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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Oxford Farming Conference 2011

Brian and I were very fortunate to attend the Oxford Farming Conference last week. We were sponsored by DHL to go as 'Scholars' and we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to James Hurrell from DHL and Andy Ormiston from FWAG for giving us the opportunity to attend the most high profile conference in British Agriculture. The whole conference was fascinating and a great insight into the direction in which farming is heading. There was presentation from high profile industry leaders and policy makers such as Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, MEP George Lyon, Irish Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith and many other speakers on a wide variety of topics. The most interesting speaker was European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos who gave an insight into the direction that the agricultural subsidy system is heading. For farms like ours where environmental responsibility, biodiversity and resource protection are managed alongside maximising production the signs are very positive. The days of ploughing up every last bit of land are over and environmental responsibility will be rewarded in the new subsidy scheme.

We found the ‘out of conference’ time the most interesting and were able to meet and chat with many different people including agriculture minister Jim Paice MP and many other farmers, food producers, bankers, land agents and members of the press.

I have written a piece for our local paper the East Anglian Daily Times about the conference but for anyone who can not wait the article is below. PJB

Oxford Farming Conference
Attending the Oxford Farming Conference for the first time it was my intention to absorb every bit of information thrown at me but it was the very first person that I met who gave the most pertinent piece of advice, “Establish who are the dynamos and who are the dinosaurs.” In an industry that has such a vast gap between the innovators leading the way and the backmarkers dragging their heels this set me in very good stead.

The aim of the conference was to ‘Challenge, Inform and Inspire’ and the challenges facing the industry are all too apparent but the messages from the conference were very positive. A growing world population with the potential to reach 9 billion by 2050 will require a 50% increase in production by 2030. Currently 1 billion people go to bed hungry which is already putting an enormous strain on natural resources. Professor John Beddington, the UK’s chief government scientist has warned of the ‘perfect storm’ scenario which is “the demand for 50% increase of production, on less land, with less water, using less energy, less fertiliser and fewer pesticides by 2030”. Combine this with a need for greater responsibility for the environment and natural resources and a greater emphasis on providing the European taxpayer with value for money in a reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and the farmers of the future will have their work cut out. The old adage of ‘production, production, production’ has become ‘production, resources, biodiversity’.

Tackling these challenges is possible. Addressing farmers’ traditional concerns of a lack of collaboration within the industry, the overburden of legislation and a lack of routes into the industry for young people will be significant advances but the lack of funding into research and development and the resistance to scientific improvements provide the greatest barriers to progress.

Bio-tech crops may not solve all of the problems but it is hard to argue that growing varieties of cereals resistant to the effects of the most yield-threatening diseases and those resistant to Roundup (Glyphosate) will not help stabilise the price of wheat by reducing the need for many herbicide applications. Reducing the cost of production is crucial for stabilising the price of food against increasing demand; people seem to forget that whilst farmers strive to sell their product for the highest price available they also need to eat and feed their livestock. Removing some herbicide applications and reducing the risk of weeds becoming resistant to outdated chemistry would see the cost of production dramatically decrease. Orange Blossom Midge resistant wheat already has significant wildlife benefits by reducing the applications of insecticides in early summer and drought-resistant maize and cereals with isotopes to decrease transpiration, will go a long way to providing food in areas with significantly warmer climates especially when faced with increasing climate change and reduced water security.

The greatest support for farmers is the CAP and the Conference gave European Commissioner Dacian Ciolos the opportunity to indicate the direction that a reformed CAP will take, commencing in 2014. The key issues of farming, food security and the landscape and countryside are the priorities following current Cross Compliance legislation, in a fairer, more efficient and ‘greener’ policy with incentives for good practice and greater benefits for ‘active farmers’ and those directly involved with the production of food.

So looking forward, what do the farmers of the future need to be doing?

  • Maximising crop potential and making use of continuing advances in crop science
  • Considering the energy use of all agricultural operations and making best use of advances in technology.
  • Preserving the natural resources, most importantly increasing water quality, reducing soil erosion and managing natural habitats.
  • Investing in small scale and cost-effective renewable energy systems designed to benefit the business on which they are situated and the wider community rather than for purely financial incentive for inappropriate large-scale developments simply to take advantage of the subsidies available.
  • Reversing the steady decline in biodiversity across the farmed landscape.

In order to retain European subsidies all these factors will need to be achieved and farmers will have to be able to demonstrate to the European taxpayers that they are getting value for money as well as enhancing the natural environment.

If agriculture is not prepared to address these issues there could be a situation where subsidies are withdrawn. This would be a dramatically different situation to work in but not impossible to manage; not everyone would survive and it would certainly not be one that would achieve the necessary levels of food production required for an increasing population. The cost of food would inevitably rise then. Farmers of the future need to step forward to meet the challenges and take responsibility as the dynamos because after all, we all know what happened to the dinosaurs! PJB

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