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Brexit deadline forces farmers to look at Africa but there are catches

UK farmers are rushing to finish their harvests and send their surpluses abroad before the Brexit deadline of 31 October, when a no-deal departure could force them to turn to Africa.

This year has seen a relatively good harvest of wheat and barley following the rollercoaster weather of 2018, when a cold spring and record-breaking heatwave wrought destruction.

David Eudall, head of arable market specialists at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board commented: “Exports have continued at a strong pace since the first weeks of August.”

However he estimates that almost half of the UK’s likely wheat surplus of 2m tonnes and 0.5m tonnes of barley, could still be awaiting export by the end of October.

 Brexit impact is severe
A no-deal Brexit would dramatically limit access to EU markets, with a small proportion permitted in at a tariff of €16 (£14) a tonne. Farmers would be forced to seek markets in North Africa, where British grain might need to be discounted to compete, leaving many suffering a financial loss, the Guardian reported.

Floods in Lincolnshire in June affected vegetable crop yields such as cauliflowers (Photo: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)
“The Brexit deadline is having a severe impact with short-term pressure to execute exports before the deadline,” said Tom Bradshaw of the National Farmers’ Union.

“Barley and wheat values have come under pressure and export business beyond the end of October seems incredibly difficult to execute. Not only is freight more expensive but purchasers [in north Africa] often demand moisture content below 14 per cent where our UK specification is 15 per cent, and with a catchy harvest [interrupted by weather] this could prove very difficult.”

The north-south divide
Weather in the south of the UK has been good for the harvest but Scotland endured its second wettest summer on record, and the north of England was also affected.

George Dunn, of the Tenant Farmers Association, said: “Most of our members in the south have reported relatively good conditions and reasonable yields and quality, whereas in the north [they] have struggled with very changeable weather and yields and quality have suffered as a result.”

According to the latest Farmers Weekly Sentiment Tracker, concerns about a no-deal scenario also reflect a north-south divide. The survey of 300 farmers revealed 57 per cent said they would be unhappy with a no-deal Brexit, while 43 per cent said they wouldn’t mind; the strongest anti no-deal sentiment was in Yorkshire and Humberside, Northern Ireland and Scotland, whilst farmers in Wales, the north of England and south-east England were the least anxious.

An uncertain autumn ahead
Oilseed rape – a key crop for many farmers – was badly affected by last year’s record-breaking heatwave, whilst some soft fruit yields such as blackcurrants have enjoyed a bumper year.

Vegetables have had mixed results and cauliflowers are in short supply due to poor weather in the UK and heatwaves across Europe. Floods in Lincolnshire in June also affected cauliflowers, alongside cabbages, potatoes and onions.

Jack Ward, chief executive of the British Growers Association, said: “That was an extraordinary wet spell, and Lincolnshire accounts for a lot of [vegetable] crops.”

He added: “There are still three months left to Christmas [harvests] in which good and bad things can happen.”

Farmers were also panicked by Home Secretary Priti Patel‘s announcement that free movement would end on 31 October, which would have led to hiring shortages. Although Ms Patel u-turned on this, it remains a concern.

Government estimates of the harvest are due in early October.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We’re committed to championing our farming sector and ensuring we seize the opportunities offered by Brexit. We have already introduced a new seasonal workers pilot to help make sure our farmers have the workforce they need and have guaranteed the same cash total for farm support until the end of the parliament.”


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