Swapping their pastures for the concrete jungle, hundreds of Britain’s farmers will take off their wellies this week and head to a conference centre in central Birmingham for the annual shindig of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
Nearly 1,500 food producers will meet to discuss the “blueprint for the future” of British farming, against the backdrop of the biggest upheaval in a generation in agriculture, following the UK’s departure from the EU and the pandemic, and amid discussions about future land use in the face of the climate crisis.
Farmers insist Covid only increased consumers’ appetite to “buy British”, especially at a time when global supply chains were disrupted. But the past two years have shown it’s not always easy for food producers to get their produce from field to fork.
The industry is grappling with worker shortages following Brexit and Covid, when many European workers went back to their home countries. A shortage of workers has already resulted in unpicked fruit being left to rot in fields, and a cull of healthy pigs on farms because of a lack of staff at slaughterhouses. An estimated 35,000 animals have been killed and won’t enter the food chain.
All this is taking place before farmers feel the impact of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals with food-producing nations Australia and New Zealand, which will see their exporters theoretically able to send limitless amounts of lamb, beef and dairy produce to the UK within 15 years.
These are bitter pills to swallow for an organisation which backed staying in the EU before the Brexit vote.
While the focus of the conference will be on the future, and life beyond the EU’s subsidy scheme – known as the common agricultural policy (CAP) and worth £3bn a year to UK farmers – food producers are, like most other businesses, bearing the brunt of rising costs. The most pressing concerns for most farmers are the three Fs – feed, fuel and fertiliser – all of which rocketed in price, leaving many wondering how much fertiliser they can afford to buy for the spring planting season.
Agriculture makes only a very small contribution to the UK’s annual economic output – approximately 0.5% – yet it is the lifeblood of many rural communities, and inflation will be a major worry for people in some of the regions which are at the heart of the government’s levelling-up ambitions.
NFU president Minette Batters – who is seeking re-election for a third term representing the interests of around 55,000 English and Welsh farmers – is clear on the importance of farming for ensuring domestic food supply and sustaining rural ways of life.
TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson’s attempts to reinvent himself as a farmer may have proved TV ratings gold, and his Clarkson’s Farm series has been recommissioned for a second series, but Batters recently told the Observer that she doubted whether the current crop of politicians understood the importance of agriculture.
So you could be forgiven for thinking that George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and himself of Cornish farming stock, might receive a rather frosty reception from the assembled food producers when he gives a speech at the conference. In recent months, many farmers have criticised the apparent disconnection between Eustice’s resoundingly positive portrayal of the opportunities for British agriculture and the current realities of farming life.
Access to seasonal workers remains a thorny issue, with the government keeping the number of permits at the 30,000 allowed in 2021, resisting calls from producers for a significant increase in the quota. Industry insiders criticise Defra, Eustice’s department, for having little influence in cabinet, and say it is the Home Office calling the shots when it comes to setting the numbers for post-Brexit visa allocation for seasonal workers.
Far from their fields, expect farmers this week to issue some stark warnings over how continued worker shortages will impact domestic food production, and how “taking back control” could lead to Britons eating more imported food.