The agri-tech sector is being taken increasingly seriously, which is illustrated by the acquisition last year of the farming business of the Co-operative Group by the Wellcome Trust advised by Mills & Reeve. The £249 million purchase was thought to be the largest ever open market purchase of agricultural land in the UK and the fourth largest globally for last year.
Mills & Reeve is sponsoring the Agri-Tech East Pollinator event “Symbiosis and Synergies: The Secrets to Successful Agri-Tech Collaborations”, which will be held at Norwich Research Park on 21 April 2015.
Michael Aubrey, head of the agriculture team of national law firm Mills & Reeve, says that the food, drink and agriculture supply chain is both the largest manufacturing and the biggest service industry sector in Norfolk and Suffolk and innovation is vital to maintain competitively.
Michael says that: “The agricultural industry is accustomed to finding innovative solutions to deal with new challenges. By supporting this event and the development of the agri-tech cluster, we will be encouraging that innovation and growth. In particular collaboration at all levels will encourage new ideas and ways of doing things.
“One example of the way that new ideas help the industry to adapt to the continuing changes is the reaction to the introduction of the new ‘greening requirements’ under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which now requires crop diversification.
“This is an issue for specialised farmers. Whilst compliance is not compulsory, few will wish to forgo the opportunity to claim up to 15% of the payment available to them so are we are already seeing a number of interesting approaches being adopted. Although many farmers choose to take the simplest route and grow the extra crop or crops to comply with the requirements, other solutions are being discussed such as arrangements for swapping land between neighbours.
“We also know of one farming company which previously has farmed land for a number of landowners under separate contracting agreements, is now taking the land under farm business tenancies instead, so that the diversification obligation may be spread more easily over a single larger holding.”
Michael also commented that the recent support for farmers in the budget and the availability of the new additional BPS payment for young farmers is to be welcomed, but may not go far enough.
“Whilst any help for farmers, young or otherwise, must be good news, we think it unlikely that the payment will be sufficient to have much impact. It will be worth up to 25% of the average value of a farmer’s entitlements, on only their first 90 entitlements, and the actual percentage will depend upon how many farmers apply. It can be claimed for a maximum of 5 years.
“It will provide some help to those young farmers already planning to set up new farming enterprises, but will in itself be unlikely to attract new young farmers in to the industry as access to capital is one of the primary constraints to new entrants to the industry.”
At the Agri-Tech East Pollinator event “Symbiosis and Synergies: The Secrets to Successful Agri-Tech Collaborations, there will be an opportunity to hear about a range of collaborations. Barrie Wilkinson of Cambridge company Isomerase Therapeutics will describe how ‘natural products’ generated by microorganisms as part of a defence mechanism may provide an alternative to synthetic agrochemicals. A case-study will also be presented by Dan Hewitt, MD of Nelson County Foods, and Professor Rob Field, project leader for Biological Chemistry at John Innes Centre; their collaborative project is looking at new technologies for potato storage and is funded through the Agri-Tech Initiative.
Michael continues, “Networking events are an important part of a vibrant cluster which supports innovation and growth in the agriculture and food sectors, benefiting the region and ourselves as a key adviser to businesses operating in it. We are unique in having an agriculture practice with agricultural lawyers who work side by side with other specialist lawyers in our dedicated food and beverage sector to advise agri businesses and vertically integrated food businesses from plough to plate.
“The growth of the cluster fits well with developments at the Norwich Research Park, a massively important part of the local economy. We are very interested and involved in the Norwich Research Park’s development and are keen to support this at every opportunity.”