Farmers and growers say a toxic combination of unusual and extreme packaging costs required by UK supermarkets, UK pesticide regulations, a massive escalation in the cost of seasonal workers, systemic troubles with the new online basic payment scheme (BPS) and difficult barriers to export markets are all conspiring to prevent them staying profitable.

These issues were top of the agenda for a meeting organised by Helen Grant, Tory MP for Maidstone and The Weald whose constituency is home to a large fruit growing area in Kent.

Following a 90 minute session with farmers and growers, NFU representatives and senior officials from DEFRA in Westminster, Mrs Grant has produced an action plan to address these and other issues facing local farmers and related businesses.
She said: “These businesses are the beating heart of rural communities in my constituency. I will not stand by and see them face ruin when they are very good and viable commercial entities being thwarted by nonsense.”

Top fruit grower Clive Baxter, of Westerhill Farm, near Maidstone, said after the meeting: “I have very little expectation of anything happening. I went to the meeting so we could say that we told DEFRA in April 2016 what would happen. If something does happen further down the line, they cannot say they we didn’t tell them.” The combination of the living wage, poor net prices for products and other issues was a perfect storm, he warned. “Coping with one of these things may be fair enough, but trying to make strategies for all of them is very difficult.”

After the meeting, James Forknall, who runs an arable farm near Maidstone, said that the BPS had become a “complete cock up.” The biggest hurdle facing farmers is that they cannot log on to the BPS website until they have received their 2015 subsidy payment. “The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) are not allowing anyone to log on until they have had that payment,” Mr Forknall said.

Although he has received his 2015 payment, he has registered for the 2016 payment only to find data missing, with the wrong fields on his farm recorded in the wrong places. “Land has been recorded which is not the equivalent of what was there before: what was an arable crop last year has been put down as permanent pasture.”

Mr Forknall said the system the RPA had before worked so it should not have been changed. “Everything was already online, and you could put your 2014 payment into the system. The maps were on there, the crop changes in each field – it took a maximum of 20 minutes and the job was done.” But in 2015, the RPA installed a new computer system which failed and everyone had to go back to filling in paper forms. Payments were delayed after the RPA extended the time for the forms to be returned.

Now, with the 16 May deadline looming for returning the 2016 BPS forms, the RPA is facing chaos. “Some people have been given their 2015 payment in full, some have been paid in part and some have not been paid at all,” said Mr Forknall.

He has also suffered from the bureaucracy surrounding pesticide use. “Centurion is a herbicide which can be used on field beans in France and Germany, but I cannot use it on my field beans here in the UK,” Mr Forknall said. “I grow field beans because of the three crop rule we have now as part of the reformed common agricultural policy. Centurion is cleared for use here to control annual grass weeds in oilseed rape and sugar beet, but I cannot use it.” Similarly, the use of neonicotinoid insecticides has been suspended for Mr Forknall and other arable farmers across the European Union. “But they still don’t know whether they are harmful to bees,” said Mr Forknall.

At the DEFRA meeting, Mr Baxter discussed the amount of plastic packaging used by UK supermarkets on fruit compared to supermarkets elsewhere in the world, which sell more loose fruit. “In those supermarkets, consumers package the fruit and veg. They weigh it, bar code it and take it to the check out. Here, producers package the fruit. If we are selling a premium product with four fruit in a pack, the retail price is heading towards £1. The product inside the pack is virtually worthless – so we are making fruit and veg expensive for customers and the grower is getting less and less reward.”

Pictured: Left to right – NFU group secretary Martin Webber; fruit grower and National Fruit Show chair Sarah Calcutt; Michael Salmon, international trade advisor; NFU group secretary Shaun Joubert; Helen Grant MP; NFU member James Forknall; NFU member Clive Baxter; and two senior DEFRA officials