As we begin a new year and a new decade, we should be confident that farmers across the UK can meet the challenges ahead and grasp opportunities outside the EU, says John Henning, County Armagh beef farmer.
Despite the start of another year, it increasingly feels that, in the words of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.
A new year, and new decade, should provide optimism and new opportunity, but many of the old challenges remain.
When recently interviewing some excellent graduates for a position in the agri-food industry, it was interesting to note they rightly highlighted many of the challenges which have been facing the sector for some time.
Brexit, climate change, efficiency, health, profitability, sustainability and veganism are not new challenges for farming and food, but certainly don’t seem any closer to being resolved than they were in previous decades.
All except Brexit of course, which is supposed to be ‘done’ by January 31 2020, though many would argue that’s only the start of what might be a tortuous journey for the United Kingdom to extricate itself from the European Union.
It was Tolstoy who said ‘spring is the time of plans and projects’, and despite the difficulties of recent months, many farmers continue to plan ahead given the nature of farming.
But it is unlikely that weather conditions will be the only variable to be taken into consideration as we face this new year and new decade.
There is still little clarity on what a new British agricultural policy will look like and what the concept of ‘public money for public goods’ actually means.
Developing a bespoke agricultural policy and embracing the ongoing contribution farmers make to the environment and our beautiful rural landscape is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
We must get it right.
When we consider the range of farming types and systems across the UK, this illustrates the real challenge for the CAP, which was expected to deliver for 28 very different countries in Europe.
The recent restoration of the Northern Irish Executive should help in developing a devolved agricultural policy for Northern Ireland, but this is just one of the many challenges facing politicians and civil servants as the health service, infrastructure and education all face major challenges.
Total output from the food and drinks processing sector here is £4.5bn, of which 15 per cent is exported to the Republic of Ireland, with over 50 per cent sold to Great Britain.
There is therefore significant concern on how trade within the UK will be affected when we leave the EU with a potential ‘border’ in the Irish Sea – always a danger when politics and practicalities meet!
Undoubtedly many farmers in Northern Ireland did vote leave in the EU referendum due to concerns about the CAP, increasing bureaucracy and memories of milk lakes, beef surpluses and grain mountains.
Underlying this thinking was a confidence in the ability of UK Agriculture PLC to deliver for both farmers and the environment without the constraints of an EU system which wasn’t fit for purpose.
At the start of another new year and new decade, we should still have confidence in the ability of British agriculture to meet the challenges ahead and grasp opportunity outside the European Union.
But we should also remember that, as Thomas Edison said, ‘Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work’.
John can be found tweeting at @johnhenningmoo