The British Independent Fruit Growers Association's (BIFGA) call for future support to the UK fresh-produce sector to be "available equally to all growers, regardless of how and where they market their produce" has prompted a debate in the industry on what form such support should take post-Brexit.
BIFGA chairman John Breach tells HW: "The Government has always said 'we'd like to help but Brussels won't let us'. But in two years' time they will no longer be able to say that. They can then make support more equally available."
Currently, under the EU's fruit and vegetable regime, capital support to the sector including for environmental measures and even subsidies of up to 50% on hail insurance premiums is available only to members of producer organisations, of which there are believed to be 33 currently active in UK fresh produce.
"You can join a PO and still sell a percentage of stuff independently," Breach explains. "But some of the biggest top-fruit growers, such as AC Goatham or Adrian Scripps, are independents so miss out."
NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper, who is due to address BIFGA's AGM on 14 June, says the union takes a "nuanced" approach. "We want 'investment' in the production of British fruit, veg, plants and flowers, so we want the PO match-funding investment stream to continue. There are some sectors currently not included, such as potatoes and hops," she says.
"We also want POs to be open to all fruit and veg growers - there are some sectors currently not included - and we want to see the PO investment regime simplified and made more flexible, and the annual audit to be more effective and efficient. It is incredibly complex and a lot of the rules are not fit for purpose within UK farming practices."
She suggests that the producer organisation investment regime should "be open to all businesses but be worth more - that is, with a greater percentage of match funding - if growers collaborate", adding: "We are developing the detail behind this in conjunction with the industry at the moment and will be making the case for a well-financed future PO investment scheme."
Part of the remit of the British Growers Association is to "provide a complete PO management and organisational package" for growers. Its chief executive Jack Ward says future Government policy should not overlook the scheme's already positive impact on the UK industry.
"Very little CAP funding comes to fresh produce but the PO system has channelled investment and delivered some useful stuff," he adds. "It has brought growers together to share marketing and quality control. We have one PO with 250 growers that can ensure regular supply to a major processor. But the system has barely scratched the surface of what's possible." Given the likely future obstacles and therefore higher costs of importing produce from Europe, "there is massive headroom to grow more in the UK", he adds.
"I entirely get that not everyone wants to be tied into one way of operating. The PO system shouldn't be to the exclusion of everything else. But you need a structure, an audit process, transparency - you need to be able to justify it as a use of taxpayers' money. For the Government, it provides a good model for capital expenditure, though not the only one." But when Defra becomes responsible for the entirety of UK agricultural policy, "it's unlikely to want to deal with 5,000 claims for £10,000", he adds.
So far, the scheme "has spent around EUR870m in the EU as a whole, of which EUR40m has gone to the UK", he notes. "France, Spain and Italy have benefited from it far more, as they have made a conscious decision to make use of this pot, which is not capped for each state."
He concludes: "There are exciting options for fresh produce. All the balls will be thrown up in the air over the next two years. The PO system has delivered collaboration and productivity, so should remain part of it."
With most of the specifics of post-Brexit agricultural policy, the Government is keeping its cards close to its chest. But the Conservative Party's election manifesto states: "We want to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU... so we will continue to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the Parliament" - that is until 2022, not just 2020 as it had previously stated.
Viewpoint - Laurence Olins, chairman, British Summer Fruit
"The good news is that the Conservatives will keep farming support at the same levels until 2022, which gives us breathing room. The soft-fruit sector has so far used the EU money very well, on polytunnels, tabletops and packing to make us self-sufficient from May to September. This has benefited the UK's balance of payments, as well as bringing productivity and environmental gains, and the Government should keep backing a winner. I don't know of any soft-fruit growers that aren't in a PO, but if they aren't, that's their own choice."