Renewed spirit of partnership is needed

Talking Point

Christopher Jones

Being involved with Farm Crisis Network (FCN) for more than a decade, until 2007, gave me a ringside seat at the workings of grass-root relations between the government and farmers. And despite of the good will and efforts of individual staff in DEFRA agencies, the overall situation was poor to middling. Even now problems around regulation and administration make up 35-40% of FCN’s work.

These are the areas where interaction exists, but in others there is no interaction. I have recently been exploring the possibility of renewable energy generation for our own farm. This involves a range of technologies that are completely new to most farmers – it also involves money, which is going to come from the general public. Furthermore, it involves something vital to all our grandchildren’s very existence. We need to get this right. Very possibly, before long, nitrogen fertiliser will be harder to use, while phosphate and potash will be rare, and soya beans from lands stripped of rain forest will become absurd. Collectively and individually we will have to find our way through many difficult changes while continuing to provide food and other “services”.

If the government seeks to guide us in all of this by regulation alone, for many farmers – and government staff – life will be fraught indeed. Without interaction and partnership how can the government make workable regulations for steering through the unknown? How will the innovations and ingenuity of farmers be able to influence the big picture?

Those of us above a certain age can remember a network of NAAS or ADAS advisers – a generalist in every district with specialists and research stations behind them. These were people paid to use their knowledge and judgement alongside that of farmers; not to enforce a straitjacket of rules but to devise best outcomes.

I can already hear the wiseacre voices. “We cannot afford this.” Well, the NAAS employed under 2,000 people* – a lot less than the comparable DEFRA agencies today. And as to “we cannot go backwards”; maybe, but we can recognise, understand and learn from the past.

What happens to the land and countryside and what farmers do is a vital public interest; mutual partnership between farmers and the government at all levels is vital.

Yes, we need agreed principles and to follow the conditions attached to public money, but we also need holistic advice related to the whole scene – livelihood, food supply, landscape, and conservation, not segmented packages of rules. We need research related to this, not driven primarily by the need of large companies to devise things to sell to farmers.

There are signs of a renewed approach to farming in official circles; a rediscovery of partnership is perhaps possible.

Would we farmers be forgiving enough to trust again and open up to a new relationship?

Christopher Jones farms in Northamptonshire and was national co-ordinator of Farm Crisis Network from 1994 to 2007. He has written more on this subject online.

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