The audience had been asked to bring their questions to the conference, this year sponsored by Mayo Wynne Baxter, Complete Land Management (CLM), Lloyds Bank and Richard Place Dobson. Insights from leading lights in British agriculture, hot topics including Brexit, education, sustainability, consumer food trends, environment and working together for a more positive future were all keenly debated.

The atmosphere was lively and engaging and the new ‘Question Time’ format proved popular with the audience. BBC presenter, Charlotte Smith steered the impressive panel of industry leaders and navigated a path through the plethora of topics raised giving each the opportunity to share their knowledge and views on the challenges that were presented to them.

Kicking off with the topic of Brexit, business consultant Séan Rickard, who has been involved in agri-food policy for more than 40 years as previous director of the Cranfield School of Management MA programme and chief economist for the NFU, had some valuable, albeit controversial points to bring to the forum.

“I don’t think Brexit will happen because parliament is deadlocked and the only way to resolve this nightmare is to go back to the people and I think that now they are better informed they will vote to remain,” said Séan Rickard. “As far as the politicians are concerned agriculture can be sacrificed and when it is said that one of the benefits of Brexit is cheaper food, that means the tariff barrier will be lowered to America, Brazil, Australasia and we can import all the cheap food we need. When Mr Gove says farmers will be given money for looking after birds and trees, and says very little about a food policy, he is preparing the industry to be thinned down, making the way for more imports.”

In response, Guy Smith, who farms a mixed and diversified family farm in North-East Essex has held numerous senior positions with the NFU and is currently deputy president, said that the NFU was working on a food policy and that the organisation would “continue to make the case about the strategic importance of food” and that they would always protect against importing food from places where standards are an unknown.

Moving on to look at consumer demands and expectations, Stuart Thomson, who heads up the European Food and Farming Partnerships’ food supply chain development work, said that while sustainability remained a priority, when farmers are planning their businesses they needed to listen carefully to consumer food trends too.

“I am always looking at what can happen on-farm which can persuade consumers to buy what we produce,” said Stuart Thomson. “Credence attributes, like provenance, traceability, sustainability, organic, which farmers can actively influence and have to be applied at the farm level, are coming to the fore and within big food brands there is the appetite to engage with the farmers through a less convoluted supply chain.”

With these remarks, Séan Rickard warned the audience that customers still spend more on cat food than they do on organic food and that farmers need to start believing in themselves rather than letting others run their businesses for them.

“People are becoming more sophisticated and they do want these credence attributes, especially welfare standards, sustainability and provenance,” said Séan. “The problem is if farmers aren’t careful they are going to hand over the value they are creating to the processors. Going through schemes like Red Tractor gives away all these benefits because by raising everyone to the same higher standards means they become the norm and it removes the premium value for doing more. We need to get to a point where farmers realise the value of their contribution and by working together they should start to negotiate as equals with the rest of the supply chain. It is time that farmers realise that they deserve a fairer share of the cake because you are expected to take on the maximum risk but for the minimum reward, and it is unacceptable.”

The debate then looked at education, with Sussex dairy farmer Joe Delves stressing that the industry needs to find a way to make recruiting and retaining staff easier.

“We as an industry go about things in the wrong way,” said Joe Delves. “People in schools think you have to already be a farmer to become a farmer. We are pushing the education forwards but for me, when I look at the jobs I provide, the salaries I pay and the benefits I provide, I am absolutely comparable to any middle-class job, the only difference is you need to like working outside.”

In an attempt to provide a solution, Guy Smith stated that the industry needs to promote itself as a high-tech, data-driven, science-based industry which is “going places” to encourage school children and young people to want to come into the sector, while Stuart Thomson highlighted that this is an issue which food processors are also facing and therefore “reinforces that there needs to be one common voice” to tackle the problems which both sectors share.

The debate then opened to the floor with a flurry of questions raising topics such as the Agricultural Bill; the future of glyphosate; ongoing training support for younger farmers; the future, and impact, of the Vegan movement and other consumer trends; using video and media to promote the sector in schools; and succession models to bring new people into the sector.

Speaking after the debate had closed, Charlotte Smith said how well timed the conference was and how the new format symbolised a new dawn for farming in the South East.

“In real time as we opened the debate, Theresa May came outside No.10 and announced the latest news on Brexit,” said Charlotte. “This immediately resonated with the audience who were trying to work out what this will mean for their businesses. A few years ago we wouldn’t have had this engagement and we saw and heard from so many at the conference that suddenly farming is really stepping up to ask itself about its future and to discuss it.”

A technical forum was also held during the afternoon before the conference, inviting active and progressive farmers and students to learn more about ‘breaking the mould and building a business in a new era’.

Chairing the session was 27-year-old Chris Appleton, third generation dairy farmer from Arlington in East Sussex. Presenters included Andy and Laura Hodgkins, who gave an inspirational overview of their outdoor system on the Cowdray Estate predominantly used for breeding first class stock to add to their 2,000 head flock of New Zealand Romney sheep. Matt Redman brought a fascinating insight into how he operates an agricultural contracting business covering Bedfordshire and surrounding counties and farming 240ha of tenanted land in Cambridgeshire. Ian Webb, who leads the South East Agriculture business for Lloyds SME Banking, offered his financial expertise, highlighting the character traits of successful businesses; and finally Séan Rickard expressed his views on Brexit and the opportunities and challenges this will present to farmers if or when we leave the EU.

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