It’s time to get back to farming basics

I have a weakness. Well, several, actually. But the one that affected me last week following a Christmas cold was a dry throat that eventually became a lost voice. Not ideal when you’re attending farming’s biggest talking shop of the year – the Oxford Conference. But my ears still worked and I was able to listen, not least for those things that weren’t said.

During the debate in the Oxford Union, for instance, which was narrowly won by those who claimed UK farming could thrive outside the EU, there was much talk of the British bulldog spirit and of our resilience under pressure. But no-one explained how farmers could replace the £3.5 billion we receive annually from the EU in Single Farm Payments without which our industry would make a net loss.

Farm minister Jim Paice had earlier spoken of his ambition to phase out SFPs. Not immediately, he said, presumably in recognition of our current reliance on them for even a semblance of viability. But at some vague time in the future once the world’s population had increased and demand for food had increased accordingly, might be the right time, he suggested.

Would that be about the same time that America stopped aiding its farmers? I wondered; or when Japan, where farm subsidies are still the highest in the world, and Switzerland, adopted free trade? Or Argentina and Brazil abolished import duties on food commodities? I got the impression the “commitment” to abolish SFPs was deliberately vague so as not to create too big a hostage to fortune and was in deference to The Treasury more than an imminent threat to agriculture.

The Minister also floated an idea doing the rounds recently of asking the AHDB to deliver R&D and perhaps on-farm advice. I’ve been pointing out the need for years and the vacuum that’s existed in practical on-farm advice since ADAS’s activities were effectively wound up, so I welcome the possibility of something to fill the void. But Mr Paice did not spell out how it would be funded and I could only conclude (in view of the government’s shortage of cash) that his vision includes an extension of producer levies. In other words, the industry itself will be expected to pay for the service. In all honesty in the present economic climate that is probably inevitable. But I think we should be told.

The other thing that hardly got a mention at the Conference was profit. As John Pelham of Andersons Consultants pointed out, there was any amount of talk about the need to increase production. But the effects such increases might have on prices, unless the demand for them was actual rather than potential – and the fact that costs have risen alarmingly of late – could be disastrous. We farmers love producing as was reflected by many of the speakers, but if we neglect business fundamentals we’ll end up in trouble.

When I first attended the Oxford Conference many years ago, those fundamentals dominated proceedings. In recent years the focus has changed towards politics – national, international and as perceived by pressure groups. Of course, debate is healthy and times have changed. But I do wonder if the time has come to revert to the practice of farming (and sustainability, which is an unalterable component of what we do, and always has been) and return to those first principles.

In other words, to stop the political tail wagging the farming dog and get back to basics.

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.

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