What next for British agriculture: Farmers and food businesses reflect on Brexit

With only a few months remaining before our scheduled departure from the European Union, Brexit is looming large on the horizon. As talk of transition, hard borders and ‘no-deal’ spreads, we want to find out how farmers and food businesses across the country are feeling about the future of UK agriculture. What threats and opportunities do they see? Has their perspective changed since 2016? What specific issues are their businesses facing, and what has the UK Government done to address those concerns? We’ve invited farmers and food businesses across the UK to share their thoughts.

This week, Nick Mauro, director of ValeFresco, discusses the difficulty of preparing for Brexit.

In 2006, two family horticulture businesses, V&S Pilade and G&G Mauro, merged to create ValeFresco. The company primarily produce lettuces such as endive and cos. Valefresco also specialises in baby-leaf crops such as red chard and rocket and grows Asian vegetables like pak choi. They harvest over 400 tonnes of salad every week.

The two businesses had a long history of collaboration before their merger. In the 1960s, two young farmers named Giuseppe Mauro and Vito Pilade came to England from northern Sicily as migrant labourers. They were among dozens of Italians who gained permits to work in the UK in a system similar to today’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS). Mauro and Pilade both settled in Evesham and remained there, each eventually establishing their own business. Today, Nick Mauro runs ValeFresco with his brother and two cousins maintaining the next generation of the family business established by Giuseppe and Vito.

“Unfortunately, my biggest concerns about Brexit and its effect on horticulture are that the UK Government is not doing enough to help farmers. We need DEFRA and Michael Gove to help support UK agriculture to increase production in order to meet the growing demand for UK food. Farmers and growers are constantly battling with red tape and held up by bureaucracy, which doesn’t allow us to progress and grow our businesses. While this creates a serious challenge today, I’m worried that it will be even worse after Brexit. If resources are limited, will the Government be able to maintain the funding levels? Gove has assured farmers that funding levels will remain the same until 2022, but what then? And if we lose subsidies, we will have an even bigger issue. However, there is so little information about what the post-Brexit landscape will look like, and what trade deal might be agreed, that it is impossible to prepare. The reality is that we can’t prepare for Brexit because we don’t know what to prepare for.

I’m not confident at all that the UK Government will be sufficiently prepared to support the British horticulture industry when we leave the EU – which is really worrying to me as a producer. I’m worried that without being sufficiently prepared for the reality of Brexit, there will be a serious risk to the agri-food supply chain in the UK. If we aren’t better prepared, there could be empty shelves in the supermarkets for weeks and weeks.

I have three main priorities for the future of UK food and farming. The first is to cut the red tape. There is so much paperwork and it slows everything down and ties everything up. The Government needs to make it simpler for farmers and limit the burden of bureaucracy. Second, the Government needs to help farming increase productivity, so that we can produce more food in the UK. This could be through innovation funding, R&D, non-interest loans and increased farming education. Lastly, I want to see local authorities make necessary changes to planning regulations to make it easier to attain planning permission for agricultural buildings. It’s too slow and lengthy at the moment and that needs to shift if we want to improve the future of farming.”

 Sustainable Food Trust’s response

Like Nick, the SFT is concerned with the future of UK horticulture. Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove has said that “We can design a more rational and sensitive agriculture policy which promotes environmental enhancement, supports profitable food production and contributes to a healthier society”, and we believe that driving up domestic production and consumption of fruit and vegetables in the UK should be a core part of that strategy.

There is a huge opportunity – and need – to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and production in the UK. In 2016, 26% of the UK population was classified as obese and non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes) are on the rise. Poor diets that lack sufficient quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables are contributing to a public health crisis that is putting enormous pressure on the NHS. Our recent report The Hidden Cost of UK Food found that diet-related ill health in the UK costs the NHS £5.8 billion, or about 6% of total NHS costs. If the UK public could be encouraged to adopt healthier diets with greater levels of fresh fruit and vegetables, this could have a dramatic impact on public health. However, the horticulture sector to date has not had the Government support required to allow it to flourish.

To this end, SFT has become a member of the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, a diverse group of producer organisations who are unified by a desire to get the nation eating more fruit and vegetables. Through our work with the Alliance, we will strive to increase production and consumption and develop a clear and coherent vision and plan for the sector, one based on the health needs of the population and supported by Government.

Whilst large-scale growers like ValeFresco currently provide a large portion of the UK’s horticultural output, the SFT strongly believes that if we are to increase fruit and vegetable production in the UK, then this must be done sustainably. This will require unlocking the barriers to change that currently prohibit farmers from adopting more sustainable agricultural practices. A business case for more sustainable approaches to horticulture, such as organic and agroecological practices, will benefit both the environment and public health.

Another issue facing, growers – particularly large-scale growers like Nick – is the huge dependency on migrant labour. The agriculture sector relies on migrants for critical jobs such as picking soft fruit and harvesting vegetables. While termed ‘low-skilled’, the work requires impressive dexterity and incredible speed. It is demanding work that necessitates long hours. Around 20% of all regular full-time employees in agriculture are thought to be foreign nationals and are primarily from Romania and Bulgaria. However, in some food and farming sectors the reliance on foreign workers is much greater. Approximately 40% of staff on egg farms and approximately 50% of staff in egg packing centres are EU migrants. Restricting access to workers would undermine productivity and damage businesses. That is why it is essential that the Government resolves issues over the freedom of movement to ensure that farmers and growers have ready access to the workers that they need to maintain their businesses and the UK supply of fruit and vegetables. With little change in the state of Brexit negotiations and increased risk of a no-deal, it seems essential for organisations such as the SFT to continue to highlight the risks involved in the UK leaving the EU without an agreement in place.

For more on the SFT’s position on the Agriculture Bill, our policy paper is available here.

As part of the Brexit series we will also be featuring a small-scale grower.

This series is not meant to endorse particular businesses or farms, but rather seeks to offer a variety of perspectives on the impact of Brexit on agriculture and the food supply chain.

Photograph: James Poore

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