Opinion: Collective thinking can tackle future challenges

Happy New Year! This year will bring big changes for the UK as we say goodbye to unquestioned CAP budgets, reminisce about the days of belonging to the world’s largest single market and scratch our heads at the end of free movement of people.

We must accept this is not the path everyone would have chosen or hoped for, but it’s the one we must walk.

The next few months will be a time for reflection and planning for the new normal. Covid restrictions are here to stay for the foreseeable future and, undoubtedly, barriers to free trade will have an effect on many farm businesses in some form.

See also: Change in farming should be embraced, not feared, says Colin Ferguson

Brexit for me is an opportunity, a chance to reshape and reimagine what agriculture could look like in the future.

The government has already set out how it sees agriculture shaping rural communities, by its usual method of dangling a carrot in the form of support payments, albeit of the baby variety.

But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that governments do have the form for making difficult situations worse.

So, while I was surprisingly impressed by Defra secretary George Eustice’s road map for agriculture, I do fear the reality of implementation will be less impressive.

The ambition is enviable, but he must ensure the farmers and land managers are there in the future to implement these big changes, both in terms of supporting viable businesses through transition and encouraging new entrants into the sector.

The collective effort of our industry will be key to its success. In normal circumstances this month would see the start of the conference calendar – a chance to step away from the routine and come together as an industry to learn and share new ideas.

While this year will be different, the importance of this has never been greater.

As we adapt and learn to respond to a new “normal”, farmer meetings have also changed.

Zoom and Teams fatigue is hopefully behind us as we have all rested over the festive break, and our renewed energy for meeting and connecting will drive the need for more innovative and creative platforms and agendas.

The days of a full conference are, for now, gone. Taking a more flexible approach, so we can run our businesses while also taking a few hours out to join a session, has become essential. Yes, I would love to return to 2019, where we could meet up regularly.

But the reality is 2021 will still be a year of flux, so we need to embrace what is on offer and focus on what is in front of us.

Next week will see the Oxford Farming Conference, where all devolved farming ministers will set out their visions for the year ahead, with all nations taking differing approaches to future support. What will be vital is shared success for UK agriculture.

It will be up to us as an industry to take a collective responsibility for our success.

If we all play our part, we can begin to build on an already strong worldwide reputation, finding and creating new markets. We need to recognise and understand the negative impacts, but we mustn’t dwell on what could have been. We must focus on what is next.

Whatever the year 2021 brings to us all, “Lang may yer lum reek” (Long may your chimney smoke).

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