FW Opinion: Focus on exports overlooks more pressing needs

One of the few positives of the coronavirus lockdown is that it has been much easier to get hold of people.

Farmers, of course, have been as busy as ever producing food for the nation. But, generally, more people have been more accessible, by virtue of the fact they have been tied to their home work spaces.

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It is not surprising, therefore, that the Farmers Weekly mailbox has been inundated with all manner of survey results – and they don’t make for pretty reading.

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Philip Clarke
Executive editor, Farmers Weekly

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One such report, from land agent Knight Frank, shows that 80% of landowners, farmers and rural businesses are bracing themselves for profit declines as a direct result of the pandemic, with 35% saying the effect is likely to be “significant”.

Businesses that have diversified are especially vulnerable, with about 40% having furloughed staff and shut down parts of their enterprises.

Another survey by the NFU, AHDB and the Horticultural Trades Association shows that ornamental growers have lost about 60% of sales during lockdown, while 68% are not willing to avail of the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme for fear of taking on more debt.

And Scotland’s Rural College has filed a survey, pointing to the relative “stasis” in agriculture north of the border, with two-thirds of farmers and landowners being “pessimistic” about post-Brexit prospects, with relatively few investing for the future.

Sadly, our excitement was misplaced. There is no new money on offer, just a broad range of activities and appointments

Against this downbeat picture, it was little surprise to receive a fourth survey, this time from the Farming Community Network, revealing that more than 90% of contributors anticipate a greater need for support organisations over the next five years.

Putting Brexit worries and coronavirus fears to one side, it has been an incredibly tough nine months for farmers, exacerbated by the vagaries of the weather and the volatility of the markets.

Bounceback plan

Faced with such challenges, it was with some excitement that we received another press notice this week, this time from the Department of International Trade and Defra, called the “Bounceback plan for agriculture”.

The programme includes a range of measures designed to “turbo-charge UK food and drink as the world recovers from coronavirus”, with a focus on developing new export markets.

Sadly, our excitement was misplaced. There is no new money on offer, just a broad range of activities and appointments, including “exporting masterclass webinars” for traders and a new Defra “agri-food counsellor” for the Gulf region.

OK, developing overseas markets is important – overseas sales have been falling and the UK’s track record in promoting itself has been somewhat lacklustre over many years. But there are some far higher priorities for British farmers right here, right now, which the government would do well to focus on.

Delaying the phase-out of crucial direct payments in the aftermath of coronavirus, ensuring advance BPS payments are made available this autumn (as Northern Ireland has promised) and ensuring farmers receive a fairer share of the retail margin are just some of them.

Maintaining tariff-free access to the richest market on our doorstep – the European Union – is another priority, as is protecting our own market from substandard imports as the government presses on with free-trade negotiations with the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

It seems ironic that the government should now be focusing on exports – especially at a time of low food self-sufficiency and concerns about climate change – while trying to open the doors to cheap food imports, which many UK farmers will struggle to compete against.

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