Farm payments prove a hot potato

Potato grower, Ben Sykes

Potato grower, Ben Sykes

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North Yorkshire farmer Ben Sykes and his family have been growing potatoes for years and his customers include Scarborough-based McCain Foods. Here, Ben, as a member of the Future Farmers of Yorkshire group, weighs up the merits of subsidy payments to farmers ahead of a forthcoming public debate on the topic.

I am the third generation of our family to grow potatoes at our farm in Tadcaster.

I worked on the farm for a year, after leaving school, and then went off to Harper Adams University and gained a degree in Agriculture and Business Management. I’ve also been a ‘potato ambassador’ - promoting the humble spud across Britain. Potatoes grown on the farm go mainly to McCains, who we have supplied for two generations. Around 700 tonnes a year go to small local food companies producing frozen potato products. We also supply a small number of local food establishments.

As well as the 500 acres of potatoes, the farm crops 1,000 acres of wheat, 450 acres of oil seed rape, 150 acres of sugar beet, 200 acres of spring barley, 200 acres of winter barley and 200 acres of grassland. The latter carries 50 ewes with their lambs which are taken right through to finish and also 20 cows and calves; the remainder of the grass provides multiple cuts of haylage for local equine businesses.

I have been involved in the Future Farmers of Yorkshire group from the start and I’ve made some great contacts through the group. The meetings are always thought provoking and next week’s will be no different. We will be debating the contentious question ‘Can agriculture continue to take money from the public purse?’

There are no simple answers. The dairy industry is facing huge challenges as producers struggle to cover their costs of production while they are squeezed ever tighter by the supermarket chains who want to maximise profit, while keeping costs to customers as low as possible.

Many farmers would welcome the end of the Common Agricultural Policy and the regulation that comes with it. A ‘level playing field’ would be much fairer, but the reality for many businesses is that, without some form of support, our farmers will be undercut by countries with cheaper land, cheaper labour and lower environmental and animal welfare standards. We would import more food, at the expense of somebody else’s environment instead of our own.

Without support, would more land be taken out of food production for fuel production, such as maize crops for anaerobic digesters? How would we maintain the rich diversity of our countryside, where so many of us spend our leisure time? Would UK food security become more precarious?

As I said, this is such a complex issue, so I’m looking forward to hearing the views of our panel which includes Lord de Mauley from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I will go with an open mind to enjoy, challenge and participate in a healthy debate.

The event, which is free, begins at 6.15pm with a light supper. For more details or to register for a place, contact futurefarmersofyorkshire@yas.co.uk

Future Farmers of Yorkshire was launched in November 2010 and is supported by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society. It brings together younger farmers, vets and industry supporters.

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