Severe flooding across the country in recent weeks formed a key part of discussions at the NFU Conference this week, with particular concerns raised about the three-crop rule.
Under the EU, the three-crop rule requires farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to have three different crops in the ground between 1 May and 30 June. But recent flooding has prompted calls for a derogation, as many farmers are unable to get onto their land to get crop in the ground.
In an on-stage conversation with environment secretary George Eustice, NFU president Minette Batters asked if there will be a derogation of the rule, or whether we will simply bypass it now that the UK is no longer part of the EU.
Mr Eustice said Defra will look closely at the issue but the withdrawal agreement means the UK is required to have equivalent schemes to the EU this year, so the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has effectively been brought over “warts and all”.
If farmers are unable to get crop in the ground it would be considered a force majeure, he explained, but Mrs Batters questioned whether Defra will be able to process thousands of claims.
Mr Eustice described it as a “barking, bonkers rule”, adding “I’ve never agreed with the three-crop rule… it won’t be staying for long”, to which Mrs Batters replied: “Now that we’ve left the EU, I’m amazed you haven’t shredded it.”
Moving on to flooding, audience member Mark Leggatt, who farms in Lincolnshire, said his area had suffered significantly with flooding, with over 3m of water in November over a large area.
The county produces 27 per cent of the nation’s vegetables, he said, as he pressed Mr Eustice for an inquiry into the recent flooding, as well as a “complete rethink of water management”, and reassurance on how promised funding will be made available for farmers.
Mr Eustice said the government plans to spend more than £4.5 billion on flood defences in the next five years, with a focus on nature-based solutions such as using natural flood plains, holding water upstream and planting more trees.
Responding, Mrs Batters said nature-friendly solutions “just don’t mean anything” when there is a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours, adding: “You have to be able to store water. We are wasting one of the world’s most precious natural resources. You look around the world at where we source our vegetables from – they are water scarce areas. We are not a water scarce area; we just fail to manage our water and we are calling for absolute critical infrastructure change in order to be able to store water.”
Using natural flood plains or even retention of water in flooding events downstream, as well as paying farmers to store water is “absolutely” part of what the government is looking at, Mr Eustice confirmed.
Responding to questions about why so many farmers are not being covered by the Farming Recovery Fund, he said whether or not it is deployed will depend on the nature of the damage but this will be difficult to assess until after flood waters have receded. However, he noted that the funds are top-sliced out of the pillar 2 or BPS budget, so it’s not ‘new money’.