How will Brexit affect food and farming in Yorkshire?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2018 | UPDATED: 18:12 26 February 2018
Two Yorkshire farmers and the NFU's regional director share their thoughts on how Brexit will affect their lives.
The decision to leave the European Union is a monumental one for food and farming in Yorkshire, writes NFU regional director Adam Bedford.
For more than 40 years, the rules and regulations that affect farm businesses and the environment in the UK have largely come from the EU. Beyond Brexit, it will be local MPs who will largely shape the future of our farm businesses and the Yorkshire countryside.
In many ways, farming in Yorkshire is in great shape. We can boast a fantastic diversity of food production, our farmers are increasingly embracing innovation and new technology and we have superb local colleges and universities that provide a steady stream of young people keen to get into an industry with an exciting future.
But where there is strength and resilience, there is also vulnerability and Yorkshire farming could feel some of the changes associated with Brexit quite acutely. For a start, the county is home to a lot of hill and tenant farms, where options are more limited and the challenges are perhaps more pronounced. We also have a sizeable horticulture sector, with those businesses heavily reliant on thousands of non-UK staff to help pick and pack their crops of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Our lamb producers too need a good trade deal, given that currently one in four lambs produced goes for export.
As we head out of the European Union, the challenge will be to ensure all our farmers have the chance to adapt and respond to what will likely be a very different operating environment. This will be crucial as we work to improve our food security, which currently stands at just 60 percent.
The National Farmers Union is urging the government to ensure that as Brexit approaches, we have transition measures in place to prevent farm businesses ‘going off a cliff edge’ in 2019. This of course is important for all businesses that need to be able to plan for the future, but is especially important given the long timescales involved in farming. It takes three years for a young calf to mature for example, so farmers need to know whether there will be a market for that animal several years ahead.
What is interesting in the run up to Brexit is the increasing willingness of the supply chain to work together in an unprecedented way. This is as true in Yorkshire as elsewhere in the country and it is encouraging to see food and drink manufacturers, food processors and retailers all working with farmer primary producers to promote the contribution that the wider agri-food sector makes to the economy and the nation.
The one thing everyone is agreed on is the need for a thriving domestic market to help smooth what may prove to be a rocky path ahead. We know from our independent research that people want to see more British food on supermarket shelves. So this year, we will be urging government to help create the right conditions for our farm businesses to thrive, be progressive, productive and profitable and so secure a British larder full of fantastic British fare.
Case study one: Steven Crabtree
Steven Crabtree farms in one of the most scenic spots in Yorkshire. At the heart of Wharfedale, Bolton Abbey attracts around 500,000 visitors a year thanks to its stunning farmed landscape. Steven is the third generation of his family to farm at Bolton Park Farm as a tenant of the Duke of Devonshire.
Overlooking the historic priory church and Augustinian priory ruins, it’s hard to think of a more traditional setting for a hill farm, complete with seven miles of dry-stone walls and a rolling landscape that rises nearly 1,000ft from the ‘in-by’ land around the farm house to the exposed heather moorland dotted with Swaledale sheep.
This traditional setting belies a changing approach though as Steven seeks to build a modern hill farm – one that delivers on the environment, and is able to make a modest profit and secure a future on the farm for his son, Simon. Farm output has changed dramatically over the years. Originally a dairy farm, its remote location and difficult access – a mile and a half up a single track road – ultimately made this untenable. Sheep numbers too are also down but they remain essential to manage the upland terrain and maintain the Yorkshire Dales landscape that attracts so many tourists.
Breeding beef cattle are a relatively new addition to give Steven an additional income stream and more flexibility when managing his pasture land – cattle and sheep graze differently and this can be invaluable especially when managing the ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ grassland on his farm that comes complete with the rare ‘Alpine’ plants that populate the area’s limestone geology.
But in a sector where farm incomes are declining, the real challenge is to make the farm pay and provide a reasonable standard of living for the family. His approach has been four-fold. He has a real focus on costs and ‘benchmarking’ his business to measure and continually improve his performance; he invests heavily in animal health and welfare and in farm infrastructure; he has developed different income streams and has explored different marketing options for his animals. Thanks to this proactive approach he now produces premium Swaledale lamb for Marks and Spencer.
But, he says, the future is very uncertain and this threatens not just his hill farming business but the families of his two farm workers and the businesses of the 20-30 local suppliers that he uses daily. I’ really want to secure a sustainable future for the farm and see my son able to come home and take it on,’ he says. ‘But it’s hard to know what the future holds post-Brexit.
With food self-sufficiency currently at just 60 percent, I’d like to think there will be a greater demand for quality home-produced food, with all that delivers for the rural economy and environment. That could make all the difference for farms like mine across our county’s glorious uplands.’
Case study two: Guy Poskitt
There’s more to the humble carrot than meets the eye, especially when you are trying to grow more than 50,000 tonnes of them every year. They are quite picky – liking light, sandy soil so the root doesn’t need to work too hard; 120 days to grow and a nice blanket of straw in wintertime to keep them warm.
Catering to their every need is specialist vegetable producer and carrot ‘king’ Guy Poskitt, who farms near Goole in East Yorkshire and has the unenviable task of trying to ensure we have access to home-grown carrots for 52 weeks of the year.
To achieve this, he grows plenty himself but also works with growers across Yorkshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire as well as in Scotland to extend the very end of the season. Different varieties are used to maximise success on different soils and topography.
Supplying two major retailers, Guy runs a large horticulture business – part farm, part state-of-the-art pack house. The pack house boasts the most modern camera grading line in the UK, capable of photographing 140,000 carrots an hour in 380 degrees. Those meeting the stringent supermarket spec go for loose or pre-packed sale. For those that don’t meet the exacting requirements, the factory produces everything from diced and grated carrots to bags of batons and even ‘spiralised’ roots.
For Guy, the key to success is making use of the whole crop. Nothing is wasted and he even does a thriving trade supplying carrots for horses, to use up those roots that are too misshapen to use otherwise.
Technology is also crucial on the farm, allowing Guy to ensure, for example, that each individual plant gets the exact nutrients it needs and GPS tracking on tractors means there is no waste. He has also invested in an on-farm anaerobic digester – a plant that takes any waste from the factory and ‘feed’ crops grown on land that wouldn’t grow anything else – to produce both energy and a fertiliser bi-product that is then spread on the fields.
This commitment to the environment has also seen the creation of a 20-acre nature reserve on land badly affected by subsidence thanks to the area’s history of deep coal mining.
More than 300 people are employed by MH Poskitt, and many of those currently come from outside the UK. On the farm 80-90 percent are UK workers. In the pack house, 80 percent are non-UK. Guy is clear about the challenges ahead, with Brexit on the horizon: ‘We work hard in a mass market environment to provide the best carrots we can, using the latest technology to keep us ahead of the game, but it is quite simple: without people, we have no business.
‘We do everything possible to offer good opportunities as an employer, but the fact remains that a great many excellent, skilled and hard-working people in my business come from outside the UK. If access to that workforce is constrained beyond Brexit, I will definitely struggle to get the job done and keep the constant supply of carrots flowing.’