And the winners are…
More than 400 food and drink producers gathered at Brighton’s Amex stadium in February in a black-tie ceremony to celebrate the county’s farming and food and drink industries.
The winners of the ten Sussex Food and Drink Awards were handed trophies by Danny Pike, of BBC Sussex, and actress Julie Graham.
The event was celebrating local produce at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with Brexit looming and government plans for post-EU life sketchy at best.
But all the winners that spoke to C4S were positive about what lay ahead – and all were keen to emphasise the importance of Sussex farming.
“It genuinely pains me that so many small farmers and small shops have been forced out of business over the last 20 years,” said Nick Hempleman, from Farm Shop of the Year winner the Sussex Produce Company. “Sussex farming is in a very strong place. Local sourcing is very much on the public agenda and farmers are well placed to take advantage of it. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges but the future is dependent on the shopping public.
“If people vote with their wallets then Sussex farmers will continue to produce some of the best food in the world for generations to come.”
Toby Harmer runs the Garlic Wood Events arm of Garlic Wood Farm, in Steyning.
“The existence of the South Downs National Park, and the Sussex countryside generally, is intrinsically tied to the success of the farms and farmers,” he said.
“Without their efforts to manage the landscape responsibly there would be no National park.”
The Sussex Food and Drink Awards are run by the Natural Partnerships Community Interest Community and co-directed by Hilary Knight, of the Sussex Food and Drink Network, and Paula Seager, managing director of Natural PR Ltd.
Farmers must specialise or diversify – but shouldn’t fear Brexit
Yet despite all this support farmers are struggling, even without the looming spectre of Brexit.
Smaller farms are being gobbled up by the larger commercial ones and those that remain are having to introduce extra services to maintain cashflow – like opening to visitors during lambing, or offering children’s petting zoos.
James Seller, the tenant farmer at Park Farm just outside Arundel, has opened livery facilities, with 19 stables and paddocks.
He has expanded into selling free-range eggs alongside growing high-protein milling wheat, but his sheep have gone.
“It’s impossible to make a living from red meat when your scale is small,” he said. “We have 360 acres and are considered small scale. Now you’re talking about farms of 1,500 acres. And if you’re mixed farming you’re a multiple enterprise, which means different regulations for each part of your business.”
So the threat isn’t necessarily coming from Brexit, says Seller, who voted to leave.
“Europe still needs our produce,” he says. “For example, malting barley. It’s our county’s prize product, and if Europe had to pay a 40% tariff for it, their brewing industry would collapse.
“For those products that Europe wants, deals will be made.”
As well as malting barley Sussex also boasts England’s largest glasshouse sector, near Chichester, according to NFU communications manager (south east) Isobel Bretherton.
“The West Sussex coastal plain is home to the largest glass house in England, producing a retail value of more than £500 million a year,” she told C4S. “Although there is arable, Sussex has always been a sheep-farming county, good for beef too – and poultry farms.
“With Brexit, the main concern is seasonal agricultural workers, so the NFU is lobbying the government for a policy to allow us to access labour from Europe.
“But since the referendum the economies of these countries have improved anyway, so it’s not just that people can’t come – their circumstances are better at home so they don’t necessarily need to.”
Probably not the only cause for concern in the months ahead, but if we can’t predict the future for our farmers – we can at least give them our support.