How can Norfolk farmers succeed without EU subsidies?
- Credit: Chris Hill
The complex range of potential solutions to the challenge of farming without EU subsidies was discussed at a farmers' meeting in Attleborough.
Rural agency Savills held a breakfast meeting at Breckland Lodge to explore how farm businesses can thrive under post-Brexit agricultural and environmental policies.
The government's Agriculture Bill, re-introduced last month, sets out how the EU's system of subsidies - largely based on the amount of land farmed - will be phased out in favour of an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which will reward farmers for "public goods" such as measures to boost wildlife, mitigate climate change or improve animal welfare.
In a group discussion led by rural consultant Henry Barringer, farmers at the meeting debated strategies for succeeding in this new policy landscape.
They included diversification into tourism or renewable energy, extending their rotation with alternative crops like quinoa and soya, regenerative agriculture to improve soil health, and collaborating with other farms to reduce costs and pool expensive machinery resources.
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Rob Alston, a director of Norfolk farming company Silfield, said farmers will be financially motivated to maximise their incomes under the new ELMS scheme.
"Depending on where you are you could end up taking a lot of land out of production," he said. "We have got to look across the whole farm and decide what the best outcome will be. There may be some personal choice in there, but if it is going to be more cost-effective to plant wild flowers, then whether I am an environmentalist or not I am going to do it - because it makes money.
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"If you can put 25pc of your farm into ELMS to grow grass leys and wildflowers then it may be with the 75pc you can reduce costs and collaborate to get economies of scale, but also simplify the system with less kit that is cheaper to run. But whether farmers will collaborate or not is the big question."
The meeting also discussed a major current concern in the farming industry - that while producers in farming heartlands like Norfolk will be required to meet stringent environmental, animal welfare and quality standards, post-Brexit trade deals could leave them open to competition from a flood of cheap, lower quality imports from far less regulated countries outside the EU.
Farming leaders want to see import standards guaranteed through a legal commitment in the government's Agriculture Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons this week after MPs voted against an amendment, tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which said the legislation "fails to provide controls on imported agricultural goods, such as chlorinated chicken".
North Norfolk contractor Kit Papworth said while UK farmers are being forced to meet stringent environmental and food quality standards, Europe is the only continent not increasing its productivity through technologies such as genetically-modified crops. He warned: "I think the UK will be a museum piece - we will be targeted with much higher environmental standards but our food production will be traded off."