Food production and food security are at the heart of Brexit for the agricultural businesses which are meeting the challenges in different ways – diversifying to spread risk, investing in technology, increasing herd/flock size or exploring other economies of scale, though concerns were expressed that the investment required will simply not be an option for all.
Frank Myers, chair of Herefordshire’s Business Board, believes the problem is more people-based. He said: “There are many large agricultural businesses within Herefordshire and I see serious labour challenges for them.
“We have rehearsed the labour argument many times and always arrive at the same conclusion – it just simply isn’t going to be possible to fulfil the workforce needs of the sector from UK labour. The need to import labour is a serious problem.”
Businesses feel that the forthcoming Agriculture Bill, currently being discussed in Parliament, provides a clear direction of travel for the sector but too much detail is still unknown, so its effect on the industry is hard to predict.
The fact that both production and security appear to have been overlooked and have not been recognised as a ‘public good’, meant that the environment is taking precedence, at a time when UK food production might be vital.
Cheaper imports which could follow Brexit if trade barriers are lowered were a concern – there was little faith expressed in the idea that consumers would opt for quality and origin over price and convenience.
There was considerable interest in technology, including artificial intelligence, but the gap between the current practical applications and the potential uses is still too wide for most businesses to make immediate use of it. It was felt to be no substitute for good business practice, skills and training, with staff still a vital resource for most farmers and agri-businesses.
Esther Stirling of our Agriculture and Rural Affairs team, said: “If there is a sector-specific seasonal workers scheme in place in time, that will help employers – the more clarity, the better.”