Opinion: Time to pull together for a thriving farming future

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” There is a Churchill quote for every occasion, and this is mine for 2021.

The years since 2016 have been turbulent for agriculture. Culminating in 2020, increasingly bitter street fighting has been waged between a regime seemingly intent on sacrificing domestic production on the battlefield of Brexit, and a broad allied coalition led by farming groups attempting to stop it.

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Last year, we scored a notable victory around trade standards and, to huge relief, a last-gasp EU/UK trade deal was signed, dodging the torpedo that would have holed many sectors below the waterline.

On the army of skilled migrant labour needed to pick our fruit and vegetables, the Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP) scheme has been expanded to 30,000 people for the coming season. And, finally, on 30 November, Defra secretary George Eustace gave his much-delayed keynote speech on the future of agricultural policy.

But in many ways, the hard work begins now in earnest. Last year’s important victory on trade standards gives us the vital ability to scrutinise the detail of each deal negotiated in future, but doesn’t in itself guarantee our safety.

Wrangling over the unscrutinised EU/UK trade deal will stretch on for years, with mechanisms in place to stop us diverging too far from their regulatory orbit.

The SWP extension is only for 2021, and for half the labour required. And the Eustace speech was, anticlimactically, an announcement of future announcements devoid of the detail we may feel we deserve four-and-a-half years after that particular politician urged farmers to vote “leave” on the basis of his grand plan for a domestic agricultural renaissance.

So we must steel ourselves for the task ahead. For the battles over each trade deal, over Environmental Land Management, the transition, labour, funding cycles, tax policy, carbon accounting, the internal market, and much else besides. This is the new post-Brexit reality, and we shall be busy.

But more than this, the lesson we have learned – and the great victory we have scored in 2020 – is to harness the support of the people. More than one million consumers signed the NFU’s food standards petition, and it was, in the end, the weight of public support for our message that turned the tide and forced government into concessions.

We have a great platform and a vital role in our national life, but we must get better at communicating it. We are the most trusted element of a food chain that is in the public consciousness like never before.

If 2020 proved nothing else, it’s that people place a very high premium on unrestricted access to quality food. It would be a brave government that endeavoured to dismantle its own world-leading agricultural sector.

Churchill’s “end of the beginning” speech is considered the point at which “the hinge of fate” began to turn for the Allies in the Second World War, as early reverses gave way to ultimate victory.

Recent years have been bruising, but as an industry, we’ve proven we’re not to be tangled with. If we can set our purpose, pull together and draw on the support of the people, we too will one day celebrate victory in our fight for a thriving future.

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