Crunch time for vital campaign

Hilary Benn is no longer DEFRA secretary. But his threat of a compulsory set-aside replacement remains all too real, writes Johann Tasker

An almost audible sigh of relief stretched across rural England when Hilary Benn finally stopped flirting with plans to take 5% of arable land out of production.

Conservationists who claimed farmers couldn’t be trusted to look after the countryside found themselves jilted at the altar when the then DEFRA secretary ditched proposals for a compulsory set-aside replacement last July.

Having spent months apparently wooing their affections, green groups were shocked when Mr Benn suddenly announced his belief that a voluntary approach was the best way of retaining the environmental benefits of set-aside.

But it wasn’t the end of the affair. In its place came the Campaign for the Farmed Environment – a government-sponsored campaign calling on more farmers to adopt wildlife-friendly measures and join Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).

Backed by 12 partner organisations, including the NFU and a skeptical RSPB, the campaign appeared to wed farmers and conservationists to a common cause. But like many hastily arranged marriages, it remains an uneasy relationship.

“It’s the most ambitious campaign farming has ever faced,” says NFU president Peter Kendall. “The whole industry, from suppliers and advisers to farmers and landowners, is absolutely committed to making it work.”

One year on, thousands of farmers have heeded calls to help the initiative succeed. But thousands more have yet to do so, prompting repeated calls from supporters and critics alike that words must be turned into action.

So far, 68% of English farmers have heard about the campaign. But little more than one third have done anything about it, with 43% saying they just don’t know when or whether they can be bothered to do so.

Depending on what these “don’t knows” end up doing, the campaign could be left embarrassingly shy of its over-arching target to have 70% of farmland under some form of agri-environment agreement by March 2011.

CFEFailure threatens to bring with it a regulatory approach which industry leaders warn will mean more red tape and costs heaped on farmers and growers.

“The figures indicate to me that there is still work to be done to promote the uptake of this particular voluntary scheme,” says Jim Williams at the National Farm Research Unit, which undertook the study.

It’s a difficult task. Campaign organisers must tread a tightrope between inspiring farmers to take part in the campaign and hectoring recalcitrant growers so much that they go off-message and refuse to participate.

The next few weeks are crucial. With the campaign partnership about to submit its annual report to DEFRA, the government will be looking to see how progress is being made to achieve its targets.

“The campaign’s first birthday is fast approaching,” says campaign co-ordinator Corrina Gibbs. “At this critical stage, it is simply not good enough just to be talking about doing something.”

This summer, more than 12,000 farmers are being urged to renew ELS agreements with options that help the campaign by boosting bird numbers, protecting the environment and enhancing wildlife habitats.

But keeping all campaign partners happy has proved difficult. Farmers and conservationists make uneasy bedfellows at the best of times. And with 12 partners competing to make their voices heard, the central message has sometimes been lost.

The publication of posters to illustrate various on-farm environmental measures, for instance, was marred by disagreements over which measures are most beneficial and which should be given most prominence.

Critics – including some campaign partners – believe the industry risks failing to follow through on its promises. Having persuaded ministers to back the campaign, they accuse farm leaders of subsequently overlooking its importance.

Although ELS uptake and renewals remain important, the industry should focus more effort on farmers who aren’t interested or unable to join environmental stewardship, says RSPB conservation director Mark Avery.

“The difficulty is getting the message to those farmers who might do more and would be sympathetic if only they knew about it – especially those farmers not on the internet,” he argues.

It is easy to see why. The campaign dominated farming headlines for much of 2009. But it has since been overtaken by efforts to fend off potential cuts in government spending that would unfairly impact on farmers.

The NFU website homepage, for example, is strewn with links highlighting ways the union is fighting for its members’ interests. But there is no prominent link explaining why farmers should get involved with the campaign.

At the same time, many farmers understandably question why they should take land out of production when the world is short of food. Many growers also believe the threat of a return to compulsory set-aside is an empty one.

Despite the change in government, however, ministers suggest the threat of a compulsory set-aside return is very real – even though the Treasury would be cash-strapped to police its implementation.

“For farmers who were waiting to see if a new government would remain committed to the campaign, I’m happy to tell you that we very definitely are,” says DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman.

With significant savings to find, DEFRA and its delivery bodies would have to find efficiencies, Mrs Spelman admits. But its commitment to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment is undiminished.

The campaign is an opportunity to show farmers don’t need regulation to increase food production while impacting less on the environment. But like all marriages, effort is needed from all sides to make it work.