There are uncertainties over access to markets, imports from the rest of the world and over regulations if we leave, but there are also uncertainties if we stay."
Speaking for the "leave" campaign, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said: "The UK pays £4.6bn into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but gets just £2.9bn out, and not all of that goes to farmers. No one disputes that British farming should be subsidised, but why do we subsidise French farmers? Why does it have to go through the leaky Brussels machinery then come back hedged around with so many conditions? I am certain we could do better running our own affairs."
He proposed a flat-rate support of £90 per acre - "we could return to using acres" - that would leave farmers better off while also yielding a £1.5bn saving. He also said leaving the EU would free the UK of the "Luddism and distrust of technology that is woven into Brussels", saying that by contrast: "British farming has always taken advantage of technology."
For the "remain" side, farmer, former MEP and Britain Stronger in Europe member George Lyon said the leave campaign resembles the recent Scottish independence campaign, which "promised we could have our cake and eat it too", but that Scotland had avoided "a leap into the unknown". EU membership puts the UK "at the heart of the world's largest economy", in which it is already successful, he said, and in which 60 per cent of UK food and drink exports go to other member states.
He said the leave campaign "can't have it both ways, holding onto bits they like, like the single market", adding: "They can't even agree what 'out' would look like." He claimed the CAP "ensures we are not disadvantaged against other heavily supported farmers elsewhere", adding: "Would a future UK Government support farming over other demands such as health and education?"
Responding to a question from HW on the likely impact on migrant labour, Lyon said: "EU immigration has been fantastic for our industry. If you go to any vegetable or fruit grower, anyone in the intensive sector, it's Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles working in the fields and factories. As long as they pay their way, we should let them come."
To which Hannan said: "Free movement of labour (in the EU) is nothing new. It was extended to a free right of residence and free entitlement to benefits. Labour mobility is necessary for a growing economy. The main question is of control. The reductions in other forms of immigration have been wiped out by the huge increase in the numbers from the EU, over which we have no control. There is a practical limit to how much inward migration any country can take, and those places should go to people from around the world on the basis of their qualifications - people shouldn't leapfrog the queue if they hold EU passports."
The NFU has yet to take sides but unveiled a report, UK Farming's Relationship with the EU, at the conference. It speculates that the official statistic of 35,000 non-UK-born workers in agriculture in 2014, 65 per cent of them from the EU, is "an underestimation" due to under-counting, particularly of seasonal workers. "Any restrictions on our ability to recruit non-UK-born workers would negatively impact the sector," it adds.
It gives as a case study Herefordshire asparagus grower Cobrey Farms, which last year required 960 people to harvest, grade and pack its crop, of whom just three were UK nationals. HR manager Catherine Chinn said: "Without the opportunity to work with foreign nationals we would be unable to grow and harvest these crops successfully."