Farming Minister Mark Spencer: National Farmers Union Conference

Food and Farming Minister Mark Spencer addressed the National Farmers Union Conference on Tuesday 21 February 2023

The Rt Hon Mark Spencer MP

Thank you very much, it is a pleasure to be back here in Birmingham for the NFU conference.

It is good to be here and it is great to hear from you, Minette, and of course the Prime Minister.

I can see lots of familiar faces in the audience, lots of fellow farmers, the Nottinghamshire Mafia.

Many of you may well know, that my background is in dairy farming – four generations deep in Nottinghamshire, in the rural Sherwood constituency that I am now very proud to represent –

Our business is fairly diversified now -

focused on farm retail, with some beef, lamb, potatoes and arable.

So, I know that keeping the country fed is what farming is for,

that it is hard graft making that happen,

making sure your livestock are healthy and well fed,

taking care of the land,

and doing it year in, year out,

through thick and thin,

all while looking after your business and your local community,

as well as your own families.

In fact, we have been doing it for hundreds of years for generations.

So, I know how much it matters so many of us can pass that down to the next generation as well.

And I know what it is to lose sleep over that at the same time.

I think we all want to keep our focus on the opportunity we now have to secure a sustainable, productive, and profitable future for farming,

So that we strengthen the resilience of our environment, our businesses, and our communities,

while improving the prosperity of the food sector for every generation to come.

But we are all feeling a number of pressures at the moment,

things that are making life for farmers particularly challenging.

Of course, that does include the impact of the terrible war in Ukraine

– reaching right around the globe,

in spite of the heroic efforts of Ukrainian farmers, as we saw earlier, to keep on farming, to bring in the harvest and keep it safe, and to share that with some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people,

I know they are efforts that we are all proud to so support.

Back here we are also feeling the impacts of avian influenza, and other pests and diseases that threaten farm businesses and food production,

labour supply,

and economic volatility as well.

Which is why I will continue to help you through this, because this government values our growers and food producers,

and we know that your primary job is to feed the nation.

So firstly, we have taken action to protect flocks from the threat of avian influenza

– implementing an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone,

supporting the poultry industry by allowing compensation to be paid to farmers from the outset of planned culling rather than at the end,

and granting the same packaging concessions that were granted last year,

so that we ease the burden that the industry is facing and help maintain consumer confidence in the free-range brand long-term.

Second, we’re meeting retailers and processers on a regular basis,

to encourage them to recognise that the burden of those costs is falling heavily on farmers,

and make sure that it’s shared more fairly, across the supply chain.

We are just wrapping up our review of the dairy and pork supply chains, and we’ll be assessing where further action is needed in other sectors.

Thirdly, we have been working with colleagues to make sure farmers benefit from a range of measures from across government,

increasing the Employment Allowance,

cutting fuel duty and VAT, and making sure you can access the Energy Relief Scheme,

and action on business rates to reduce bills.

Fourth, we have made an initial 45,000 visas available for seasonal workers to travel to the UK for up to six months

– that’s 15,000 more than last year –

with of course, the possibility of 10,000 more, if we can show that they’re needed,

and if we are able to look after those people properly while they’re here,

give them a minimum of 32 hours of work every week,

and I am pleased to confirm today that we will pay them at least the national living wage from the 1st April, this year.

That’s the decent thing to do – and I think it is vital that we all stick to it.

Fifth, we have brought forward BPS payments to twice a year, for the first time ever.

We’ve started making payments in our new Sustainable Farming Incentive on a quarterly basis instead of annually, making more options available very soon.

And we plan to extend this approach to all our schemes as soon as we can,

making the most of our ability to be more flexible now we’re doing things on our own terms, so we support your cashflow wherever we can.

So, I hope that you are taking advantage of the support that is available for your business.

You are at heart of our Plan that the Secretary of State launched earlier this month to catalyse action across government, across our economy, and across the country –

to improve the state of nature, the bedrock of food production.

And the journey that we are on in the months and years ahead is an essential part of how we get every sector of our economy playing its part in making progress towards our legally-binding targets –

not just to halt the loss of species in our country by 2030 and then reverse the decline,

but to reach net zero by 2050,

to make sure we have cleaner air, and clearer and more plentiful water, and less pollution,

and that we are better prepared for episodes of flooding and drought in a changing climate,

as well as helping us to meet our commitment – in law – to report to parliament on the state of our nation’s food security at least once every three years,

so we maintain and enhance the strong farm to fork system that makes our food and drink so special – and a real engine for our economy as well.

We all have a role to play, and a responsibility to take action –

every single one of us,

every sector of our economy,

as well as every part of government.

And as I have said before – and I am sure you will hear from our Secretary of State tomorrow as well,

all these things can and must go hand in hand,

including that recognition of the solutions farmers bring to the table.

That is why we are determined to be free of the damaging legacy of the bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy – for good.

And it’s why we are committed to learning from the past,

and focused on helping you bring your businesses into the future by helping everyone bring up their baselines as well as backing the frontrunners,

through schemes and services designed with you,

so they work for as many of you as possible, as straightforwardly as possible,

from commoners to small family farms to our uplands,

and including ways to help landowners and tenant farmers work together as effective partners

– drawing on the insights of Baroness Rock’s Review.

So, we will be publishing our response very soon.

As we make these changes, the level of funding available to farmers remains unchanged,

two-point-four billion pounds just as we committed in our manifesto,

with all the funding from planned, steady, fair reductions in BPS made available to farmers though a combination of one-off grants and ongoing schemes,

as we pay you to take action through our environmental land management schemes.

So, I urge you to get involved with the initial phase of the Sustainable Farming Incentive.

We kicked off the scheme in the summer, starting with soil health.

There’s no application window.

Farmers have told us they they’ve applied in 20 minutes flat,

as straightforward as ordering something from an online shop.

You’ll get your agreement within 2 weeks – often much quicker,

start your agreement the next month, and start getting paid within 3 months.

We’ve made the scheme more accessible to tenant farmers,

by offering 3-year agreements instead of 5-years and allowing tenants on shorter contracts to enter into the scheme,

without the need for landlord consent.

We’ve made the scheme less prescriptive,

giving farmers the flexibility to work out how best to achieve the outcomes we are looking for on your land.

There are no penalties in SFI

– and our inspections are now ‘visits’, where we are fair, pragmatic and helpful,

rather than looking for reasons to fine you.

You told us you needed help with the cost of taking part in SFI,

so we have introduced a new, additional payment of £20 a hectare for the first 50 hectares

– to make sure we have that covered.

That’s up to £1,000, in addition to the payments you’ll receive for the work you to do improve your farm and the environment,

available for everyone joining from the start of our 2023 offer,

and applied to everyone who is already taking part

– so early adopters get the same benefits,

with the smallest farms feeling the biggest difference.

You told us that you need more ways to get involved

– so each year, we will add more standards to SFI,

with all the standards in place by end of 2024.

Already, we’ve added six further ways farmers can be paid to take action in 2023,

that’s double what we said we’d do this year.

Each action is good for the farm, good for food production, and good for nature,

helping you reduce costs, making your operation more efficient and resilient,

as well as helping you do your bit as part of our national effort to reduce emissions,

and helping you improve water quality and help wildlife on your farm as well,

so more farms of all shapes and sizes can make doing their bit for the environment part of their business plan.

And while we will come down hard on those who let the side down with genuine, serious breaches or fraud,

we have done away with the punitive regime that set rigid prescriptions,

before someone turned up with a tape measure to penalise you for minor, inconsequential breaches

– instead, we are taking a more pragmatic, supportive approach and I hope you feel that with those visits.

So, if you’ve been considering joining the scheme in 2023, now is the time to do it.

It is easy to apply, it is fair and flexible, and it makes business sense

– and as we broaden the offer, there is something in it for all kinds of farms.

I encourage you to take a look at the details.

We have published details of the action we will be backing through Countryside Stewardship as well,

as we expand the scope of both schemes in 2023 and 2024,

so you can decide what is right for you, and plan ahead.

With over 30,000 agreements in our improved Countryside Stewardship scheme

– that’s a 94 per cent increase, in three years –

we’re sticking with it.

I think that is the right thing to do to make sure we hit the accelerator on the benefits we want to see for your businesses and for the environment as well,

without wasting time reinventing the wheel,

and there are more than 250 options across the two schemes – so

there will be something for everyone and every farm.

And we have updated our payment rates for Countryside Stewardship for everyone in the scheme,

with an average increase of 10% for revenue payment rates for ongoing activity like managing habitats,

and an average increase of 48% for capital payment rates – for one-off projects such as hedgerow creation,

to help meet with the rising costs – so take a look at that as well.

Our England Woodland Creation Offer will become part of Countryside Stewardship from 2025 as well –

and I want to reassure you that if you get started on planting trees now,

the transition will be seamless.

And we will continue to work with you to develop Countryside Stewardship

– so we end up with more options, with around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024,

as well as much simpler, clearer, faster, and fairer services,

and ways to target investment and reward those who work together across entire landscapes to achieve even greater results.

That’s the right approach, as we develop the markets that will allow us to draw finance from all sources into the sector,

and with the first 22 Landscape Recovery pilot projects now up and running,

we’re testing that at scale.

All these projects have working farms involved,

and overall the scheme has had a neutral impact on food production,

something we will continue to monitor.

These projects are helping to restore nearly 700 kilometres of rivers – and protecting 263 species.

And the Secretary of State will be saying more about our support for farming in protected landscapes tomorrow as well.

Of course, this is just part of what we are doing to secure the future of farming

– with much more on everything from improving retention, developing skills via The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture,

to tackling more of the things that cause us headaches and sleepless nights,

like the way we regulate the traceability of livestock, and the need for better broadband in rural areas.

We know you need as many options as possible, so we have raised our capital payment rates for tree planting through the England Woodland Creation Offer and Tree Health Pilot,

as well as increasing annual payment rates for maintenance this year as well.

Tomorrow, the Secretary of State will be saying more about our plans to keep our country at the forefront of cutting-edge science, innovation and technology,

making the most of our freedom to unlock the potential of precision breeding techniques that are set to have a hugely positive impact on global food security.

And today, I am delighted to announce that this year, we will be making 168 million pounds available to help farmers and growers

– to support sustainable productivity, and to help us improve animal health and welfare, and the environment.

Our grant schemes under the Farming Investment Fund will help us make capital investments in existing equipment, technology and infrastructure that you have told us you need,

Whether that is direct drills, slurry solutions, mobile sheep handling systems, and tractor-mounted nitrogen sensors,

and develop new practical solutions and get them out onto farms where they can make a difference,

from remote monitoring that helps farmers keep tabs on the welfare of their cattle, while they get on with everything else that needs to be done,

to new robotics that help us get the veg harvest in.

Last year we approved over 4,000 applications for funding for similar grants,

paying out over 30 million pounds to nearly 3,000 successful applicants so far.

We have received 136 applications for larger scale projects to improve farm productivity through use of automation and robotic technologies

– with 51 projects already agreed.

Less than half of slurry stores in England are fit for purpose, and changing that is going to be absolutely vital

– so I am pleased to see the high level of interest in the first round of the infrastructure grant.

We will get back to applicants by the end of March, with another round later this year as well.

And you can make your application for the new round of the Farming Equipment and Technology Fund today

– to help you manage slurry and improve your productivity.

That is an important part of making sure you are able to use the nutrients you need to maintain and improve yields,

while reducing emissions and keeping pollution out of our water

– and that is a massive priority for all of us.

And in the months ahead, we will give you even more options to invest in water storage, and improve irrigation,

with a further round on automation and robotics later this year,

and new funding to support new or upgraded housing to improve the health and welfare of calves.

More visits from vets are now widely available,

so more of you who keep cattle, pigs and sheep can benefit from a funded annual visit from your chosen team,

with new animal health and welfare grants to follow in the spring, as the first steps in our new Pathway –

a whole host of activities and payments, designed in partnership with vets and industry experts,

to help you bolster the health and welfare of your stock and improve your bottom line.

We know that consumers are not only becoming increasingly climate conscious – and keen to do their bit,

but that many people are keenly aware of how supporting local businesses can be part of supporting animal health and welfare as well.

So I am pleased to announce that later this year, we will be introducing funding to help smaller abattoirs as well.

We don’t have one in my part of Nottinghamshire anymore, and we do feel the lack of them –

and that is a similar story for too many farmers across our country.

who want to keep speciality and local breeds going,

and keep their food miles down for the sake of the animals, the planet, and their costs.

In fact, we’ve lost more than a fifth of our network in the last decade, as they have struggled with recruiting the labour they need,

and the cost of the new machinery, facilities, and infrastructure that would enable them to improve animal welfare, productivity, and profitability through innovation,

to reduce emissions,

and bring employment to rural communities, while strengthening traceable, resilient rural supply chains that get local food to local people,

from farms to forks a few fields over.

So, we are determined to turn that around.

And across the board, you told us that you need greater guidance to help you plan for the future

– so we have introduced the Resilience Fund, which has already supported over 10,000 farmers with free business advice,

and everyone receiving BPS is now eligible for free business advice.

Lastly, I just want to say that we recognise this is a process.

And our aim is to make sure that you can continue to do what you do best

– keeping us fed, and taking care of livestock and our landscapes,

so nature is there to support every generation to come.

As I have said before, bringing all of this together is daunting.

But the Secretary of State and I speak to the Prime Minister about farming on a regular basis behind the scenes

– and of course, he represents a rural constituency,

as do we.

So, we do get it.

We’ve got years of work under our belt already – thanks to thousands of you,

and if we work together to get our businesses on a footing for the future in the months and years ahead,

then there is no doubt in my mind that we have got what it takes to get this done and to get it right.

So, I look forward to taking your questions and talking to lots of you throughout the day and tomorrow morning.

Thank you very much.

Published 21 February 2023