2018-12-14 

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Farmers Guardian State of British Agriculture Survey 2018

Scores of farmers are already seeking to boost their business resilience and become more self-reliant as Brexit uncertainty soars to new heights, an exclusive Farmers Guardian survey has revealed.

With little detail on the future trading environment outside the EU and against a backdrop of political turmoil which drew to a crescendo in Westminster this week, producers are taking proactive measures to future-proof their operations.

Landscape

The survey also highlights that while the Conservative Party lurches from one conflict to the next, the day-to-day realities of farming continue, with the scourge of rural crime on a par with concerns over Brexit.

Unsurprisingly, the State of UK Agriculture report, which garnered more than 1,100 responses from farmers across the, shows business confidence is fairly high currently, but takes a dip when looking beyond March 2019.

Nonetheless, the survey has revealed 60 per cent are currently making ‘future-proofing’ changes to their business, and only about one third said Brexit had made them change their mind on intended investment or diversification.

There is however some geographical variation to the overall picture.

Scotland and England responses were broadly similar to the overall view.

However, respondents in Northern Ireland were decidedly lacking confidence either now or post-Brexit despite being marginally more confident in a trade deal.

As far as the UK’s ability to achieve new export deals once outside the EU is concerned, there is generally some confidence among respondents, albeit 18 per cent were ‘not at all confident’.

England, Scotland and Wales were broadly similar to the overall view on this issue, but Northern Ireland respondents were at either end of the scale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, asked about the biggest challenges apart from Brexit, the vast majority in all parts of the UK cited the weather, and climate in general.

Cheap food imports followed by a fall in subsidies were the other two factors causing angst among farmers.

However, 48 per cent said they required more information on the Government’s ‘payment for public goods’ principle before agreeing or disagreeing with it. Thirty-four per cent disagreed with it and only 18 per cent thought it was a good idea.

Rural crime featured high, though slightly less so in Wales and Scotland, and no EU trade deal was a concern for many as highlighted elsewhere in the survey. Few were worried about water shortages and nor was increased ‘red tape and regulation’ a real burning issue.

Ben Briggs, editor of Farmers Guardian, said:
"This agenda setting survey provides an insightful glimpse in to the mindset of farmers at such a tumultuous time for the entire country.

"While it is clear many are doing their best to prepare for a post-Brexit world, it shows why, more than ever, political decisions need to be made which provide some certainty for the future of their businesses."

With a pleasing response to the State of British Agriculture 2018 survey, what farm sizes and enterprises were represented overall?

The majority of respondents (78 per cent) were the main decision maker on their farm with those aged from 50-59 the biggest age group (30 per cent) and 20 per cent in both of the 10-year age groups either side.

Sixty two per cent were the farm owner and, interestingly, 28 per cent listed ‘other’ as a secondary occupation.

The main farm size represented was between 100ha and 200ha (25 per cent) but with one 21 per cent between 50ha and 99ha, and another 12 per cent between 200ha and 299ha.

Those in dairying followed roughly the same breakdown while more than 60 per cent of beef farms were in a range from 20ha to 199ha.

There were some big sheep enterprises among the respondents – 15 per cent from 500ha to 999ha and a further 15 per cent above 1,000ha although the 100ha to 199ha operations represented some 13 per cent.

Industry reaction

CLA chief land use policy adviser Susan Twining said:
“It is positive that the majority of survey respondents are taking steps to future-proof their farm businesses. The uncertainty around Brexit makes this challenging but those who are preparing judiciously for the future will be the most resilient and best-placed to take advantage of new opportunities.

“The survey results show the need for more information about the payments for public goods scheme. Government should take note of this and provide clarity as early as possible on how the system will work in practice for farmers and landowners, what payment rates will be, and how the new system can be introduced smoothly and in good time to off-set reductions in Common Agricultural Policy payments. As the details are worked up, Ministers must keep front of mind that only profitable farms can meet their ambitions for environmental enhancement and other public goods.”

Will Gemmill, head of farming for Strutt & Parker, said:
"It is encouraging that nearly two-thirds of businesses say they are looking to future-proof their operations, as the Government has made it clear that it expects farms to become more self-reliant.

"One of the most logical courses of action is to consider ways to grow profits from other sources by diversifying, but farmers should not overlook steps they might be able to take to make their core farming business more resilient. These include collaboration, adopting risk management strategies and greater use of technology and data to improve efficiency.

"It is also crucial for businesses to review whether they have the right skills to deliver improved performance. This might be achieved by training or by bringing in new people, but there is a clear link between successful businesses and highly motivated, skilled people."

Phil Bicknell, AHDB director of market intelligence, said:
"With Brexit and uncertainty featuring prominently, it is no surprise that confidence across our industry dips as we look beyond March.

“However, we also know that the uncertain policy backdrop has prompted many to look closely at their businesses. As much as we can focus on potential policy implications, it is the decisions we make on farm that will determine our future.

"This survey points to farmers gathering information, reviewing goals and budgets, and anticipating potential market changes. Importantly, they have taken action accordingly. With uncertainty one of the few constants in agriculture, I suspect many will be maintaining that mindset for change.”

Graham Redman, partner, The Andersons Centre, said:
“We need to look for the opportunities rather than looking at the threats. The opportunity is to be the best and the most competitive in our own marketplace so we can export to the rest of the world in an added value way. For example, we could ship wheat to anywhere in the world or we could process it, add value to it, for example by producing cakes, and export it. If we can produce something with added value then everybody wins.”

Farmsers Guardian

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