OPINION: Plain speaking at Oxford Farming Conference

Walking around the farm I’ve been contemplating our wet land and thinking how fortunate we are here in Norfolk compared with waterlogged Oxfordshire.

For the first time I travelled home from the Oxford Farming Conference on a train whose wheels ran on rails several inches under water. I would not even guess at how many tens of thousands of acres of farmland alongside the line were flooded.

I have also been calling to mind some of the comments made by speakers at the conference. Sir Jim Paice, for instance, spoke at the pre-conference dinner in a relaxed style, coloured by his decision not to stand again for parliament. It’s easier to say what you really think when you’re demob happy. “The trouble is,” he said, confirming the suspicions of many, “UK governments don’t understand agriculture.”

Next morning, the Irish minister of agriculture, Simon Coveney, reinforced the point when he said: “Agriculture does not get the priority it deserves in the UK.” And he went on to claim that the Irish government has a “road map” for delivering increased production with quarterly meetings of stakeholders to check progress. In the context of rising demand for food, he said, it is the most important growth sector in the economy and in Ireland it gets the attention it deserves. “And politics is as important to farming as crops and stock.”

Peter Kendall is approaching the end of his eight years as president of the NFU, so might also be less concerned about offending members or ministers. He made a trenchant speech in which he criticised the way British governments play their hand in Brussels. The CAP, he said, has never been fair or common. But in recent years British farmers have been penalised compared with those in most other countries and now we have a worse Pillar 2 allocation than any member state, with a lot of taxpayer’s money being spent to bribe farmers to produce less or even stop production.

EU agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos also spoke at the conference – in English – which should have made him understandable. But try as I might to decipher his English words – spoken with a Romanian accent but with discernible French syntax, the language he uses in the commission – I found it difficult to make much sense of his presentation.

Far more inspiring were the young farmers, some of them women, who explained how they were managing farms, innovating ideas and systems and succeeding, despite politics and regulations. Theirs were the kinds of papers I have travelled to Oxford to hear for many years and I was not disappointed. Reports of those presentations have appeared elsewhere in Farmers Weekly and are well worth reading.

Apart from those notable sessions, there was not much from the platform about tomorrow’s farmers. What was said concentrated largely on the difficulties for new entrants of becoming owner-occupiers – a bit far-fetched these days given soaring land prices, unless inheritance is involved – or taking tenancies.

The idea of investors buying land for the young to farm was discussed and this could provide opportunities for some. Missing, except in a fringe meeting I attended, was recognition of the breadth of opportunities that exist to be farm managers, agronomists, advisers or even specialist bankers. All honourable professions based around agriculture that can provide good salaries and job satisfaction. Not everyone in the motor trade can own a factory, nor expect to do so. And there will be room for fewer farmers in the future than there have been.

David Richardson farms about 400ha of arable land near Norwich, Norfolk, in partnership with his wife Lorna. His son Rob is farm manager.

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