David Richardson: Getting the balance right in farming

What a marvellous celebration of our industry. Farmers Weekly Awards night has, in just five years, become established as the party everyone who is anyone in UK farming must not miss.

Even more importantly the shortlists of candidates for awards, selected from a host of nominees, and the stories they have to tell amount to an inescapable vindication of production agriculture that is environmentally sustainable.

For make no mistake, although only one of the 15 awards, that for Countryside Farmer, was specifically given to the candidate judged to be the best conservationist, all the others will have been examined by the judges on their environmental and, where appropriate, their animal welfare credentials.

No longer (if we ever did) can farmers concentrate only on maximising yield. Today (as always, in reality) we must optimise production for economic viability and do so in ways that are environmentally and socially acceptable. Further, if we want to achieve the best prices for our produce, we must respond to the desires of our customers. We can be sure those competing for awards will have passed those tests.

Moreover, whatever production demands are made of our industry in the years to come – and regular readers will know that I expect them to intensify – we will still be expected, by governments and customers alike, to maintain a healthy and beautiful countryside.

Last week’s winners proved it can be done and I hope Hilary Benn, the current Secretary of State at DEFRA, Jim Paice, who may be Minister of Agriculture after the general election, together with others in positions of political power who were present, took note.

My congratulations to the winners (who had the pleasure of cuddling the vivacious Julia Bradbury of Countryfile as they had their photos taken), the runners-up and all who participated. They are an example to us all and the kind of ambassadors our industry needs. Well done, Farmers Weekly, for giving them the recognition they deserve.

Earlier on the same day as the awards evening I had been in Hilary Benn’s company at another event in London. It was the launch of the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Green Box, as reported in FW last week.

I have had a long involvement with LEAF but had not previously realised the full significance of this latest initiative to help farmers comply with environmental obligations. Nor had I appreciated how timely and relevant it is to the imminent Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE).

Quite simply it is a practical toolkit in a Green Box containing the resources and contact details a farmer needs to improve and record his environmental performance. If your response to that, despite what I have said above, is “why should I bother?” may I remind you that if our industry fails to take seriously the challenge to replace set-aside with greater care for the wildlife on our holdings and to be able to demonstrate it we will be faced with yet more costly regulations in a year or two. We may also lose some of our single farm payment.

Wouldn’t it be more sensible to use a resource like the Green Box and do what is required voluntarily? You never know – we might even enjoy it and learn things about our farm we didn’t know before. In my humble opinion LEAF has once again come up with an economical, practical and brilliant solution to a contemporary problem. Hilary Benn seemed gob-smacked by it and this time I agree with him.

Read David’s blog.