The Fens is a food production powerhouse says new NFU report and is worth £3.1bn to East Anglia economy - but what does the future hold?
- Credit: Tim Scrivener
The Fens is a food production powerhouse worth £3.1bn to the East’s economy – but more must be done to protect its vast contributions to the nation’s larders, says a new report.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) report - named Delivering for Britain: Food and Farming in the Fens - says although this fertile landscape covers less than 4 per cent of England's farmed area, it produces more than 7 per cent of the country's agricultural output, worth an estimated £1.23bn.
The whole food chain from farm to fork employs 80,000 people and generates £3.1bn a year, it says.
While the region is often referred to as the "breadbasket of Britain" due to the volume of cereal crops grown here, it is also a linchpin of vegetable, salad and flower production - growing a third of the UK's fresh vegetables and more than a fifth of its flowers and bulbs.
The document was launched by NFU vice president Stuart Roberts, who hopes it will act as a "one-stop shop for key decision-makers to inform policy in the years ahead, and secure a successful and sustainable future for this unique landscape."
The report makes a series of policy demands to government to ensure the productivity of the Fens is protected for the future.
They include ensuring flood defence investment is "based on the true value of protected assets and the supply chains they support", and removing regulatory barriers that "impede the construction of on-farm reservoirs and restrict food business expansion".
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It also calls for better transport links, improved broadband and mobile coverage for the Fens, and measures to ensure "a fair return throughout the supply chain".
Prominent Fenland farmer Michael Sly, who hosted the launch event at his farm in Thorney, said a key feature of the Fens' productivity is the drainage and flood defences protecting 1,500 square miles of prime farmland - much of which is below sea level.
The report says Internal Drainage Boards maintain 3,800 miles of watercourses and 286 pumping stations, with a combined capacity to pump the equivalent of 16,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools in 24 hours.
Mr Sly said: "The Fens are critical in feeding the nation and keeping the shelves stocked with many mainstream products - from cereals through to having the largest sugar beet factory in the world at Wissington and a major canning factory at Long Sutton - through to niche crops like mustard, celery and beetroot.
"It punches well above its weight and it is a very unique landscape for those who live and work there.
"The most important thing about the Fens is about flood and coastal defences, and drainage and water level management. It is looking after these wonderful soils that can produce such high-quality food, but also some of the great environmental habitats and SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) in the Fens - and the greatest of those is the Wash itself."
Case studies in the report include major international businesses such as G's, founded by Guy Shropshire in 1952 and based at Barway near Soham.
G's employs more than 7,000 people in peak season and farms 45,000 acres across Europe and West Africa, growing huge quantities of crops including lettuce, spring onions, leafy salads, celery, radish, beetroot, vegetables and potatoes.
But it also profiles next-generation farmers like Camilla Stacey and Will Veal, who took over a 300-acre Cambridgeshire County Farms tenancy at Doddington in 2016 to grow feed wheat, sugar beet and oilseed rape and also graze their flock of 30 breeding ewes.
The foreword was written by TV presenter and farmer Jimmy Doherty, who co-hosts the Channel 4 show Jamie and Jimmy's Friday Night Feast with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
He describes the Fens as "the engine room of British agriculture and horticulture" which is "blessed with superb, nutrient-rich soil, which helps us grow and sustain an abundance of high quality produce that is the envy of the world."
THE FORMATION OF THE FENS
The Fens has been a driving force for British food production for hundreds of years - ever since the opportunity of farming its fertile soils first led to the land being drained for agriculture and horticulture.
The landscape originates in the surrounding "uplands" where four rivers - the Witham, Welland, Nene and Ouse - start their journeys. These rivers carry water from the surrounding areas down through the Fens and into the Wash.
The Fens, as we know it now, started to take shape in the 17th century, when drainage of the wetlands began in earnest. It was systematically drained under the supervision of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden.
The drainage transformed the Fens from a series of wetlands, which provided
fish and waterfowl for the local population, plus living space on higher ground, to a place where its high quality soils could be used for farming.