Opinion: ELM panders to vested interests, not sustainability

My farm was fortunate enough to be involved in one of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme trials. Lots of discussion, tentative conclusions drawn – and it seems, the results completely ignored by a government that had a plan all along.

The trouble is – and I’m not the first to notice this – it’s not a very good plan.

Turning large areas of our farmland into a park, while importing egregiously produced foods from the far side of the planet, is at best unimaginative and more likely just plain thick.

See also: New ELM scheme will favour larger farms more than BPS

About the author

Sam Walker
Farmers Weekly opinion writer
Sam is a first-generation tenant farmer running a 120ha (300-acre) organic arable and beef farm on the Jurassic Coast of East Devon. He has a BSc from Harper Adams and previous jobs have included farm management in Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire and overseas development work in Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. He is a trustee of FWAG South West and his landlords, Clinton Devon Estate, ran an ELM trial in which he was closely involved, along with fellow tenants.
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No doubt, 10 years down the line, the government will be able to trumpet great improvements in English wildlife, water and soil quality, while ignoring the fact that we have just exported our problem.

Zimbabwean farmer and holistic management guru Allan Savory once declared that no coherent decision is ever made by a committee, but the committee that came up with this one seems to have looked after several vested interests very well.

Large corporate landowners? Tick. Mrs Johnson’s friends in the wildlife charities? Tick.  Food production? Er, no, hang on, don’t want to upset the vested interests, do we?

It’s easy to condemn. As theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once said: “A critic is a man who knows the way, but can’t drive the car”. Well, here’s an attempt at driving UK ag policy, albeit in a mud-spattered Massey Ferguson…

My farm has got loads of wildlife because they eat the same sort of stuff that we’re growing – cereals, weedy stubbles, grasshoppers in cattle pastures.

When people remark on the flora and fauna here, I remind them that I’m not running a park, this is the industrial factory floor of organic food production.

They think I’m joking, not realising that the wildlife likes food too.

Like most farms in Countryside Stewardship, we have areas for biodiversity – bird seed strips, grass margins etc. But most of the “space for nature” is in and among the crops and grass leys.

We have at least 10 “red list” bird species, as well as mammals from harvest mice to hares, insects and deer. If this wasn’t an arable farm, many of them simply wouldn’t be here.

We’re also running a business, keeping an employee and paying rent, as well as contributing to domestic food production.

Our policy should support farmers who want to get livestock out of the sheds, off the soya and revitalising the soil biology with extensive grazing. 

Given the current state of the world and the Russian invasion of Europe’s breadbasket, maybe the whole “self-sufficiency” thing needs a rethink while we’re at it.

Our policy should support farmers who want to get livestock out of the sheds, off the soya and revitalising the soil biology with extensive grazing. 

Depending on which figures we’re using this week, well managed grass pasture is believed to sequester at least as much greenhouse gas as woodland, without having the inconvenience of a large dead lump of carbon 80 years down the line.

An imaginative agricultural policy would support extensive farming, local food production and healthier eating.

The NHS would benefit from the population’s improved diet; emissions would be vastly reduced without transporting stuff all over the world; money would have stayed in rural communities, and tax revenues would increase.

Right, the tractor’s back in the shed, the lines up the field may not be quite straight, I could have caused a few ruts and I possibly caught the gatepost on the way out, but at least I had a go. Over to the critics…

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