A "torrid" labour situation and a "catastrophic" pig crisis topped the agenda as the nation's leading farming representative spoke with Norfolk food producers.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), met north Norfolk branch members during an event at Raynham Hall, near Fakenham.

She described Norfolk as the "capital of agriculture" as she outlined a series of challenges facing the county, ranging from the impact of post-Brexit trade deals to subsidy reforms.

But she said a "torrid" labour situation was one of the most pressing issues in the union's discussions with government ministers.

Last week, Ms Batters co-wrote a letter alongside Norfolk farmer and National Pig Association chairman Rob Mutimer, demanding that Defra minister George Eustice convene an urgent summit to address issues in the pig industry - an important sector for East Anglia.

Post-Brexit labour shortages in meat processing plants, complicated by Covid absences, have created a vast backlog of pigs on farms, while the government's support package, including temporary six-month visas for up to 800 pork butchers, have not eased the problems.

"We were raising the red flag on this last April, saying this situation was going to get into crisis," said Ms Batters. "And now we have seen this horrendous situation play out.

"Now we have got over over 175,000 pigs backed up on farms. We have culled over 35,000, and that is something that was completely avoidable. It is an absolute disgrace.

"For many pig farmers this is absolutely dire and the national pig herd will be contracting on the back of it. To just say, as many in government are, that by the time we get to April it will manage its way through, is just appalling."

There are similar concerns in the horticulture sector. At the end of last year, Defra and the Home Office announced that a seasonal workers scheme for fruit and vegetable pickers will be extended until the end of 2024.

It will make 30,000 six-month visas available for horticultural workers in 2022, "with the potential to increase by 10,000 if necessary".

But Ms Batters said those extra foreign workers were already urgently needed.

"Those 30,000 visas have all gone so we need the 10,000 now," she said.

"We are engaging with MPs across Norfolk saying: Please can you lobby the Home Office to bring those 10,000 in now,.

"We need them in place and it still won't be enough. So there is a long way to go, and until things change at the Home Office, I don't see it changing that much. It remains a massive, massive issue."


Ms Batters also expressed her "enormous frustration" at the government's approach to post-Brexit trade, which she said could expose UK farmers to unfair competition under "diabolical" and hastily-signed deals with countries such as Australia.

Other issues raised during the wide-ranging discussion included water licencing in the Broads, food labelling and the high cost of fertiliser.

She also explained the union's concerns on the emerging Defra policies which will replace EU subsidies with an environmental payment scheme comprising three tiers - the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery.

"Our frustration is primarily based on the breakdown of the budget," she said. "At the moment you have a third going into the SFI, a third into Local Nature Recovery and a third into Landscape Recovery.

"Our big issue is that 35pc of the budget is going into Landscape Recovery on less than 5pc of land. That seems totally unfair - whether you are a landowner or a tenant, how can you justify that?"

But despite all these challenges, the NFU president is optimistic for the future.

"There will be a very good future for our industry," she said. "We are going through some bumps in the road, but we have the most prized food market in the world, with nearly 70m people, and that must remain our market. There are changes in that market, but ultimately they will always need to eat.

"And there are opportunities linked to the world of carbon-neutral food production, and the new trades that I believe will be established, which need to be farmer-owned and farmer-led."

The meeting was hosted by the Marquess Townshend and his son Thomas, Viscount Raynham, at the Marble Hall at Raynham.

The Norfolk estate has a long history of progressive farming, dating back to the second viscount, known as "Turnip Townshend", whose pioneering four-course crop rotation helped forge the agricultural revolution in the 18th century.