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The future of farming discussed at the Norfolk Farming Conference

The future of farming discussed at the Norfolk Farming Conference

The theme for the 15th Norfolk Farming Conference, organised by AF, was ‘market opportunities’ and there was certainly plenty of food for thought as delegates were treated to a heavyweight panel of speakers including Farming Minister George Eustice, McDonalds supply chain director Connor McVeigh, as well as a video address from HRH The Prince of Wales.

Keynote speaker George Eustice made the case for improving farm profitability by encouraging more collaborative models within agriculture. This, he argued, would lead to more effective planning and better investment, faster decision-making, greater efficiencies and increased profitability all round.

The Minister continued, “Take the great work of AF. This major farm-level buying group helps farmers get good deals on energy and produce such as animal feed, through the power of collective purchasing. With 3,500 members, AF is the largest agricultural purchasing group in the UK and a terrific example of how collaboration can benefit everyone along the supply chain.”

As Britain leaves the EU and with it the Common Agricultural Policy, one of the key issues was the future of farm support payments, with a proposed UK system of payments which rewards farmers for providing “public goods” such as environmental work.

Mr Eustice said the government had committed to maintaining the existing £3bn budget for farm support until at least 2022, and was looking at ways to phase out the existing system of direct payments.

“One of the ideas that has been put to us is whether we could have a cap on the maximum size of single farm payments and gradually, over time, lower that cap and gradually move farmers across to become early adopters of the new system.”

When asked about where the cap could be set, Mr Eustice responded “The honest answer is we have not taken a final decision yet. We have done some analysis and we could have a cap of £25,000 and 75% of farmers would be unaffected by that. We are doing a White Paper in the spring and we will be asking for farmers views on that.”

Meeting the needs of the consumer

McDonald’s supply chain director Connor McVeigh gave an insight into how McDonalds’ UK buying power of £1.1bn is available to farmers who are willing to meet the needs of consumers who are increasingly demanding about environmental and animal welfare standards.

Mr McVeigh highlighted one of its flagship farms, AF member Elveden Farms, as a model of high environmental standards which supplies 7,500 tonnes of potatoes each year to McCain, which produces McDonalds French fries, and is a leading supporter of the Red Tractor Assurance Scheme.

Listening and adapting to consumer needs have certainly been at the heart of Banham Poultry’s success as delegates heard from specialist business consultant Malcolm Steven, who works with the firm, about how the global growth in chicken consumption, which has now surpassed pork as the world’s most consumed meat, has recently seen the company pass the production milestone of one million birds per week.

Next Generation

The day concluded with young entrepreneurs detailing how they have grown their respective businesses as well as looking for further opportunities to expand. Charlie Crotty, director of Evolution Farming, explained how the company was expanding by setting up a new 500 cow dairy unit in West Norfolk.

Mr Crotty put the success of Evolution Farming down to a strategic approach to cost control, including buying cows during the recent downturn in the dairy sector, to create enough scale to reduce debt on the upturn.  

Will de Feyter, who moved away from the family’s arable roots to become a stockman, urged any young farmers to engage with their customers and ensure they remain market-orientated so that they will benefit from long-term gains as opposed to any short-term “quick-win.”

Emily and Lucy McVeigh from Kenton Hall Estate in Suffolk, wrapped up the day by explaining how they have diversified their traditional arable and Longhorn cattle operation to include a wedding venue, glamping, and a cookery school.

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