Free mentoring could pay big dividends

I was 20 when I rented my first farm. My father farmed nearby and I asked his advice a lot. But I was also able to consult the local NAAS man and that was crucial to what I did and how I progressed.

For the benefit of younger readers, NAAS – or the National Agricultural Advisory Service – had succeeded the “War Ag”, the government department set up during he Second World War to ensure the nation was fed.

At the beginning of hostilities, Britain was only about 30% self-sufficient for food. The Empire had provided the rest. So, with German U-boats sinking as many of the ships bringing food to Britain as they could, government-appointed advisers visited farms to ensure every holding produced the maximum.

When the war ended, the shortage of food didn’t – and rationing continued well into the 1950s. Maximising production was still the priority and NAAS, free to all farmers, was given the job of making it happen.

Later, when priorities changed, it was given a new remit and a new name: the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS).

Back in those days of rationing, even the BBC got involved. It appointed eight regional agricultural specialists across the UK with the task of helping, through the radio programmes they produced, to publicise good farming practice. The Archers, believe it or not, was started as part of the same initiative.

It’s all so different today. Advice has to be paid for, either directly to the agency or firm providing it, or through the price of the product being promoted. Such advice may not be totally unbiased and many decline to pay.

There’s the internet, whose pages contain more information than the world has ever known in one place (although clicking on to FWi allows a lot of that knowledge to be accessed with more focus than random searches). But here again it may not all be objective.

Radio and TV still provide programmes about farming, but the emphasis these days is not normally on production (except to criticise methods) but on consumer interests. Inevitably that sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. And The Archers? Well, it may be the longest-running radio soap, but it bears little resemblance to what it was like 50 years ago.

Communications are so much more sophisticated and fast these days that some might say there’s no need for advisers and mentors as they existed years ago. I disagree, for two main reasons.

The first is that farming is a lonely job compared with the past and there are few fellow workers with whom to discuss things. Many farmers wives (sorry, partners) now work off the farm to help contribute to finances and are not around to share the burden of decision-making and stress as they used to be.

The other reason is that society’s demands of farmers are more complex these days. It’s not just to produce the maximum amount of food any more. It’s to produce it in ways that are socially acceptable and which do least harm to the environment. And that’s a much more difficult remit.

It seems to me, if the EU does cut the CAP budget in 2013 in response to political pressure from some countries, including ours, it could do a lot worse than consider funding a free service from what it saves to mentor farmers on what today’s society wants from our industry.

It worked in Britain 60 years ago and I believe a modern version could do so again.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

Read more from David and the other Farmers Weekly columnists.

See more