‘Unique, extraordinary, unbelievable, unforeseeable’ – Norfolk farmers reflect on 2020’s major challenges

Farmland, machinery and 'natural capital' assets must all be factored into farming resilience strate

Farmland, machinery and 'natural capital' assets must all be factored into farming resilience strategies, says Tom Corfield of Arnolds Keys-Irelands Agricultural. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

A greater public appreciation of food and agriculture during the coronavirus pandemic has helped secure some vital policy victories, Norfolk farmers were told – but many more battles remain in this uncertain world.

Nick Deane, Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Chris Hill.

Nick Deane, Norfolk branch chairman of the National Farmers' Union (NFU). Picture: Chris Hill. - Credit: Chris Hill

The annual general meeting of the Norfolk branch of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) discussed the industry’s mounting challenges, ranging from the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit uncertainties to localised issues such as water abstraction in the Broads and the impact of offshore wind farm infrastructure.

During the online video meeting, NFU Norfolk chairman Nick Deane described this year’s events as “unusual, unique, extraordinary, unbelievable, unforeseeable”, with the pandemic bringing “both personal tragedy and business upheaval” to Norfolk farmers.

But guest speaker Tom Bradshaw, the NFU’s national vice president, said despite those challenges farmers could take some comfort from the positive impact on consumer actions and government decision-making.

He said concerns over food availability and supply chains during the first lockdown was a “shock of lightning which genuinely went right to the top of government and has actually put food and farming on a different footing to what it would have been if Covid had not happened”.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw was guest speaker at the NFU Norfolk AGM. Picture: JOHN COTTLE

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw was guest speaker at the NFU Norfolk AGM. Picture: JOHN COTTLE - Credit: Archant

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One example was this weekend’s “landmark moment” when the government agreed to place its new Trade and Agriculture Commission on a “full statutory footing”, ensuring greater parliamentary scrutiny of post-Brexit trade deals before they are ratified.

Mr Bradshaw said this was a “huge win”, secured after months of union lobbying and a shift of public opinion – illustrated by more than a million people who signed an NFU petition aiming to safeguard UK farmers from unfair competition from food imports produced to lower standards than would be required here.

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“I do think that the importance of a resilient food supply chain has been realised and it is making a difference to policy,” he said. “Not as quickly as we would like, and not as obviously as we would like, but I think that government are beginning to realise the vital role you all play in keeping the country fed.

READ MORE: How can farms ride out the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, climate change and coronavirus?“What we saw over the weekend was an announcement from the centre of government that the trade and standards commission will now be on the front page of the Trade Bill when it comes back to the House of Commons That is a huge win for the NFU.

“Without the million people who signed the petition we would not have got to where he have. It just gives us hope that government really do mean what they say when they are saying they want to protect out high standards in this country.”

Mr Bradshaw said the government still needed to address many other Brexit uncertainties facing Norfolk farmers, including whether a trade deal can be struck with the EU, a “complete lack of clarity” over the future environmental land management scheme (ELMS) which is due to replace the EU’s subsidy system, and how vital seasonal workers will be secured under new immigration policies beginning on January 1.

Mr Deane updated the meeting on other ongoing local concerns including the threat that some abstraction licences for irrigation in the Ant Valley could be revoked as part of an Environment Agency review seeking to balance commercial water usage with the need to protect designated habitats and species. He said farmers in the Broadland Agricultural Water Abstractors Group (BAWAG) have proposed an alternative water management strategy to the agency, and are expecting a full response later this month.

READ MORE: Time is running out to avoid costly ‘no-deal’ disruption to our farms, says Norfolk NFU chairmanHe also repeated long-standing concerns over the impact of energy cables connecting planned offshore windfarms criss-crossing the Norfolk countryside, adding: “Norfolk might be fortunate in being able to lead a revolution in green wind energy, but it should not come at the cost of destroying our green and beautiful landscape.”

Earlier this year, the government announced that energy regulator Ofgem would look into the idea of an offshore ring main which, it is hoped, would mean separate cable corridors and onshore substations would not have to be dug across the countryside to link each new wind farm to the National Grid.

Mr Bradshaw said there encouraging signals that a formal consultation could begin soon. “I know that particularly for north Norfolk this is something which is very close to people’s hearts,” he said. “About three weeks ago I met with Kwasi Kwarteng, minister for business, energy and clean growth. He didn’t give me a commitment, but he did give us an indication that Ofgem will be doing a consultation in the near future.”

The meeting also elected a new county chairman to replace Mr Deane when he stands down in February – Jamie Lockhart, director of farming at Honingham Thorpe Farms, said he was honoured to be elected to represent Norfolk agriculture “during a period of seismic change for the industry, but a period of real opportunity as well”. His vice chairman will be Tim Papworth.

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