How can farms ride out the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, climate change and coronavirus?
- Credit: Ieuan Williams
Under-pressure farmers face a “perfect storm” of challenges from Brexit, climate change and coronavirus – so they urgently need clarity on government policy and the confidence to invest in their future.
That was the key message from an online discussion aimed at finding ways to boost the financial resilience of farms amid a uniquely turbulent time for the sector.
It was part of “The Big Conversation” programme run by Lloyds Banking Group, bringing together local voices including MPs, farming leaders and financial experts to explore the road to economic recovery in the region.
The online debate was hosted by Matt Hubbard, Lloyds ambassador for the East of England, who said agricultural businesses were battling “one of the toughest economic climates we have faced”, with existing worries over Brexit, the impending loss of EU subsidies, flooding and low yields heightened by the broader concerns created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Panellists expanded that list by discussing the effect of rising costs, pesticide regulation, staffing and recruitment difficulties, the “continual drive for cheap food” and fears over unfair competition from imports under post-Brexit trade deals – with an inevitable impact on the mental health of an already-isolated workforce.
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In response, there were calls for clarity from the government on its post-Brexit environmental payments scheme, better trade and food standards safeguards, and more support for productivity and mental health initiatives.
But individual farmers were also encouraged to take their own steps towards financial resilience, by being prepared to adapt and diversify, setting clear business goals, finding the right partners and collaborators, and seeking early financial advice rather than waiting for money worries to reach crisis point.
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Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “Brexit, climate change and Covid are all things that are forcing every farm business to think about the future and where we want to be.
“Times of change give us that opportunity to think about what we want to achieve: How do we drive productivity improvements, efficiency improvements, how do we look at what the customer wants?
“Too often we don’t have that clarity. We expect someone else or the government to tell us where our business is going to go. For me, resilience in my farm business was about simplifying things, dealing with succession, and having that long deep conversation about where we want to be in 20 years’ time. Politics might get in the way of that, trade deals might get in the way of that, the support regime might get in the way of that, but if I don’t have that laser precision of where I want to get to, I definitely won’t get there, regardless of those other things.”
Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman said the scale and speed of the policy changes being discussed in parliament was “pretty frightening”. He added: “It is no surprise we are seeing these levels of anxiety and concern at a personal and institutional level.
“If we get it right it is a huge opportunity, but it is right now a huge challenge and we are asking people to invest long-term and think long-term when the framework on January 1 is not clear. This industry has tended to respond really well to a long-term framework before, but it has not got that at the moment and that is very worrying.
READ MORE: MPs defeat bid to bolster legal safeguards against cheap food imports“There is also something about optimism and pessimism, and powerlessness and isolation. Over the course of my lifetime, I have watched an industry going from back in the 70s when it was an industry that knew its role. It was production, production, production. It knew the rules and it got on with it. It is now going through a stage where its status in the national economy and the national conversation is in flux.
“The old support structures are crumbling. New ones are being created, but it is not quite clear how they will work. I think there is a sense that people expect more and more and more of farming, and farmers, and yet the support network is less, and that is pretty frightening when people expect more of you but you don’t know how to deliver it.
“All of that is compounded by the isolation of the job. It is very challenging. I think in quite a deep way the industry feels like it is not in control of its own destiny at the moment.”
READ MORE: Mental health debate seeks ways to ease the ‘silent suffering’ of farmersMelinda Raker, a farmer and patron of Norfolk-based mental health charity YANA (You Are Not Alone), said uncertainty is one of the major causes of mental health problems, and “the helpline has never been busier”.
“We must be seriously concerned about this,” she said. “This is what we have got: Brexit, loss of subsidies, increased costs, staffing problems, pesticide regulations, not having a level playing field with Europe and the USA, the fear of farming business collapsing, and a continual drive for cheap food. Then key in weather and climate change and all the other things we all have to cope with, family bereavement, relationship breakdowns – that is the perfect storm for mental health in farming at the moment.”
Gary Ford, regional director for the NFU in East Anglia, said there was a “big role for government to create the business conditions to allow agriculture in the East to grow and thrive, and give farmers that confidence to invest”.
But he also said the industry needed to “build on the positives” of the renewed consumer support for British food and farming which emerged during the lockdown.
“There is a huge opportunity for industry to work with government to create what we have called a green recovery, that is both an economic and an environmental recovery, and food security has to be a key part of that,” he said.
“That is our golden opportunity as we emerge out of the challenges of Covid and as we face the challenges of the post-Brexit world. It will give farmers the confidence to invest and to make agriculture an attractive place to work for the next generation of farmers and farm workers that are vital to the future of the sustainability and vibrancy of agriculture in the East.”