After last year’s online conference, even the storms raging up and down the country could not stop the NFU coming back in person (and in tweed) in full force at the ICC in Birmingham this week.

NFU president Minette Batters opened the conference with optimism about the sector, stating there was much for farmers to be proud of and to believe in. But she also slammed the government for failing to listen to farmers and called for “a plan that pre-empts crises rather than repeatedly running into them”.

Defra secretary George Eustice stepped up to give the government’s view in the keynote political address, though he didn’t do much to reassure farmers that ministers were really listening to their concerns during the tense Q&A session with Batters.

Depsite the obvious tensions, however, the conference was a day of lively debate about the problems currently facing farmers, with FDF CEO Karen Betts, DairyUK CEO Judith Bryans, BMPA CEO Nick Allen, and FSA chair Professor Susan Jebb among those taking the stage to share their thoughts and insight.

So what were the standout takeaways from the day?

The pig crisis continues to dominate the agenda

With 200,000 pigs – or 160,000 if you take MP George Eustice’s more conservative guess – on contract backed up on farms, the crisis was a clear sticking point for Batters, farmers and the Defra secretary.

It was an emotionally charged discussion, with multiple calls from the audience and the NFU president to bring in direct support for pig farmers, as governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have done, to tackle the situation Batters described as an “utter disgrace and a disaster”.

Batters discussed a “heart-breaking” email she had received from a pig farming family who had invested £1m into their farm over the past five years and were now having to cull 4,700 pigs due to the crisis.


Read more:


She stated that the “pain and emotional anger from those pig farmers who feel utterly let down and abandoned is palpable”. And it certainly was palpable in the room. 

Rejecting these calls for support, Eustice continued to insist the crisis could instead be simply and quickly resolved by processors. He described it as a “one-week backlog… that could be dealt with if only those processors would press ahead and run those Saturday slaughters to get on top of this. It would require farmers to take a lower price in the short term.”

Batters was clear in who she thought should take the blame. “This is down to the government’s poorly designed change to immigration policy and what I can only say appears to be their total lack of understanding how food production works and what it needs,” she said to applause.

Farmers continued to plead with the minister for further aid but Eustice stayed firm – much to the frustration of Batters, who said his actions did not go any way to help farmers. Previous support had been “too little, too late”, she said.

Eustice disappoints farmers time after time

The speech from Eustice this year was surprisingly short, perhaps to the relief of the audience. However, if he was attempting to give Batters and the farmers in the room less ammunition for the panel session afterwards, he was not successful. Eustice was thoroughly scrutinised on everything from the pig crisis to trade, fertilisers and environmental land management schemes.

Trade was a hot topic, with Batters saying “I’d be much happier as an Australian farmer than a British one” due to the inadequacy of the trade deal as perceived by farmers. When asked directly about the impact of the deals on growers, Eustice focused on trade in the meat sector… and was duly criticised on Twitter for completely missing the point of the question.

He also seemed to miss the mark when it came to the discussion on fertiliser shortages. When asked about fertiliser security and concerns over rising prices and scarcity, which are mounting due to the escalating situation in Ukraine, he said farmers should turn to green fertilisers and new technologies in the long term.

The audience member rebutted his answer, dismissing it as a “fairytale” that green fertilisers could be used as they “are simply not available”. Eustice seemed lost for words at this, saying simply “yeah, well”.

Despite this grilling from every angle, Eustice said he felt that he had received a warmer welcome than in previous years. You have to applaud his optimism. 

Fears for farmers as “cost takers”

Financial woes were clearly a key concern for farmers and growers. In her opening remarks, Batters received applause when she questioned whether food was simply too cheap.

She said: “I can buy the British ingredients to cook a basic meal for my family for the same price that I’d pay for one medium latte in a coffee shop. That cannot be right. Farmers and their families have the same costs of living as everyone else in the country.”

The financial address was a bleak moment for the audience as Bank of England economist David Ramsden outlined how three economic shocks (Covid, Brexit and the energy crisis) were hitting farmers, and the public, all at once, causing enormous financial strain.

Fears from farmers about rising costs will not have been abated by Ramsden, who corroborated that inflation was likely to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately growers and farmers were currently experiencing much higher inflation rates than the rest of the public, he said.

Batters called for improved fairness in the supply chain in order to mitigate this, something echoed by Iain Dale of LBC at a later panel who called on the “effing supermarkets” to pay more for produce.

There was a palpable feeling of concern among the audience as they quizzed Ramsden on how their farms could stay afloat. 

Labour shortages continue amid wage confusion

The Home Office has issued 30,000 seasonal visas for fruit & veg growers to try and attract the workers farms need for their annual harvest, with a further 10,000 available in an emergency. However, this news did not seem to alleviate concerns from farmers at the conference.

Crucially, there seems to be a misunderstanding between government departments about the minimum wage for seasonal workers.

Batters quoted a rise in wages of almost 40% to the equivalent of £12.31 an hour following a Home Office guidance announcement on Friday. She stated this posed “a real risk of further food inflation and of British growers going out of business”.

Eustice said he had not seen this new wage increase guidance but contested it, stating that the requirement of £10.10 per hour would remain for seasonal workers. 

The pig crisis was also a point of contention in the labour discussion, as the lack of butchers continues to cause problems, something Batters attributed to post-Brexit immigration issues.

As a staunch Brexiter, Eustice argued the government had attempted to resolve these issues and they could not be soley attributed to the UK’s exit from the European Union. “Right across Europe and in many countries in the world there is a labour shortage and actually having free movement with these schemes where you enable people to come in is not the whole answer,” he said.

Sustainability is still a priority

With the Sustainable Farming Incentive expected to begin its launch this summer, sustainability remains high on the agenda and it is clear farmers want to be able to make that difference. “Food and environment should not be seen as competitors. They are partners. And our destiny as farmers depends on the political realisation of that simple fact,” said Batters.

Eustice reiterated that farmers would be rewarded for having green cover crops in winter and for doing soil analysis. He said that in future years further modules would be added and while payments are small this year it was only “the first step”. He also said the only way to speed up these rewards would be to cut the Basic Payment Scheme further.

The concern for sustainability was similarly the focus of the City Food Lecture last week, where Arla boss Ash Amirahmadi, shared insight into Arla’s own sustainability journey and challenged every business in the sector to see what was working well in their business and then identify the best areas for change.

However, the question of how to farm sustainably continues to be a point of contention between farmers and the government. When talking to Ramsden, who described himself as only having an O Level understanding of the new ELMS regulations, Batters quipped that farmers feared Eustice had that same level of understanding, to laughter from the audience.

Eustice attempted to reassure farmers that the new division of ELMS into three would not be set in stone, so as to meet demands from farmers in certain schemes. However, there remain concerns that a third of the budget could still be earmarked for a small number of landowners and farmers to use it for rewilding, meaning most farmers will not have access to it.

Each year, the NFU discusses some of the most pressing concerns of the food and farming sector, and this year of particularly harsh challenges was no different. What was particularly stark was that the relationship between the NFU and Defra is fraught with wildly different viewpoints on these challenges, something Eustice dismissed. “That’s politics.”

What is clear is that both groups are desperate for change and to build a more certain future for farming. But it is likely many delegates will have left feeling that food production in this country is under threat, without a clear way forward.