NFU conference airs need for improved support

'There are a lot of areas in which Government could do better,' outgoing board chairman tells horticulture breakout session.

Breakout session: addressed by board vice-chairman Poskett (left) and outgoing chair Dawson (right) - image: HW
Breakout session: addressed by board vice-chairman Poskett (left) and outgoing chair Dawson (right) - image: HW

At the horticulture breakout session during last month's NFU Conference (25-26 February), the level and nature of Government involvement in the industry emerged as a question where many key current issues overlap.

Outgoing board chairman Sarah Dawson said: "There are a lot of areas in which Government could do better, not through financial assistance but in helping us to grow market share and even increase exports.

"The words are there but often they're not backed up by actions. The Government could have done more on plant protection products, and on CAP reform - the proposed three-crop rule is ridiculous and a slap in the face for growers."

Board member and apple and hop grower Ali Capper added: "There's not enough support from Government at a strategic level. Parts of Whitehall still seem to think we can always buy food from elsewhere. I want the Government to make it clear that UK food production is essential, not just nice to have."

Investment challenge

Board vice-chairman Guy Poskett said: "There is a lack of investment in new pesticides. That's one of the biggest challenges we have. More capital allowances for water storage would be an incentive to store more."

NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said planning "is an ongoing point of contention within Government". She added: "We have seen several high-profile rejections of planning applications from growers."

Meanwhile, the loss of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) shows that Government support for the industry cannot be taken for granted "even though we had a strong evidence base", said Campbell-Gibbons.

West Midlands horticulture board vice-chairman Anthony Snell added that as a result of the loss of SAWS: "We are certain that we will get a less reliable labour force wanting shorter working periods. It will be more costly and it will probably increase immigration as more people try their luck."

As to the proposed rise in National Minimum Wage (NMW), Campbell-Gibbons said: "I would be surprised if many growers are paying at that level anyway."

But Capper responded: "If the NMW does go up, it increases the competition from low-wage industries such as catering and care. I might only need someone for six weeks. It's a problem the Government is trying to solve with Universal Credit, though that's not due to come in until 2017."

Potato Council director Dr Rob Clayton welcomed the Government's £160m Agri-Tech Strategy as a big gift for the industry but "a difficult journey" to implement.

Post-pesticide era

Produce World agriculture director Andrew Burgess said: "We need to get ready for the post-pesticide era. In future we will rely on a mix of biologicals, plant breeding and smart crop management. Research and development funding is desperately needed for pump-priming."

NFU South East regional director William White, chairing, said: "The Government speaks with forked tongue on this. They say they want more people coming into the industry but they are also promoting automation."

To which Poskett said: "We all want to reduce labour, but to automate I need a long-term relationship with the retailer. I've just been looking at a EUR450,000 parsnip trimmer, but I need more than a one-year commitment before I can take that step."

This led to the question of how supermarkets' revised arrangements with dairy suppliers might serve as a model for horticulture. "After a difficult season, now is a good time for retailers to extend these policies, before it's too late," said Campbell-Gibbons.

However, Tesco fresh foods commercial director Richard Marris said: "Last year, (Tesco chief executive) Philip Clarke talked here about building relationships in protein. We are now up for building those same relationships in fresh produce - we are at the start of this journey." Dawson responded: "Growers have been saying, 'when will we get this?', so that's excellent news."

But East Sussex farmer Gillian Van De Meer said the deal has not stopped dairy farmers seeking other markets for their milk. "You may be assured 2p a litre, but once Tesco knows your production costs, you are restricting your profit potential - you won't get 3p or 4p."

Collaboration lacking

Snell, a board member of the Berry Gardens growers group, lamented the lack of cooperation and collaboration within the horticulture industry, saying: "More and more growers are dealing direct with the supermarkets. We want less of that."

To which Dawson said: "Soft fruit has collaborated very effectively but in general we are horrendously poor at working together, though that's fundamental if we are ever to have a clear strategy."

Clayton cited levy boards as an example of the industry working together. "We can speak with one voice, such as the Potato Council's messages on health," he insisted.

But he warned: "The industry needs a critical mass. The ag-chems suppliers already say Britain is quite an unattractive market with just 100,000ha of potatoes. They could turn their back on Europe altogether."

Ending on an upbeat note, Snell said: "Consumption of fresh produce is not growing but there is huge potential there. Ours is the only food sector where eating more would actually be better for people."

Smaller growers Future remains uncertain

Tom Waddington, a potato grower from West Sussex, said: "I am finding it hard to envisage a future for the smaller potato grower. Do we want an industry made up solely of two or three big growers and packers?"

To which Produce World agriculture director Andrew Burgess said: "There are probably only half-a-dozen major carrot growers left and I can only see potatoes going the same way. It's all down to costs."

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