Water security for food production featured prominently when Jo Churchill, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, visited a local farm.
Charlie Browne, partner of RC Browne & Son at Fornham All Saints, told his MP that water is the key to the family’s business plan.
Charlie described the family’s decision in 2000 to substantially increase its production of high value potatoes and onions.
Over the past 15 years, production of irrigated crops has expanded to the point where it now grows 5000 tonnes of onions and 7500 tonnes of potatoes. This has meant considerable investment in the infrastructure (vegetable storage and reservoirs) needed and a significant increase in the volumes of water actually used on the farm.
The farm has invested heavily in surface water reservoirs, but remains reliant on groundwater for a quarter of its total supply.
Meanwhile Defra and the Environment Agency are considering how to renew groundwater time limited licences, from 2018 onwards, in a way that will be compliant with the ‘no deterioration’ requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive.
The Agency’s current proposal is to constrain future water allocation for time limited licences based on actual use during the WFD base years of 2003 to 2008. But at RC Browne & Son, the business has changed so much that its reliance on water is now very different from that historic starting point.
Paul Hammett, NFU national water specialist said: “Farmers understand the need to protect the environment. But whilst ‘no deterioration’ is an admirable ambition, the WFD is starting to cause a real headache farmers like Charlie who have had a realistic expectation that future water allocations will at least be no worse than they have enjoyed in the past.
“Crucially, by constraining future water access based on past use, farmers will not be able to increase their production of potatoes, carrots and onions. Indeed, some may need to peg back their production.
“Farmers like Charlie Browne need some reassurance that their future allocation of water will reflect current water use and recent investment in business development.”