tractor in field

Not since the 1947 Agriculture Act have farmers had a greater opportunity to influence the design and delivery of agriculture policy. ‘Health and Harmony’ – the much-anticipated government consultation on farming’s legislative footing outside the European Union and pre-cursor to the Agriculture Bill – asks questions about how farmers should be supported in future and, crucially, what for.

Armed with a copy of the consultation I travelled to Kent to meet with a group of fruit, vegetable and arable farmers and hear their views. The road to the farm we are meeting on forms a boundary between the Thames on one side and a vast swathe of Grade 1 soil on the other. Planted on it are miles of fruit trees. Pear, apple, cherry and apricot orchards have been growing in this region for generations. The orchard I can see stretching away through the farm kitchen window on this bitterly cold March morning looks spindly and barren, but in a matter of weeks the trees will be festooned with blossoming flowers.

It’s too soon to say if the late cold snap will have impacted the crop, but as the snow melts, the water levels rise. “Gallons of water are flowing through the sluices into the Thames every day,” says David Long, owner of the farm in North Kent near Rochester. The farm grows top and soft fruit, arable crops and has a sheep flock of Romney ewes. “It’s utter madness. Once summer arrives the whole of the south east of England will be placed under drought conditions, and here we are spewing water which could be held in winter storage reservoirs and utilised in the summer.”

A key theme of the government’s consultation is defining ‘public goods’ – the future test for any farm support. “If storing water in the winter to alleviate shortages in the summer isn’t a public good I don’t know what is,” Long adds. Every farmer around the table agrees. This will no doubt be one of the recommendations these, and many other farmers, make in their response to Defra.

I ask the growers for their first impressions of the proposals. “Thin”, “underwhelming”, “environmentally driven” and “lacking in emphasis on food production and horticulture” are their replies. A hot topic that is certainly given light touch in the paper is labour.

Speaking at the NFU’s Conference in February, secretary of state Michael Gove described the case for a seasonal labour scheme as “compelling” and assured the 1,500-strong audience that the government would “very shortly say something” on this issue. An announcement can’t come soon enough for the growers who were caught short in 2017.

“We were forced to leave fruit on the trees last year because we didn’t have the staff,” says David Figgis, who grows apples, strawberries and rears turkeys near Faversham and whose fruit losses last season made headline news. “If anything, the situation in 2018 will be worse. The labour supply across the EU is tighter than ever, and sterling remains weak.”

“The uncertainty over immigration rules is stimulating massive change in the horticulture industry, which is irreversible,” adds Nick Ottewell, farm director at LJ Betts, growing and packing salad crops and cereals. “Investments are being diverted. Production is being stifled. Where you do have staff, the bill is huge. Labour costs in our business are 30 per cent dearer than they were five years ago.”

The consultation paper recognises concerns that growers like Figgis, Ottewell and others have. But it only goes so far as to say that an ‘implementation period’ is needed to prevent a cliff edge. For the longer term Defra wants to see greater use of domestic workers and a more “sophisticated” food supply chain.

If that includes robotics, then growers are open minded to the possibilities, but remain realistic about the application potential. “There are technologies out there, but it’s not going to replace manual labour significantly in all circumstances,” says Toby Williams, who grows wheat, fruit and vegetables in partnership with his brother on a 150-acre farm situated just 17 miles from the centre of London. “I have a very diverse crop range, so robotics won’t help me if I need a different machine for each crop. Even if the technology existed – which for some crops it doesn’t – that’s simply too expensive.”

The content of the government’s labour announcement, when it comes, could dictate the viability of horticultural businesses, like those represented around the table, for the forseeable future. A show of hands reveals that half of the growers at the meeting are members of a producer organisation. It seems like a good time to pose some searching questions about the EU scheme. I start by asking the growers if POs have a stronger position in the supply chain than individual businesses.

“It’s a scheme that improves productivity more than it does fairness,” says Long. “But it does encourage production planning, market orientation and, through the investments it enables, makes us more efficient. When combined, these things make us better sellers than we would be alone.”

Government has not yet said whether funding for the PO scheme will continue until 2022, the expected end of the Parliament, alongside the continuation of the Basic Payment Scheme. The decision on this sits with HM Treasury. For now, growers in POs could lose their funding on the day of Brexit.

There’s no doubt that the PO scheme has been a major driver in the success of sectors like soft fruit, but would collaboration continue without the match funding? Robert Hinge, growing 250 acres of fruit in Upchurch, Kent, thinks a withdrawal of funds would compromise growers’ competitiveness, but Ottewell, whose farm isn’t in a PO, believes the scheme creates an uneven playing field within the UK.

The debate on the merits of the PO scheme continues for some time, but everybody does at least agree on two main principles. First, that any UK government support arrangement for farming needs to build on the PO scheme’s successes. And second, that a more inclusive approach in future, open to individual businesses and co-operatives will drive productivity gains across the wider horticulture sector.

After three hours our discussion reaches a natural conclusion. While the government’s proposals are not overly clear in structure the ambition for reform is clear. These growers appreciate the scale and significance of the policy changes at stake. The right response could see the horticulture sector achieve more under a domestic policy than it ever achieved under the CAP. The consultation closes on 8 May, and growers with an interest in the future of UK farming should respond.