This week I spoke at the annual NFU conference, which, like all such events was held virtually this year. It has been a mixed year for farming. Floods a year ago made it difficult to get on the land to sow crops and dry weather in parts of the country led to low yields. However, other sectors are performing really well. Lamb prices are running at record highs and the beef sector has seen a strong recovery over the last year. Although there was a bit of a blip around the start of the pandemic, diary prices have also remained stable and farm incomes in many areas have seen a boost.
In many ways, this has been a uniquely challenging year as the whole world has wrestled with the greatest public health challenge since the influenza pandemic of 1918. At home, it has been a reminder that domestic food production makes up a critical component of our nation’s food security. It has also been a year of some uncertainty as the UK re-established itself as a truly independent, self-governing nation for the first time in almost 50 years. The negotiations on a future trading relationship with the EU were fraught, but we secured the tariff-free trade agreement we always sought, but with the freedom to make our own laws again and to chart a new direction for agriculture policy.
However, now that we have left the EU, we can face the future with some confidence. We are living through a moment of great change. We’re thinking through from first principles what a coherent policy actually looks like, and we are charting an orderly course towards it. We are not wasting time. I am a great believer that whatever you want to achieve in life, you should begin it now.
We have passed the landmark Agriculture Bill that signals a major shift in British agriculture policy toward a more efficient, user-friendly, and importantly, greener future. A vibrant farming industry needs to attract new talent and fresh thinking. We understand that new entrants can find it difficult to start a new business, in part because of strong competition and high prices for land. We will work with councils with ‘county farms’ estates as well as other landowners to create a scheme that will foster new opportunities and offer business mentoring to the next generation of farming entrepreneurs.
Our newly found freedom allows new payments and incentives that will reward farmers for farming more sustainably helping them contribute to our net-zero target by creating space for nature on their land, enhancing animal health and welfare, and reducing carbon emissions. We will continue to work closely with groups like the NFU and farmers themselves to help farming businesses become more productive and sustainable in the future as we recover from the pandemic.
My family have farmed in this part of Cornwall for six generations. The names of fields were passed from one generation to the next. Like all farmers, we knew our land and so I understand the responsibility that farmers feel to the hard work of previous generations and also their commitment to the future. That is why I want to get our future policy right and to ensure that it delivers not just for the farmers of today but for the farmers of tomorrow too.