With plans progressing for the 89th annual Kent County Show this summer, the area’s agricultural and farming heritage remains much valued. But with pressure on food prices, uncertain global markets and our imminent departure from the EU, there remain a number of pressing concerns. We examine some of the major issues within the industry…
Words: Neill Barston
While agriculture and farming form a significant part of East Kent’s economy, they continue to face considerable challenges as the clock rapidly ticks down on our anticipated exit from the EU next year.
Nationally, there have been significant concerns expressed through business groups such as the CBI over future trading relations with Europe, which has been joined by the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) on voicing the need to secure prospects for our key markets on the continent.
There have also been major issues over whether the UK government will replace financial subsidies presently paid to British farms (totalling £3 billion) by the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The system presently supports around 12 million farmers across Europe, and is expected to no longer apply to the UK after Brexit.
This continent-wide scheme, which provides just over half of all funding for British farming, was devised in the 1950s, and has drawn significant criticism. Its opponents, including Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, believe the CAP has led to production inefficiency, and has favoured major land-owning agricultural corporations.
Consequently, it has been argued by some that the UK’s planned exit from the EU will offer potentially greater scope for our own government to offer greater support to smaller farms and agricultural enterprises.
Another vital factor for East Kent has been how to maintain access to important European labour, which has formed much of the workforce for horticultural-based companies such as fruit and vegetable producers.
The challenges facing our farming community
These farming sectors are especially important in the county, as whilst wheat is the most commonly grown crop both on Kent farms and nationwide, more than 9,500 hectares of Kent farmland grows fruit: apples, pears, berries and cherries. Well over half of all English apples are grown in Kent, and three quarters of English pears. Therefore, the issue of access to picking labour has been raised by a number of senior business figures, including Frazer Thompson, CEO of Chapel Down wine and drinks producer near Tenterden.
Speaking recently to The Guardian newspaper, he said that the country “would have to import everything” if there was a failure to ensure European workers were able to access farming job opportunities within the UK.
However, there appears to be hope on the horizon as the NFU welcomed a new government commitment to develop a national food policy, as well as recognising that food production is ‘at the heart of all farming businesses’.
Benefits after Brexit?
NFU President, Meurig Raymond, welcomed Michael Gove’s speech at the latest Oxford farming conference that offered a boost to the food and drink sector, which is worth £112 billion to the UK economy, providing 3.8 million jobs.
“I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State talking about the need to invest in technology, skills and rural resilience – all of which he says are public goods,” explained the president, adding: “Michael Gove also spoke about the importance of delivering benefits for the environment, something farmers already advocate and perform highly on. He was absolutely right to recognise the vital contribution that uplands farmers have in maintaining their iconic landscape.
“Without the productive, resilient and profitable farm businesses across the country, we will not have the people to look after the natural environment.”
Mr Raymond hoped a deal for a transition period for the Brexit negotiations would be possible, which would allow farmers to prepare for any reworked UK policy. His optimism was shared by Kevin Attwood, Chairman of the Kent County Agricultural Society, whose family manages Down Court Farm in Doddington, near Faversham.
Though he felt an agreement with the EU was in everyone’s best interests, he believed there were a number of challenges remaining for the industry – including continued turbulence within global food markets.
“This past year saw the earliest harvest we have ever had and we were out with combines in mid July. Then the weather during the summer gave us a torrid time of it, meaning that we didn’t finish until the third week in September, which was fairly difficult for us. But that was last year and we’re focusing on the next harvest now,” said Mr Attwood.
“One of the main points for us has been trading of wheat prices on the world market. Since the referendum on Brexit and the devaluation of the pound, we have in fact seen a relative increase of around 25% in the price in our wheat, which has come about for reasons including rising demand from places like China, restrictions on supply in other areas, as well as Europe having its own issues as well,” explained Mr Attwood, who hoped future financial support for the farming sector would be forthcoming from the UK government.
He added: “There are other challenges around Brexit for those within horticulture and vegetable growers regarding supply of European labour. There has been a period of uncertainty that has led to concerns from some EU workers about when they might have to return home. So there are likely to be issues of labour flow, which is probably the greatest concern for horticulture in terms of having enough people to pick and pack produce. Then there is the issue of whether we will have tariff-free access to European markets,” revealed the chairman, who said he fully intended to continue farming in spite of market uncertainties.
For many traditional farms in East Kent, as in the rest of the county, adapting to changing market conditions has been a pressing priority in recent years. One such example is E H Holdstock and Son, based at Elbridge Farm in Sturry, Canterbury, which has farmed Sussex cattle for several generations.
Family member Verity Garrett said that while the farming industry “faced a challenging few years ahead”, she believed potential trading difficulties could be tackled through businesses being open to adapting their practices.
She explained how her own farm had expanded its operations through a number of means. This included providing award-winning holiday rentals on one of its properties, as well extending the business into sheep grazing and farming lamb in addition to its cattle herd.
Verity said: “I think that one of the main issues that is of concern now is that we don’t know whether we are going to be able to keep the same import and export rules. We currently export a lot of lamb, but is that going to be able to continue?
“Under present EU rules, I understand that America cannot import meat here that contains growth hormones, but we may not be able to compete with cheaper prices from those products if this were to now be permitted.
“Research has shown that people’s purchasing is largely influenced by price, but we hope that consumers would not want products that are pumped full of hormones, which is what would set our meat apart.
“It’s challenging for farmers now, especially wondering how they might cope without subsidies, but we’ve just got to grab the opportunities that are there.”
While the ongoing negotiations surrounding Brexit have posed business sectors including farming a huge range of unwelcome financial and regulatory headaches, those working within agriculture in Kent are demonstrating a clear ability to respond to such times of uncertainty.