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Wake-up call for Norfolk farmers

PUBLISHED: 09:20 28 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Norfolk farmers are at risk of growing apart from the community because of a failure to understand the needs of consumers, according to a report out today.

Norfolk farmers are at risk of growing apart from the community because of a failure to understand the needs of consumers, according to a report out today.

A survey of farmers, published on the first day of the Royal Norfolk Show, details the highs and lows of an industry employing 10,000 people in the county - and warns that fewer than half of those expect their families to continue the tradition.

The Norfolk Farm Study, commissioned by the Rural Economy Board of Shaping Norfolk's Future, identifies growing evidence of farmers' willingness to work together and diversify into areas such as biofuels and tourism, but calls on policy-makers at national, regional and local level to do more to help.

It warns the “local community seems to have lost its link with the farming community and many farmers fail to understand the modern consumers and their needs”.

The study says there is an increasing reliance on part-time and migrant workers. Staff numbers have shown “substantial declines”, dropping by 56pc between 1980 and 2004, while the number of farm managers has increased from 321 to 1,022 in the same period in response to increased red tape and complexity.

It also warns of skills held for generations disappearing “especially in the grazing livestock sector if beef and dairy cattle numbers continue to decline”.

Weaknesses include a high dependence on commodity prices for the likes of wheat, barley and sugar beet, and a reliance on government support coupled with an over-representation in 'vulnerable sectors' such as sugar beet and poultry.

“Enterprises most likely to be terminated in the near future are sugar beet, beef and sheep. Organic farming was not seen as a significant option by many,” it adds.

Michael Hand, economic development officer at Norfolk County Council, who co-wrote the report, said the survey revealed a complex picture of challenges and opportunities facing the industry.

“Many farmers feel they have got a problem with the image of farming, but there is also a feeling the strong link with their community has been diluted over the years,” he said.

“When there were more smaller units, farms had a closer link with the local community.

“As investors have come in, bought up farms and created larger units and run them as a business from afar, the links have been dissipated.”

He said the aim of the report - which has taken 12 months to produce - was to offer a blueprint to policymakers to help the industry.

Planners needed to be more flexible when dealing with applications to convert farmland to other uses while farmers needed to seize on changing consumer trends to take advantage of the growing demand to eat locally produced foods.

However the report noted that the arrival of thousands more people in the county in the next 15 years will offer access to new markets, but pointed out that would increase pressure on already stretched water supplies.

Global warning also raised problems because of the predicted drier summers and wetter winters and the threat of flooding from rising sea levels

“Farmers are saying there are bright spots on the horizon,” Mr Hand added.

“There do seem to be more smaller holdings and more diversifying into niche markets.

“They have been put off investing in diversifying because they think that planners will turn it down - full stop.”

Piers Pratt, chairman of the Norfolk Branch of the Country Landowners' Association and member of the Rural Economy Board, said there were encouraging signs of a shift in attitude.

“Everyone wants to get value for money, you can't blame shoppers for buying from the cheapest source,” he said.

“But it does leave some niche markets for those who are prepared to work harder to produce beef and lamb and vegetables.

“For years it has been difficult for farmers to engage with the ultimate consumers because they have sold to the middle man. I think a lot more farmers are trying to get involved with consumers.

“The sugar beet reforms will bring challenges for farmers and questions for the environment and employment,” he added. “However we recognise that the promotion of local produce and the plans for biofuels bring new opportunities.”

George Harcourt, chairman of the Norfolk NFU, said with most Norfolk grown produce heading in large quantities to supermarket shelves in big cities, a local focus was not an option for many larger farming concerns.

But he hoped the growth in smallholdings could see local produce move beyond the delicatessen's shelves and into the shopping baskets of the majority.

“We are at the mercy of the supermarkets,” he said. “They have more power than they should. We still have a job to reach the average couple shopping on a Sunday who have three children and both work. That's where we have to go.”

And he said the drop in farming numbers was partly to blame for the growing gap between those who worked the land and the rest of the community.

“If you put in those hours you don't have time to go to parish council meetings or put in an appearance at the village fete. You really have to make an effort.”


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