Defra Minister George Eustice told this week’s NFU Conference in Birmingham that the future was looking bright for British farming.
Food and drink exports have grown to nearly £19bn, he said, pointing out that 112 new export markets opened up last year, leading to an increase of nearly £180m in the food and drink sector to non-EU markets.
Mr Eustice also claimed that Government action to cut red tape, get the CAP right, encourage innovation and safeguard plant and animal health have helped potential growth.
“Our long-term economic plan builds a stronger, more competitive, economy and secures a better future for Britain by helping spread growth and prosperity all over our country,” he said.
“For years, the rural economy and farms were ignored. Today, the Government is doing everything it can to support them. And that means more jobs, more opportunities and more financial security for hard-working people.”
He was speaking as new research suggested that Britain’s farming sector had defied the recession in recent years by contributing an additional £8.6bn to the economy.
At his last conference as NFU president, Peter Kendall said: “This achievement proves that farming has been delivering for Britain’s economy despite the challenges thrown at us over the past couple of years - heavy rain, drought, unseasonable snow and flooding.
“We are growing businesses. We are creating jobs. If the Government is looking for a sector to kick-start growth and rebalance the economy then they should start by looking at agriculture.”
Mr Eustice revealed to delegates more details of a £10m fund to help flood-hit farmers. The Farming Recovery Fund, which opens today, will assist with four key areas of recovery and offer support with uninsured losses to help get farms back into production again.
Under the scheme, all farmers affected by the flooding will be able to apply for emergency funding of up to £5,000, covering up to 100% of their business costs. This will ensure that they can continue growing crops and grazing livestock.
A second part of the fund will be reserved to help those farms which continue to be affected but where it is too soon to be able to assess the full extent of the damage, Mr Eustice told the conference.
“Once we have a better picture of the scale of the damage, we will reassess the upper limit for grants and we will keep the scheme under constant review so that it remains flexible and is targeted at those in greatest need,” he said.
Additionally, a £10m Farming and Forestry Improvement Scheme will offer eligible farmers grants of up to £35,000 on schemes designed to make businesses more resilient, he said.
In response, Mr Kendall said: “Flood management is incredibly complex. I would love to stand here and say it’s all about dredging, river maintenance or drainage. But we know it isn’t that simple.
“Routine dredging has got to be part of the answer for the Somerset Levels. But what’s needed on the Levels may be different from what’s needed in the Thames Valley or Cumbria. We have to increase budgets and review the balance between capital works and routine maintenance.”
Hugh Fell, managing partner of the George F White Group who attended the NFU Conference, said there were a number of key issues emerging from the debate on flooding.
“There needs to be a rebalance between environment, people and financials - the pendulum has swung too far to the environmental considerations and is giving rise to far too much financial loss and misery to people suffering flood water in their houses and/or businesses,” he said.
“The simple stuff is being ignored - a minor repair here, some basic maintenance there. That neglect then leads to a much bigger and expensive problem.
“The local community has knowledge and a stake that has often been ignored/dismissed by the Environment Agency in recent times. That culture needs to change.”
Mr Fell said that, in his view, George Eustice’s announcement of £5,000 one-off grants to farmers and households were a short-term political ‘sop’ and did absolutely nothing to grip the real problem.
Mr Kendall also told the conference that the Government needed to find ways to remove red rape around landowners carrying out their own maintenance - such as keeping vegetation cut back and clearing silt from rivers.
Welcoming river maintenance pilots launched last October, he added: “Surely that’s now got to happen on a massive scale across the country.”
And he said a major rethink was needed in how flood defence spending was allocated.
Later in his speech, Mr Eustice said: “The Government backs the business of British farming. You are at the heart of our long-term economic plan.
“We are working with the sector to increase resilience. We are creating the right environment for businesses to grow and flourish. We are cutting red tape and farm inspections. Together we are growing the rural economy.
“We cannot do this without you. We need to work to ensure that the changes we make are the right ones and are implemented in the right way.”
Mr Fell concluded: “If you thought farming was in the doldrums and just ticking over, you should have poked your nose into the NFU conference at Birmingham - it was buzzing with enthusiasm, excitement and energy.”
Meurig Raymond, who runs a mixed farm in Pembrokeshire with is twin brother Mansell, has been appointed as the new NFU president, succeeding Peter Kendall.