Thursday, September 27, 2018

Brexiteer Dyson sees his farm business make a profit

The farm subsidies given to vacuum cleaner entrepreneur Sir James Dyson's extensive estate have attracted a lot of criticism. In 2017 he received CAP subsidies of £2.8m, up from £2.4m the previous year because of land purchases.

It is thought to be unfair that one of Britain's richest men should be given such amounts, although in fact they go to his farm business (Beeswax Dyson Farming) rather than to him personally. The estate is made up of 35,000 acres of land in Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. No doubt his example has given some impetus to the reduction of subsidies for larger farms after Brexit.

Now the Financial Times has revealed that the business generated a pre-tax profit of £747,000 last year, compared with a loss of £1.53m the year before. Turnover went up 11 per cent to £15.7m. This represents a return of just under 5 per cent. The cost of sales fell by 12 per cent.

He was one of the few prominent Brexiteers from the world of business in the referendum campaign. He has said that he needs EU subsidies to compete against continental competitors. Over the five years he has put £92m into improving the farms, including renewable energy projects. Investment has been directed at such areas as soil health, technology and infrastructure.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Plan A+ and agriculture

No longer responsible for traffic jams, Boris Johnson turns his attention to agriculture.

The Institute of Economic Affairs was founded by one of the first battery farmers and has always take an interest in the way in which agricultural policies perversely disrupt (in its view) the operation of the market mechanism. It is therefore no surprise that its PLan A+ for Brexit, endorsed by leading Brexiteers such as David Davis and Boris Johnson, has a lot to say about agriculture, some of it on very technical matters: Plan A

It is certainly no 'Plan A' from outer space in the sense that it based on a good if particular understanding of how the CAP and international trade rules in agriculture operate.

The report calls for Britain to eliminate tariffs on all agricultural products it does not produce such as avocados, oranges and rice [rice is a significant crop in Italy]. It does allow for the continuation of direct grants to farmers who it admits may face competition from new foreign imports. Tariffs on food should be reduced.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Cargill's central role in food supply

Earlier this week I went to see the brilliant play at the National Theatre about Lehman Brothers. Essentially this was a story about an admittedly always rapacious family company which lost its connection with the family and became even more resolute in the pursuit of money for its own sake, eventually leading to its own demise and its central role in the financial crash of 2008.

Everyone interested in food and agriculture knows about Cargill and what it does, but no one knows too much about it. It has remained a private family company controlled by 100-odd members. About 90 per cent of its common stock is owned by members of the Cargill and MacMillan families, descendants of the man who founded it in 1863.

It is the largest private US company by revenues and plays a central role in global food supply, moving millions of tonnes of agricultural commodities around the world. However, the sector in which it operates has provided its challenges in recent years because of glutted grain markets and an increase in farmers' power in negotiating crop deals.

Chief executive since 2012, David MacLennan. has sought to improve its returns and profitability. He has focused on food and agriculture businesses where it is most competitive. Dividend payments have historically been modest, but it paid $551m to shareholders in the fiscal year to 31 May, up 29 per cent from the year before.

Getting your head round the Agriculture Bill

I was out shopping early this morning and was stopped by an agricultural lawyer. Naturally conversation turned to the Agriculture Bill and she pointed me to a useful essay on Sustain. It answers ten questions and, of course, there are more, but it is a start as I try to get my head round the framework for future English agricultural policy: 10 questions

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Strutt & Parker sale will test land market

The sale of the 100-year old business Strutt & Parker Farms (distinct from the estate agent of the same name) will provide a good test of what is happening to the UK land market given the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

One thing is clear, though, the amount of support available to farmers from government will diminish. However, it is claimed not to be particularly significant for this business given diversification.

At an estimated value of more than £200m it will the biggest farming transaction since the Co-op sold its 16,000 hectare Farmcare business to the Wellcome Trust in 2014 for £209m. Some observers think that there are fewer buyers around than in 2014. Strutt & Parker farms 13,450 hectares, of which it owns around 43 per cent.

It operates in East Anglia across Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. It is a diverse business with residential, office and other commercial lettings along with renewable energy and a natural burial site. It made a profit of £3.3m on £17m of turnover in the year to March 2017. A new anaerobic digestion plant is expected to boost revenues to £21m in 2018.

There has been considerable early interest from individuals, property businesses, farming companies and pension funds. There are divergent views about whether there should be a premium or a discount for scale. Splitting the land up is unlikely to happen.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The effects of moving away from direct payments

The Government Statistical Service has produced an in depth analysis of the effects of moving away from direct payments to farmers. There is a lot of data there, including some suggestions for farmers.

I am yet to absorb it all, but it looks very useful, even if some of the figures are familiar to those of who have been ploughing this field for longer than we care to remember: Direct payments

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Defra faces enormous challenge on Brexit

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has made good progress in its preparations for exiting the EU, but it faces an enormous challenge. It is now not able to deliver everything it originally intended for a ‘no-deal’ exit, though Defra told us it still aims to have sufficient arrangements in place if needed, says the National Audit Office (NAO).

Defra is one of the government departments most affected by EU Exit. It is responsible for 55 of the 319 EU related work streams across government, covering chemical and agri-food industries, agriculture, fisheries and the environment.

The NAO report acknowledges that Defra has achieved a great deal in difficult circumstances and to a very demanding timescale. For example, Defra has: developed detailed plans for its preparations, secured HM Treasury approval for £320 million spending in 2018-19; started to build new IT systems; recruited over 1,300 new staff by March 2018 [unfortunately inexperienced ones replacing experienced ones who left - WG]; strengthened its project management capability; and published consultation documents on agriculture and fisheries.

Despite these and other developments, the constantly changing environment has made it challenging for the department to make and stick to a robust plan and meet its project deadlines. The risk of Defra not delivering everything it had originally intended for a no deal scenario is high and, until recently, not well understood by the department. In the work streams the NAO examined it found the following examples where Defra would not be ready:

  • Exports of animals and animal products from the UK are valued at £7.6 billion. For the UK to continue exporting, it must comply with international health requirements and all exports must be accompanied by an export health certificate. Defra needs to negotiate with 154 countries to introduce 1,400 different UK versions of current EU export health certificates. Defra is focusing on reaching agreement with 15 of these countries which it estimates account for 90% of total exports, but will not reach the other 139 by March 2019. It has accepted the risk that UK firms exporting to countries where agreements are not reached may not be able to do so for a period after EU Exit.
  • Export health certificates will also be required for the first time for exports to the EU if there is no deal which will result in a significant increase in certificates needing to be processed by vets. Without enough vets, consignments of food could be delayed at the border or prevented from leaving the UK. Defra intended to start engaging with the veterinary industry in April 2018, but has not been permitted to do so and now plans to launch an emergency recruitment campaign in October to at least meet minimum levels of vets required. It plans to meet any remaining gaps through the use of nonveterinarians to check records and processes that do not require veterinary judgement.
  • The fishing industry contributes £682 million to UK gross domestic product. Defra is still developing its plans to strengthen its control and enforcement activities in English fishing waters. Defra hopes to significantly increase vessel patrol hours, but due to delays in procurement and planning is unlikely to reach its originally intended patrolling capacity by March 2019. In a no-deal scenario, Defra may have to scale up its capacity over time, but is confident that it will be able to manage the risk of any disruption in the interim.

There are further challenges that sit outside of Defra’s control. The UK hopes to seek continued participation in the European Chemicals Agency, but this is dependent on a negotiated settlement. Without this, UK chemical manufacturers would no longer be able to export products to EU member states as registrations of products would cease to be recognised by the EU. To recover market access, they would need to reregister their products on the EU's system via an affiliate or representative located in an EU member state. This is a lengthy process that cannot be started until the UK has left the EU.

Due to the shortage of parliamentary time available, there is a high risk that Defra will not be able to deliver all of its legislation by March 2019. It has three new bills and 93 Statutory Instruments to convert EU law into UK law and is now having to prioritise.

Defra has not been able to fully support businesses in their preparations. As a result of government restrictions, communicated through DExEU, it has not been able to hold open consultations with stakeholders on their preparations for a no-deal scenario. It has also, until very recently, been prevented from issuing specific information for the chemical industry or food importers and exporters.

Amyas Morse, the head of the NAO, said: 'The scale and complexity of what needs to be done to leave the EU is a significant challenge and Defra is impacted more than most. It has achieved a great deal, but gaps remain and with six months to go it won’t deliver all it originally intended in the event of no deal, and when gaps exist, it needs to focus on alternatives and mitigations.'

'Like other departments, it now must ensure its voice is heard by the centre of government to provide an accurate picture of what is possible if a negotiated settlement is not reached, and even if it is.'

The full report can be found here: EU exit

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Agriculture Bill to be published today

The Agriculture Bill which sets out the framework for domestic agricultural policy after Brexit is to be published today: Delivering a green Brexit

Direct payments will be paid much as at present in 2019 and 2020. They will then be phased out between 2021 and 2027 which gives farmers plenty of time to adjust, although the fact remains that many of them are reliant on these payments to make a profit.

Those with the highest payments will see the biggest reductions initially. This will have popular support, but it may also affect the ability of more efficient farms to invest and improve productivity.

However, there will be measures to improve productivity and invest in R and D. As with much else, the devil will be in the detail.

The Defra statement makes no mention of devolution and it as well remember that this is essentially a measure for England. The distribution of responsibilities and cash between Westminster and the devolved administrations has yet to be agreed and remains controversial.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

New SAWS scheme to be trialed

A new scheme to enable migrants to work in UK agriculture in the picking season after Brexit has long been awaited, but is now about to be announced.

It appears that Downing Street was blocking the scheme. Why this should be the case is not clear, but Theresa May has taken a hard line on migration issues, evidenced by her insistence that students should count as immigrants.

In any event, Home Secretary Savid Javid and Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove have been able to push the scheme through.

It will be a trial scheme for two years and will cover 2,500 workers which is a small number given that 75,000 seasonal workers are estimated to have been employed in 2016. The current shortfall is about 7,000.

The scheme would be for those from outside the EU and the regulations that would apply to temporary EU migrants remain to be resolved. Countries that might supply workers under the trial scheme could include Ukraine and Morocco. However, Germany has offered 60,000 visas to workers from the Ukraine.

Under the old SAWS scheme, which ran from 1945 to 2013, farmers could employ overseas workers for up to six months to pick fruit and vegetables. Workers were recruited and vetted by four authorised agencies (the pilot scheme will be run by two yet to be selected).

Farmers and growers have been dealing with significant shortages of labour, reflected in the Radio 4 fictional serial, The Archers. The weakening of the pound and the buoyancy of economies elsewhere in Europe has slowed the number of workers arriving.

One of England's biggest fruit growers, Hall Hunter Partnership, have tried an innovative approach on their seven sites. They have tried to improve workers' productivity to enable pay to rise. As a result, more than 70 per cent of the pickers they hire are returning to the UK each year, well above the sector average of 40 per cent.

The proposal has been broadly welcomed by the NFU who see it as a success for their lobbying.

Read more about the proposal in this report from Farmers Weekly: Visa scheme

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Imperfect strawberries

British supermarkets have been increasing their willingness to sell fruit and vegetables that do not meet high cosmetic standards in terms of shape and presentation: Wonky veg

However, it has been the more upmarket supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsbury's who have been at the forefront of these developments. Hence, I was interested to find in Tesco today 'Perfectly imperfect strawberries' grown in Hereford, stated to be 'less than perfect, just as tasty.' The shapes weren't that odd and they were certainly just as tasty.

This has to be a win-win: food waste is reduced, consumers get a 'five a day' product at a very competitive price and growers are able to get a return on produce that would otherwise go unused.

All we need now is for the Government to get its act together and come up with a successor to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme so that the fruit can be picked. Judging by the speed with which Michael Gove has fulfilled his pledge to do 'whatever it takes' to deal with the consequences of the summer drought, I wouldn't be too hopeful.

On the drought issue, read the NFU's views here: Failure to act