Rishi Sunak tries to shore up rural Tory heartlands in speech telling farmers he is ‘by your side’ and talking up £220m investment in new technology – but is warned ministers must take food security more seriously

Rishi Sunak moved to shore up rural Tory heartlands today as he told farmers the government is ‘by your side’.

The PM is addressing the National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham – after rescheduling Cabinet so he could make a personal appeal.

He heaped praise on the role of farming, and told the audience that he’s ‘got your backs’. 

Mr Sunak played up a £220 million fund to help deploy new technology to help boost productivity in the agriculture – which could mean innovations such as fruit-picking robots to slash the need for migrant workers.

‘It’s farmers who feed us, farmers who embody those British values of strength, resilience, warmth and independence,’ he said.

He stressed his credentials as an MP in a rural constituency, joking: ‘I even tried my hand at milking once, not very successfully, I must say.’

Mr Sunak said farmers work ‘not for praise or high reward, but to put food on our tables, to maintain a tradition and a way of life, and to steward our landscape’, adding: ‘On behalf of the nation, I just wanted to say thank you.’

Farmers’ leaders praised the ‘step change’ in the government’s attitude, saying Mr Sunak seemed committed to protecting the industry in trade deals.

But NFU president Minette Batter said boosting domestic production remained the crucial issue. ‘I can’t stress how important it is for all parties to treat food security as importantly as they do energy security,’ she said this morning.

Rishi Sunak is addressing the National Farmers' Union conference in Birmingham - after rescheduling Cabinet so he could make a personal appeal

Rishi Sunak is addressing the National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham – after rescheduling Cabinet so he could make a personal appeal

The PM is pledging to ‘never take our food security for granted’ and tells farmers that the government is ‘by their side’.

His speech comes in the wake of polling which found Labour had narrowly overtaken the Tories among countryside voters, who also felt neither main party understood rural communities.

Farmers have been dealing with the impacts of soaring costs of inputs including fuel and fertiliser since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with the move to a new post-Brexit regime of farming payments that focus on sustainable agriculture.

Speaking before Mr Sunak, Ms Batters outlined the challenges facing the sector.

She highlighted extreme weather and flooding, soaring input costs due to Russia’s war on Ukraine and the move away from EU-era subsidies to environmental land management schemes paying for public goods.

She attacked the Welsh Government for its sustainable farming scheme, which she said would cut jobs, livestock numbers and farm incomes, warning the programme was a ‘red line, and we will not cross it’.

Food production was becoming the ‘poor relation’, Ms Batters said, adding: ‘At the general election, I’d like all parties committed to treating food security as the same strategic priority as energy security.’

She called for a mid-term review to monitor the impact of England’s new sustainable farming incentive – which pays farmers for measures including boosting soil health, protecting waterways and preserving hedgerows.

‘We must see changes this year to redress the imbalance between environment and food production in government policy before many more farms just simply disappear.’

Ms Batters warned of an ‘ill-informed utopia where we live on lab-grown meat and gloop produced in factories’.

‘This joyless dystopia can never replace the benefits of nutrient-rich food grown in soil with water and sunlight,’ she said.

Mr Sunak is first prime minister to address the NFU conference since Gordon Brown in 2008. 

His enthusiasm for winning back the rural vote was underlined yesterday when it emerged that he had moved the weekly Cabinet meeting from its usual Tuesday morning slot in order to attend today’s event in Birmingham.

Last year the Government was represented by the then environment secretary Therese Coffey who was heckled by farmers after arguing that shortages of some items on supermarket shelves were not a sign of ‘market failure’.

In his speech today, the PM acknowledged that farmers have faced a turbulent period, with soaring energy and fertiliser prices coming on top of the departure from the EU’s common agricultural system.

‘While the importance of farmers will never change – farming is going through its biggest change in a generation,’ he will say. ‘And as farmers do so, this government will be by their side.’

He will add: ‘While thanks to you we enjoy good quality food all year round, global events – including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have put food security back at the top of the agenda.

‘We’ll never take our food security for granted.’

The £220 million ‘future focused technology fund’ is part of a wider package of farm grants which will be worth around £427 million this year.

A government source said the cash could include money for robots and drones to help pick crops like apples and asparagus.

‘We want to ensure farmers can access new equipment, including kit which increases automation to reduce reliance on overseas workers,’ the source said.

Up to 55,000 migrant workers were issued with temporary visas to work in agricultural last year, many of them in the crop-picking and food processing sectors.

Ministers believe that technology could reduce the need for migrant labour over time, helping to cut overall immigration levels.

Some firms have developed drones that can pick crops like apples, but a government source said take-up had been slow, with only the largest farms able to make it pay.

A government study found that so-called ‘autonomous selective harvesting’ could produce ‘high labour savings’, but warned it was unlikely to be available on a commercial basis until at least 2030 without government support.

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