With a divided country and many farmers not knowing which way to turn, Lauren Dean takes a look at how the uncertainty is affecting the sector and what businesses are doing to get themselves fit for the future.
Looking beyond the Brexit uncertainty, efficiency will be key and there is no better time to make a change.
Agricultural consultant Philip Wynn said the feeling among farmers was ‘quite mixed’ and the uncertainty of not knowing which way the future was headed was leaving many concerned.
But there was a wave of optimism, with many looking ahead and getting to grips with their business plans, holding out for opportunity and new investment.
Mr Wynn said: “There is no point in waiting.
“So there are more farmers perhaps co-operating and working together on joint investments, because whatever they do they know they have to be more efficient.
“Those are the things which are the sort of positives in an uncertain future.”
Alex Bragg, Savills East Anglia director of food and farming, said farmers and growers should use Brexit as an opportunity to invest in infrastructure and obtain a niche in local markets to produce ‘more of what the UK wants’.
He said some larger businesses were analysing ‘every element’ of their structure, doing what is profitable and making decisions based on finances, while others were looking to the young generation to take over or collaborate with.
For these businesses, Brexit should be seen as a positive.
For Aberystwyth beef and sheep farmer and NFU Cymru livestock board chairman Wyn Evans, the looming beef crisis has forced a drop in beef production on the farm and instead prompted an increase in producing heavier lambs for the domestic market.
His fears surrounded a lessening demand from the continent and the potential of high tariffs in a no-deal scenario.
Meeting domestic specification means the business would no longer have to rely on exports.
Mr Evans said: “This time last year we had increased the beef unit to safeguard us against Brexit because it seemed to be the least affected option.
“But this is not the case anymore. We have decided now to change the type of ewe we keep and go for more of a cross-bred ewe to get heavier lambs and meet specification for the domestic market.
“We were thinking of doing these changes in the next few years anyway but we have sped them up a bit.
“But you cannot plan it. It is a hard job to mitigate a farming enterprise against Brexit.”
The National Sheep Association said although many in the sector were not rushing to spend big money on new infrastructure and equipment, a lot of farmers were thinking about where they would send lambs if things did not go to plan.
Pig producers are thought to be ‘pushing forward’ but worries were centred on issues such as African swine fever and low pig prices.
Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said although Brexit was ‘adding to the cloud on the horizon’, there was a chance it would bring opportunities with exports to China and Asia. But the uncertainty has put a number of projects on hold.
Dr Davies said: “There are a lot of people out there questioning what they are doing.
“If there is a no-deal our sow trade will die out completely – 90 per cent is exported because there is no market for it here.”
Suffolk arable farmer John Collen said Brexit had prompted a change in rotation, having reduced cropping into cereals and increased the acreage of oilseed rape (OSR) due to concerns over exposure to export tariffs.
He said the expected €90/tonne (£80/t) export tariff on cereals was ‘too big a risk’.
“It is all on the back of Brexit,” Mr Collen said. “The markets have already reacted to those risks, so cereal prices are already depressed.
“I would suggest to anybody that they look at the potential risks in growing any crop, and these are no longer just agronomic risks, and to base your business decisions on the politics as well as the agronomics.”
In the field: Mary Quicke, Exeter, Devon
LOOKING at the cost of production is just one focus for Exeter dairy farmer Mary Quicke, who is streamlining her business in the face of uncertainty.
The long-term approach for the business has prompted positive thinking for the cheese and arable side, getting a head start on previously thought-up ideas as well as new and innovative ways to safeguard her future.
“Instead of being the victim of a crisis, let us see if we can play with the crisis and play with demand and see what we can do,” said Ms Quicke, who runs 546 hectares (1,350 acres) in mid-Devon with two herds of 300 extended paddock-grazed cows, one spring and one autumn calving block rotation.
“It is the things we ought to be doing anyway, so let us get on with it.”
Ms Quicke said the Agriculture Bill was likely to be ‘quite dramatic’ in terms of its impact on farming, and she feared tariff barriers could lead to a potential lower price for cheese, of which she exports about 40 per cent.
Her business is looking at better and more appropriate mechanisms for cheesemaking, as well as investment in a sales marketing team.
“On the cheese side, we think things will get tight in terms of it becoming a fairly brutal commodity, with potential clashes between the multiple retailers,” she said.
“If so, I think people will want to support British farmers.
“We want to be there – positioned, able, brand-ready and with all the marketing and sales resources so we can make use of that.
“It is about trying to see what we can do to help ourselves, rather than turning round in six months’ time thinking everything is a bit pants.”