Most farmers would struggle to name five areas where British agriculture is world-class, but with the right support, UK farming can match the Netherlands on food exports, says arable farmer and NFU Sugar Board member Tom Clarke.
“OK, name 5 areas where British agriculture is world class.”
This challenge was laid down among a few colleagues at this year’s Cereals event. There was an awkward silence. Eventually we cobbled together a list.
No doubt you can think of your own fifth point…
Whether you like your Brexit hard or soft-boiled, UK farming will soon enter a new world.
The fact we had to scratch our heads is worrying; the future of farming can’t just be about survival. It must be about finding new ways to thrive.
Today, many farms hardly make ends meet, few have annual profits larger than their subsidy cheque.
Despite this, opportunities are out there for us. The question is; are we farmers capable enough to spot them, capitalised enough to seize them, and collaborative enough to build on them?
In 2000, the Netherlands set out to double agricultural output while halving inputs. They succeeded.
This in a country under the Common Agricultural Policy, with the same EU red tape, climate, latitude, population density as us and a smaller average farm size.
Today this small country, which could comfortably fit between Norwich and Southampton, is the second largest exporter of food in the world.
They earn €80bn a year from food exports. By comparison, we earn £20bn from exports – half from whisky and spirits – and import more than half what we eat.
So what has been holding us back and pushing them forward? In short: profit.
Dutch farming is more profitable than UK farming. Those profit margins are still small, hard won, and always eroding.
But Dutch farmers inject those profits back into the new technology, research, collaborative working and supply chain partnerships which created them.
At the same time, they reduce their environmental footprint. Dutch farmers take risks together and end up calling the shots with suppliers, processors and retailers – often filling those roles themselves. UK farmers: not so much.
But we could do the same, or better!
The East Anglian Fens can match anything Holland’s ‘Food Valley’ around Wageningen University started with, not least the flat land and world-class universities and institutes.
Yet some of the barriers are home-grown too. We farmers need to be more eager for new ideas and methods, open to collaborating with others near and far, and have enough appetite for risk to put our money where our mouth is.
But without profits, where is that money? Unless you’re James Dyson, you probably aren’t in a position to invest millions. Tax traps mean families sit on land more heirloom than productive asset.
How do we kick start a virtuous circle?
Defra’s recent consultation relegated food production behind worthwhile public funding of ‘natural capital’.
Productivity grants were in there, but the Ministry buying every farmer a no-till drill or drone isn’t really what we need.
How might we pump-prime the huge economic potential of the agri-food sector?
Firstly, the AHDB levy boards could follow the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) example and become truly industry-led.
Secondly, farmers should be able to take all their remaining area payments in an up-front lump sum, either as a golden goodbye, or a windfall to invest in progressive and transformational projects.
The world is changing, Brexit will change it faster for us than for others, but there are huge opportunities to be grasped if we can just get ourselves in the right place now.