The environment, supporting innovation, improving productivity and investing in the next generation of young farmers will be crucial as the UK Government overhauls the Country’s future agriculture policy in succession to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy post 2022, according to agricultural experts at the Three Counties Farming Conference in association with Bruton Knowles.
A record number of 400 delegates attended the event to debate the future of farm subsidy.
Ben Compton from Bruton Knowles’ Gloucester office told delegates that one possible solution to bridging the subsidy gap is through successful farm diversification, but would depend upon ‘unlocking the potential whilst managing the risk’.
“As things stand around 62 per cent of farmers have at least one form of diversification business, but that there are still opportunities out there for farmers to convert buildings for alternative uses.
“Planning rules have been relaxed and should be in favour of sustainable proposals. Financing conversion projects has always been a problem, but with 40 per cent Rural Development Programme for England grants currently available through Leader or the Growth Programme, the direct costs can be reduced for certain types of project.”
He said farmers should be looking at producing a current business overview and financial health check - with detailed market analysis of any chosen enterprise and due consideration of competition and niche market areas.
“Current farm businesses should be stable and not too highly geared, while farmers must have genuine passion and desire for any diversification project.
“As always, farmers are advised to take professional advice when looking at budgets, grant funding options, borrowing requirements, planning, marketing and the business plan.”
NFU President Meurig Raymond told the conference the UK must not be disadvantaged to EU competitors.
He said: “While I’m not going to stand here and demand we have the same £3.2 billion funding post 2022, here’s a sobering thought: when you substract the diversified farm income farmers have earned, 85 per cent of what is left of the farm income is delivered through farm support.
“Uncertainty is paralysing for UK farmers, and we need a transitional free-trade deal with Europe to see us through this period.”
New Zealand special agricultural trade envoy, Mike Petersen, was positive about the future.
He said: “The UK should learn lessons from New Zealand, but the two are extremely different. New Zealand was ‘broke’ and subsidies were removed overnight, but when I talk to New Zealand farmers nobody wants to go back to where we were pre-1985. The opportunity for UK farmers to thrive is significant. Countries will want to trade with the UK, but strong farm leadership is vital.”
Former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rt Hon Owen Paterson indicated the reform would include a rewards-based system.
“Ceasing production subsidies would bring many benefits to consumers and producers. It does not mean stopping financial support for farmers - it could even mean increasing support by adopting practices similar to those in Switzerland, rewarding farmers for the environmental and public goods they provide.”
Country Land & Business Association deputy president, Tim Breitmeyer, said: “You can’t justify giving people money just because they own land, they have to do good. We need investment under a new contractual relationship, with the same level of subsidy, but we need to reward farmers for investing in the countryside and employing good environmental practices.”
The Three Counties Farming Conference, in association with Bruton Knowles, was chaired by farmer and BBC Countryfile presenter, Adam Henson, who fielded questions to the panel for an hour after the speakers made their cases.
The conference also hosted afternoon workshops by Gill Lewis, of Rural Payments Agency, who spoke on the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and rural development.
NFU horticultural and potato board chairman, Ali Capper, presented on growing concerns when employing a part time agricultural workforce, and Agrii agricultural consultant David Neale outlined new opportunities in agriculture.
The afternoon workshops were followed by presentations from two Nuffield Scholars presenting their recent papers. Ben Taylor-Davies spoke about blackgrass resistance management and Chris Padfield spoke about growing and nurturing talent in the agricultural industry.
Twenty agricultural trade stands featured at the conference offering advice, support and opportunities for farm businesses, and information for students wanting to pursue a career in agriculture.
The next Three Counties Farming Conference takes place on 15 November 2018.