We finally know the outcome of one of the biggest national decisions in a generation. Referenda, by their nature, lead to polarised views and this one was no different. The debate divided the country, political parties, friends, neighbours and families.
Farmers too were divided in their opinion about the best way forward. In the run-up to the vote, the NFU consulted many hundreds of our members the length and breadth of the country – representing all shapes and size of business from the top of the hill to the lowlands - and commissioned a detailed study into the likely impact of leaving the EU. Our position that the interests of British agriculture would be best served by remaining a member of the EU, was only taken following that detailed work. We did not actively campaign and we did not tell anyone how to vote. Our aim was to provide factual information on farming considerations for farmers deciding how to vote.
The challenge now is to fight for the best possible deal for British agriculture in the new reality of life outside the EU – when that eventually happens. We can boast an amazing industry – tough and resilient, but creative and passionate – all the strengths that will be needed in the weeks, months and years ahead as we strive to develop a British agriculture policy. After 40-odd years of the Common Agricultural Policy, that will not be easy but we must make a start now.
The future has to be our focus. Farming is a long term business – whether that is growing crops or rearing livestock – and farmers are very good at responding to signals from government, the supply chain and society in general about what is required from them. Without those signals, planning for the future is almost impossible. That has to be the overwhelming message to government as we take our first few steps down what will be a long road.
The dust is settling on the referendum decision and the government has yet to invoke ‘Article 50’ which starts the process of our withdrawal from the EU. While there is significant uncertainty about what the future holds, opportunity knocks and this is a chance to develop new guiding principles and put the right building blocks at the heart of Britain’s developing agriculture and trade policy.
There is a lot to do but for me there are three key themes to focus on: income, access and regulation.
With recent low farmgate prices well documented, the importance of CAP support payments cannot be overstated. For the last 40 years, the policy of supporting food production through the CAP has aimed to ensure a supply of affordable, high quality food for consumers, underpin farm incomes and help smooth out price volatility while providing a significant boost to the environment. Given that farmers across the EU will still be our principal competitors in future, the NFU will be fighting for a guarantee that our farmers will not be disadvantaged.
Market access is another key area. At present 73 per cent of our agri-food exports go to the EU and of particular resonance in our region – 38% of our lamb is destined for mainland Europe. For the foreseeable future, that market remains crucial. We benefit at present from more than 50 trade agreements with countries in the rest of the world. We will need to keep these arrangements and negotiate new ones if we are to build a farming sector fit for the future. NFU will be fighting for an agricultural trade policy that has British farmers at its core – it is unacceptable for us to be open to imports which are produced to lower standards than our own.
The final element is regulation. The regulatory environment in which farm businesses operate is often a wider barometer of profitability. The NFU has long called for farming legislation to be proportionate, pragmatic and above all, practical. This approach is now more important than ever as new discussions will start in Westminster to create, shape and implement rules and regulations that directly affect farm businesses in England.
These fundamental principles will guide the NFU in the future. The NFU Council, the elected representatives of farmers and growers, will meet this week to discuss the strategic direction required to secure a prosperous future for British farming.
At times of political and economic uncertainty, there is an overwhelming need for farmers to stand together as a collective to build bridges and develop the conditions to allow the industry to thrive. By working together, harnessing the skills, energy and creativity of our farmers and focusing on the fundamental principles of what we want from them; we will be able to create the profitable, sustainable and resilient farm businesses of the future.
Adam Bedford is regional director of NFU North East.