterson at Dilham and at Watlington Farms before he was offered an opportunity to manage the farming business and diversification enterprises at Honingham Thorpe Farms, outside Norwich.
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He stayed there for 16 “very enjoyable and full-on” years before starting with Frederick Hiam in January.
“We are very customer-focussed with our own packing facilities on site, so we are further down the supply chain and we’re involved with a lot of high value, high risk, sometimes high return crops,” he said.
“The business here is trying to add as much value as possible to its produce before it leaves the farm and that is incredibly challenging at the moment.”
Mr Lockhart said the coronavirus pandemic has affected businesses such as Frederick Hiam, with the closure of pubs, restaurants and schools meaning they have had to react quickly and source new markets for produce destined for the food service sector.
Water availability is another crucial issue facing Norfolk farmers and growers. Mr Lockhart is former chairman of Norfolk abstractor group BAWAG, where he worked with the NFU to support licence holders threatened with losing irrigation licences in the Norfolk Broads.
“All we’re looking for is a fair share of what is an incredibly valuable resource," he said. "We need time to adapt to any changes that are made but there are parts of the county that are facing a tumultuous time, where they are being told they could possibly lose licences within months.
“The implications that has for their businesses are unthinkable so we need to lobby hard to try and find ways through. We need to do things differently in terms of water management but that isn’t going to happen overnight and we need time to adjust.”
Other issues include helping farm businesses adjust to reductions in direct support payments, as EU subsidies are phased out, and the banning of agrochemicals used to protect crops such as oilseed rape and sugar beet from pests and diseases.
“It’s a concern about how we help farms transition through what is an incredibly volatile time at the moment, and the NFU will have a very important role to play,” he said.
“I felt it was an exciting time to be part of the NFU and to do whatever I can to help represent Norfolk farmers."
Mr Lockhart strong public support for farming will also be important in the years ahead, but must not be taken for granted.
“We need to have an open conversation with our customer base, the public, and make sure we are engaging with them at all levels,” he said.
“It’s at times like the recent cold spell, when Norfolk was covered with snow, that farmers prove their worth. It’s been refreshing to see people expressing their gratitude for what they are describing as the fourth emergency service. It’s great to see that recognition.”