A tough year for UK agriculture saw crop yields fall, especially for oilseed rape (down 30%+), alongside low commodity prices and unhelpful delays in farm subsidy payments.
 
The dramatic UK referendum vote for Brexit added further instability to a sector already grappling with price volatility. However, the fall in value of sterling did at least provide some succour by improving CAP exchange rate values and food exports.
 
We look back at a tumultuous 12 months for farming and identify memorable stories that shaped the industry in 2016.

January 

The government said it had no “Plan B” to support agriculture in the event that the UK voted to leave the European Union. NFU president Meurig Raymond warned Defra and the Treasury to draw up contingency plans for a possible Brexit.

Defra secretary Liz Truss said her department was working on animal and plant health, flood protection, environmental improvement and food exports to support farmers. But she added: “We don’t have any teams working on [Brexit]”.

Liz Truss

Liz Truss © Rex/Shutterstock

February

A spring “tsunami of milk” threatened further downward pressure on prices, with no sign of any immediate recovery in dairying, a leading analyst warned.

Chris Walkland, of the Walkland Partnership, told farmers the spring flush would inflict further price pain on the industry in 2016. 

“It’s going to be pretty horrendous over the next three months,” he told delegates at the NFU Conference in Birmingham.

Mr Walkland predicted milk prices would drop by a further 1.5p/litre in the spring and, by August, farmers would be paid 20.5p/litre for their milk on average.

Dairy parlour with cows

© Tim Scrivener

March

More than 1,000 farmers descended on London on 23 March to urge the government to do more to help struggling farmers. Coachloads travelled from as far as Cumbria, Wales and Cornwall to Westminster to highlight the price slump engulfing the UK’s livestock and arable sectors.

Organised by campaign group Farmers For Action (FFA) and supported by the Tenant Farmers Association, the protest was billed as a celebration of British food and farming. FFA chairman David Handley delivered a letter to Downing Street calling for a fair deal for farmers.

Farmers protesting

© Tim Scrivener

April 

The Rural Payments Agency failed to meet its own target to pay “nearly all” farmers their 2015 basic payment by 1 April.

 RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw (below) had told MPs 92-95% of eligible farmers in England would receive their BPS by the end of March.

However, the agency revealed only 73,846 claimants (85% of the total) had been paid by the deadline, four months after the payment window opened on 1 December.

NFU vice-president Guy Smith urged the agency to “stop treating farmers like fools” and explain when the 10,000-plus still waiting for payment could expect to be paid.

Mark Grimshaw

© Tim Scrivener

May 

The National Trust offered a 10-year farm business tenancy on a Welsh coastal farm for a rent of just £1/year. 

The charity said the successful tenant on 59ha Parc Farm at Great Orme, Llandudno, must be willing to work long hours shepherding a flock of 400 sheep on difficult terrain.

The tenant must also protect the farm’s globally rare habitats and species despite Great Orme’s 600,000 annual visitors. Dan Jones, 38, from Anglesey, was later named as the trust’s new shepherd.

Mr Jones said: “I am really looking forward to managing the land in a way that is good for the land, good for nature and good for visitors, and also productive.”

Parc Farm

Parc Farm

June 

Farmers across the nation opened their gates for Open Farm Sunday (OFS) on 5 June.

Nearly 400 welcomed more than 250,000 people on to their land to give them an insight into agriculture. One in five had never visited a farm before.

Organiser Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) said the turnout – combined with the heavy social media interest in the event – meant “public engagement with farming is at an all-time high”.

Park Farm, in Thorney, Cambridgeshire, held one of the biggest OFS events, pulling in more than 8,600 visitors as part of its Open Farm and Vintage Weekend. Tractor-and-trailer tours, working vintage kit, a sheep show and sausage making were just a few of the many attractions.

Children sitting on a small tractor

© Tim Sscrivener

July 

The Welsh environment minister faced calls to apologise after suggesting farmers were “perhaps not the best people to run a business”. Wrexham AM Lesley Griffiths (below)made the comments in a plenary debate in the Welsh Assembly.

“Farmers, certainly in my very early discussions with them, are perhaps not the best people to run a business,” she said. “They haven’t that kind of business perspective, yet they want to work with us in relation to that.”

Farmer and Welsh Tory leader Andrew Davies called on Ms Griffiths to make an immediate apology to Wales’ farming community, describing her remarks as “highly offensive”.

July Griffiths Lesley

July Griffiths Lesley © Cynulliad-Cymru_CC

August 

Frustrated farm contractors said they were losing tens of thousands of pounds because of an extended ban that prevents them from cutting hedges during August.

Defra’s decision to lengthen the hedgetrimming ban until 1 September to protect nesting birds was welcomed by conservationists, but provoked an angry reaction from farmers – and forced contractors to find other work as they sat out August.

The government blamed EU rules for banning hedgecutting during the month around fields where oilseed rape or temporary grass was being drilled – unless a Defra derogation had been obtained.

Hedgecutiing

© John Eveson/FLP/Rex/Shutterstock

September 

German chemicals and pharmaceuticals giant Bayer acquired US firm Monsanto for $66bn (£53bn).

Monsanto had previously rejected a world-record, all-cash bid of $62bn (£50bn) in May as “inadequate”. But the new offer represented a 44% increase on the May share price and shareholders unanimously approved the merger.

The deal created the world’s biggest supplier of pesticides and seeds. The combined sales for the agricultural businesses amounted to €23bn (£19.4bn) in 2015.

Chemical containers

© Tim Scrivener

October 

Skilled business management and technical excellence saw Sussex grower Nathan Dellicott win the title Farmer of the Year in the 2016 Farmers Weekly Awards.

Mr Dellicott was handed the award by Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom at the annual event held at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London on 6 October. More than 1,200 people attended the ceremony, hosted by the BBC’s Fiona Bruce.

The Richards family, from the Green Waste Company, and Robert Caldecott, from Caldecott Turkey Farms, were both highly commended.

Nathan Dellicott

Nathan Dellicott © Hugh Nutt

November 

Northern Ireland’s dairy farmers said they would strike before Christmas unless processors delivered fair milk prices immediately. Some farmers were losing 10p on every litre of milk produced.

More than 250 dairy farmers voted unanimously in favour of strike action at a crisis meeting in County Tyrone. Most said they would be driven out of business unless prices improved.

The meeting was brought together under a “Northern Ireland Farm Groups” heading, including Holstein UK NI and Farmers For Action NI.

But strike action was averted after processors increased producer milk prices in December to 25p/litre and above.

Dairy farm

© FLPA/Rex/Shutterstock

December 

Hundreds of farmers were still waiting to receive emergency funding – one year after Storm Desmond devastated large parts of northern England.

Heavy rainfall and winter floods resulted in hundreds of applications to the government’s Farming Recovery Fund, with £9m earmarked by Defra to cover reseeding and repairs to drains and boundaries.

The NFU said it was unfair that farmers in England were still waiting when those in Scotland and Northern Ireland had their farming recovery funds done and dusted by the middle of 2016. 

Defra said it had paid out some £4.4m to aid flood repairs.

Flooded farmland

© Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock