Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Farming water..?

Phil Lyth from Yorkshire Farming and Wildlife Partnership talks about what ecosystem services could really mean for farmers.

Someone once reminded me that farming has never been about just producing food.  For example, we hear a lot about modern energy crops, but oats to feed working horses were the energy crops of their day, and many plants and animals were and are farmed to produce fibre. 

The talk now is very much about paying farmers for ecosystem services, but I suspect many are put off by this term.   Basically it means paying for the things which farmers can, and sometimes already do, produce which are not crops or animals. Examples include farming systems which store carbon and therefore help to combat global warming; practices which help to conserve biodiversity and maintain an attractive landscape; and activities which help to reduce flooding by “slowing the flow” of water though the land. 

The latter is particularly topical in the area where Yorkshire Farming and Wildlife Partnership is working on an Environment Agency funded project ( following last Boxing Day’s floods, which had major impacts on the Aire and Calder rivers, causing damage in towns including Hebden Bridge and Leeds.  The cost of dealing with this flooding justifies the idea of paying farmers to “farm water”, as long as the benefits of this natural flood management are, well, “watertight”. Natural flood management interventions have, in some studies, been shown to reduce the flood peak by 40%.

As a result, our work with farmers in the Upper Aire over the past six years, which was instigated to benefit the river water quality, has started to also encourage natural flood management interventions on farms.  These include planting woodland to reduce runoff and increase the rate that rainwater will soak into the soil; planting hedges (50m of hedge can for example store between 150 and 375m3 of water); creating leaky dams in headwater streams to provide temporary storage in times of high flow; and promoting operations such as grassland aeration, which help to reduce runoff, as well as improving grass growth by alleviating surface compaction.

Paying farmers for natural flood management benefits will be a key theme as the government thrashes out the future of agri-environment schemes following Brexit.  Woodland creation incentives which target areas where NFM benefits can be achieved are already available.  Several other significant funding opportunities are currently in the pipeline, so the message is watch this space.  In the meantime, if you would like to know more about how you could be involved on your farm, feel free to get in touch for a chat via the contact details below.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Being a good listener and speaking a common language

Susannah Bolton, Director of Knowledge Exchange at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, took on a rapporteur’s role at the recent Landbridge SIP workshop, which gave her a useful insight into how sustainable intensification – or maybe these kinds of practices under a different name - could make a real difference on the farm and what land based professionals need in order to make this happen.


It was a very interesting workshop hosted by Landbridge at Nafferton Farm in Northumberland which brought together a very wide cross-section of individuals to discuss the role that advisers can play in integrated farm management for sustainable intensification. Not surprisingly one of the key things that we discussed was the problem of jargon and how the term ‘sustainable intensification’ does not help in making the output from the work funded under the Sustainable Intensification Platform (SIP) any more accessible. Finding a common language seems so very simple, but failure to do this lies at the heart of much of the breakdown in knowledge exchange between researchers and agricultural practice. Dumbing down certainly isn’t the answer, rather we have to find a shared language that makes sense to all parties. This involves translation, which is a skill that we should value increasingly – good translators also have to be good listeners. One of the really nice things about the Landbridge workshop was that there was a great deal of listening going on.


We heard about some great case studies of integrated farm management based on farm platforms around the country. The helpful feature of these examples is that they are all on farms that can be used to demonstrate and host discussions. There is nothing quite like seeing the work in practice and on the ground to encourage people to consider how these techniques could be used on their farms or by their clients. A key to getting practices taken up more widely is to understand the decisions that farmers and their advisers need to make.  We have to grasp how we can provide the underpinning science and understanding that will inform those decisions most effectively. It’s not about a right or wrong answer, it’s about understanding risk and benefit in the context of farm businesses. Quite often when risks and benefits are assessed in terms of the longer term resilience of the business, it becomes apparent that environmental sustainability and intensification are no longer at odds with each other and that the apparent oxymoron is in fact a win-win. But we do need the underpinning science and the skilled translators to frame this in the right language.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Brexit and agriculture – what now?

Wyn Grant is Professor of Politics at the University of Warwick. He carries out research into comparative public policy with particular reference to the European Union (including the Common Agricultural Policy) and the United States. 

With the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) accounting for around 40 per cent of the EU budget, Brexit poses special challenges for agriculture and the food chain more generally.   We tried to identify and assess some of these challenges in the report of a working party I chaired for the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.  The working party is going to continue its activities, focusing on the Brexit negotiations and what a domestic agricultural policy should contain.

There has been much speculation about how farmers voted in the referendum and a Farmers Weekly poll that showed 70 per cent of farmers favouring Brexit has become established in the public mind.  However, it should be noted that this was based on self-selected respondents, rather than a representative sample.  

Our own equally unscientific straw polls taken at the end of a series of well-attended talks on the referendum I gave throughout the North of England showed a majority in favour of ‘Remain’ at every venue, although quite a few were undecided.    Talking to members of the farming community at the Great Yorkshire Show, there was a view that arable farmers had tended to vote ‘Remain’ and livestock farmers had tended to vote ‘Leave’. 

Brexit presents an opportunity as well as a threat, a chance to create a domestic agricultural policy that is more attuned to British challenges.   However, it should be noted that this will not be a UK policy for the most part, although there are exceptions such as the reduced tax levied on ‘red’ diesel used by farmers.  

Up to now, however, the devolved administrations have been constrained in their policy initiatives by the presence of the CAP framework.   The last CAP reform did, however, give more opportunities to regional governments to develop their own initiatives.   In particular, while CAP support is now generally ‘decoupled’ from production, they are permitted to introduce ‘coupled’ initiatives.   For example, Scotland has recently introduced a support scheme for sheep on rough grazing which pays €78 per ewe.   On a recent visit to the Orkney Islands, I was interested to note an increase in sheep numbers relative to traditional beef cattle.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has launched a major consultation with its members about the future direction of agricultural policy in England.  It is also working closely with the farming organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

 As far as possible it is seeking to build a coalition with other representative organisations such as the Country Landowners and Businesses Association (CLA) and the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA).   The TFA was the first out of the blocks with its own set of proposals which necessarily reflected the particular concerns of its members.

What is clear is that the so-called Pillar 1 or Basic Payment subsidies are unlikely to continue in their present form.   For many farming businesses these payments make the difference between running at a profit and at a loss.   For that reason, they are unlikely to be withdrawn overnight, as the result would be the collapse of some farm businesses and a further reduction in the UK’s ability to supply its temperate foodstuff requirements.    This has been falling for some time and does represent a food security issue.

However, the Treasury has long held to the view that the current subsidies are market distorting and represent an undue burden on public expenditure.    If one wanted an imaginative way of phasing out the subsidies, one could resort to an idea advanced some years ago by the agricultural economist Alan Swinbank among others.   He suggested that farmers could be issued with a bond that would have a status equivalent to gilt edged stock.   Farmers would then receive an income from this bond for, say, ten years which would amount to a proportion of the subsidies they had hitherto received.   Alternatively, they could sell the bond on the market and use the capital released to invest in the farm business.

Other ideas have been floated by Defra such as some form of crop insurance or helping farmers to use the future markets.   These ideas merit further investigation, but are not without their challenges.   However, the Pillar 2 or agri-environmental payments are likely to be continued in some form or even be enhanced.   They address a sustainability agenda and have a coalition of support that extends beyond farming.

There are some very complex issues that arise in terms of agricultural trade, both in terms of relations with the EU and with other parts of the world which have had trade agreements with the EU which will lapse in relation to the UK after Brexit.   Fortunately, we have two trade lawyers on our working party.    Another major issue is the future of the plant protection regime, as is migrant labour.   We shall plenty of work to test us.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Practice v perspectives: a vet’s view of the health of the UK livestock sector

Following a workshop on animal health funded by the Wellcome Trust and supported by Kings College London and Landbridge earlier in the year, vet Jonathan Statham has been pondering the multiple challenges facing UK livestock farming and also coming up with some potential solutions.



At the present time, farm animal health in the UK faces a number of particular challenges that seem constantly to impede any improvement.  First, why do we continue to resist collaborative working in the livestock industry?   Many of our competitors internationally, including parts of the rest of Europe, Oceania and Canada have managed to achieve this but here in the UK a cultural shift in attitudes is required if farmers are to work together. The devolved administrations have achieved a degree of success but England in particular has largely lacked a collaborative approach.  


But to initiate any change of direction of this kind we need long term strategic leadership and any consideration of the present situation immediately reveals significant weaknesses.  The Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) is the principal source of departmental advice to Defra ministers on all strategic health and welfare matters relating to livestock in England. The Board’s role is to set the strategic policy framework, using it as the basis for day-to-day advice to ministers and day-to-day operational actions. The sector councils such as the Cattle Health and Welfare Group offer a forum for engagement with stakeholders to feed into the AHWBE. However, with the decline in the capacity of the wider state veterinary service, the Animal and Plant Health Agency which “works to safeguard animal and plant health for the benefit of people, the environment and the economy” cannot deliver strategy effectively.  How does this impinge upon governance? The state has increasingly adopted a light touch approach to governance in the animal health sector and continual downward pressure on budgets has eroded state infrastructure and morale. There is now a significant risk that strategic direction is not being clearly delivered by the state despite an ongoing expectation and aspiration to retain policy control. The cycle of general election and party politics has also too frequently undermined the opportunities for delivery of a long-term strategic vision, replaced instead with a series of short-term bids for quick wins. There is a lack of a clear delivery model.


The major pressure for producers at the moment comes, of course, from the global downturn in commodities and punishing supply-demand cycling that as undermined their confidence to re-invest in farm infrastructure.  Consumers demand cheap food as a right and this is constantly prioritised over quality.  This helps to stifle inflation but creates a disconnect between consumer expectations and the ability of farming systems to deliver high-welfare, environmentally-friendly products.


Many of the businesses upon which we depend for our food security are in crisis, but the banking sector, alongside the Rural Payments Agency, exacerbates their problems.  Farming has been let down in comparison with other industries; current budgetary constraints are a consequence of a banking crisis that culminated in tax payer bail out and yet we will not invest public funds to support UK farmers. The failure to invest £405 million of funds by UK treasury to access £405 million of EU rural development funding is, in my view, unacceptable.  This support could have been accessed two years ago; it has been well-used elsewhere in the EU as a result of more supportive government policy in other countries.


What other lessons could we learn from producers in other parts of Europe and beyond?  We could certainly follow the example of countries such as Denmark or, increasingly, Ireland, in implementing a more joined up approach to data collection and application.  Better quality data would help guide decision making, and the application of precision farming methods, which could help boost UK animal health.  A more positive approach to farming and animal health professions would also help to encourage young people into the industry, which does not enjoy the aspirational status in the UK that it does in countries such as New Zealand.  Our failure to retain talent in livestock research and management risks compromising the ability of the UK to develop and compete in a global economy for food and animal health.  And where we do achieve excellent blue sky research how well does this translate from research institutes into the grass roots farming industry? Failure to navigate the “valley of death” of research into practice is a recognised priority for UK animal health.


Plenty of problems then, but how do I think we should be addressing them at all levels?  For starters, I would advocate the establishment of Animal Health UK (AHUK): an organisation to deliver a strategic vision for farm animal health in the UK is what’s required in the context of a light touch state without resources to invest. Animal Health Ireland is among a number of examples of similar solutions elsewhere.  AHUK would operate  as a not for profit company, including state and private industry, with levy bodies, farming and veterinary organisations working with key science such as Cattle Health Certification Standards  (CheCS) and including laboratories and endemic health scheme providers. This organisation would retain ownership and manage the conflicts as they emerge. However, this must be a genuine confederation of stakeholders and not an initiative hijacked by a single lobby group.


Strategic 5-10 year plans for farm animal health are in play for key issues such as bovine TB (bTB) and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) eradication, but how are they co-ordinated and by whom are they delivered? What does the joined up strategic vision look like when constructed? AHUK could take action to join together a number of disparate strategies and lobby for supportive legislation where appropriate. BVD eradication including biosecurity management regarding boundaries, purchased stock and data access, offer a bridge between public good and commercial industry priorities by offering cross benefit to the bTB eradication cause. Farm health planning offered a unifying theme several years ago as part of the animal health and welfare strategy.


What about consumer demands for information on place of origin and clear labelling?  Lack of transparency in this area is inhibiting the ability of producers to add value and use points of difference effectively in marketing. The pig industry has recently achieved breakthroughs, but similar clarity has not been achieved in the dairy cattle industry. Consumer choice cannot operate effectively without this; let’s legislate for clear labelling.


As far as data collection is concerned, multiple initiatives are now constructing a variety of significant data platforms for the UK livestock industry. Joining these together could offer a key step in delivering aspirations for improvement - as long as we have a clear ownership structure and conflict management plan, such as offered by AHUK.  The emergence of sensing technologies at increasingly affordable prices is offering real potential for “Big Data” to feed back from commercial farms, not only to inform research priorities, but also to support the replacement for what was a state-owned disease surveillance network.


And what can we do to stop the drain of talent from the UK? Veterinary surgeons in practice, farmers in the industry and biological scientists all too often seek their fortune abroad. Retention of talent in the farm animal health sector may be more of an issue than attracting initial entrance. Effective knowledge exchange requires effective lifelong learning structures and career pathways for all these components of the vital people resource of our sector.  We have to be able to offer people a satisfying career that will keep them engaged over their whole working life.


Finally, what about the gulf between research and practice?  There do seem to be some bright spots on that horizon.  The recent initiation of the family of Agri-Tech research centres of excellence offers a long awaited opportunity to deliver transformational research into the UK livestock centre. The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) has a key role in connecting blue sky research with commercial livestock production and exporting expertise abroad.   


Thus, it’s not all doom and gloom.  But more joined-up leadership and more creative thinking are needed to ensure the future of our livestock industry and, indeed, the food security of the UK.


Thursday, 24 March 2016

In or out? It all depends…

As arguments about whether Britain would be better off in our out of the EU multiply, it all depends say Dr Carmen Hubbard and Professor David Harvey from Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy in our latest Landbridge blog.

So much debate, so many arguments and it’s only March.  Will anything be clearer by the time the referendum on UK membership of the EU actually takes place in June?  Will the British people have a clear idea of what they want to achieve by means of their vote?  Or will they be responding to a “gut feeling”?

As academics we try always to consider the evidence, but the problem with Brexit is that so much evidence is either missing or speculative at best.  Answers to whether the UK would be better off outside the European community are invariably “it depends” or that “gut feeling”.

Looking first at trade and the rural economy, our main areas of concern, we immediately become conscious of the unknowns.  Leaving the EU means leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but without knowing what financial support (if any) would replace it, this is bound to make farmers and agri-companies nervous.  It’s certainly possible that the Treasury would seize the opportunity to reduce agricultural subsidies or even abandon them altogether (particularly the direct payments).  That may be the most extreme potential outcome, but it would certainly have consequences for most of the UK’s farmers.  Shifting these responsibilities to the devolved governments of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland might be a more likely scenario but there has been no obvious discussion about this.

Literature from both the “in” and “out” campaigns features possible effects on food prices.  Unpicking these is complicated.  Much of the food we eat in Britain is imported and consumers expect all year round access to a wide range of fresh produce.  Whether they would end up paying less or more for these after Brexit would depend largely on new trade agreements, and on the strength or weakness of sterling.  This could be a nudge towards greater self-sufficiency, although British farms might also suffer from restrictions on free movement of seasonal labour from EU member states.  And on the issue of the wider economy it is striking that, even with so many unknowns, a poll of the FT’s leading thinkers found almost three-quarters did not think that Brexit would enhance UK growth in 2016.

Beyond agriculture and the rural economy, there is a much bigger picture that must be considered.  Regulation is often cited as an expense that the EU imposes upon member states.  Employee protection, the Working Time Directive, the renewable energy strategy, regulation of the banking industry, are all among the most costly.  Whether a post Brexit UK Government would lightly abandon them is, of course, another question.  The other elephant that seems to be dominating the room is immigration and the refugee crisis, although any closer examination of the issue makes it clear that this has no real bearing on the “in or out” question.  Our global responsibilities to people fleeing war, civil instability, persecution, or indeed poverty, remain the same.

In the long run, most economic analysis would indicate that the UK will survive and even thrive, whether inside or outside Europe.  But how quickly and to what degree this situation might prevail after Brexit would depend on negotiating new trade agreements, implementing new regulations and absorbing the costs of transition.  In the meantime the costs of uncertainty are impossible to calculate, the refugee crisis will continue to challenge us and there might even be a threat of disintegration within the UK and a residue of ill feeling between us and our European neighbours.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Whose welfare? Pig farmer Kate Morgan reflects on the industry

Pig farmer Kate Morgan recently attended a workshop organised on “Developing and integrated approach to health, welfare and productivity” funded by the Wellcome Trust and shared some thoughts about the practicalities of livestock production with fellow land-based professionals and academics.  In the Landbridge blog she explains what life is like for a hands-on pig farmer who wants to set high welfare standards for her stock.


Welfare is a funny business when it comes to farming. Having travelled to many countries looking at welfare in the pig industry it’s fair to say that “welfare” depends on your perception and no two people see things in the same light.  I am, however, very passionate about the way I see welfare and that’s the only way I want to farm our pigs.  But this is where the problem starts.  Raising a pig on straw does not carry a premium, yet it costs us more to produce and, in my opinion, it’s a better life for the pig.

I should perhaps say we have 1700 breeding sows indoors all based on straw.  For one week out of the five they spend in farrowing accommodation they are in freedom pens. We also have an outdoor unit with 1200 sows. On both units we take all the progeny through to slaughter in large straw yards.

I don’t like to be all doom and gloom but currently the pig industry is in a bit of a crisis. There is just too much pork available for the demand.  All the product from Europe which used to go to Russia is now flooding into the UK and with the strength of the pound retailers can’t help themselves but opt to buy cheaper meat. My problem with this is that farms in Europe don’t meet our standards. As a business we are in a really tough situation where we want to produce pigs to the high welfare standards that we believe in, but our efforts go unnoticed and we aren’t being paid for them.  Retailers used to want a nice story about how we raise the pigs but things have changed.  Now they are telling us to produce a pig as cheaply as we possibly can, and that means having slats, not straw. As our farm stands today we cannot compete against Europe because we just can’t produce a pig as cheaply, so what do we do? Are we fools to even think that people will pay a premium for an animal that’s had a better life?  People demand cheap food, legislation is not enforced and, more importantly, what consumers say they want and what they do are two very different things. Do we get rid of all our nice straw yards and put fully controlled, insulated slatted buildings up and pack the pigs through? Whatever we do now we will have to carry on doing for the next 20 years.  A 2000 place finisher building on slats will cost us over half a million pounds so it’s not an easy decision either way.

The work that the Wellcome Trust is carrying out could be a really positive move forward for livestock farmers.  However, like with all research the hard part is not always the collecting the data but actually spreading the word.  After attending the meeting with the Trust I came away thinking we were not stupid believing so passionately about the welfare of our animals and that other people also feel the same way however it’s all about perception and how you prove that one animal is happier than the other is a massive task in itself!

Antibiotic usage is only going to become under more and more pressure and rightly so.  Numerous time I’ve heard people say livestock are performing well so they must be healthy and happy. I don’t buy this.  We operate our outdoor progeny on an antibiotic-free system and so long as we operate an all-in-all-out system, with strict bio security, our pigs go through well, but they will never be the fasting growing animals. Antibiotics can be used as growth promotors and using them as a preventative is not the correct method, but farmers doing this will have quicker growing pigs than mine.

I love farming and to be honest I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t farming but I do feel we are up against it most of the time. We are all tarred with the same brush but are all sorts of farmers any time, because I have nothing to hide.  But something needs to change because we are producing a product from a live animal that must be looked after and paid for fairly. So, to open another can of worms let’s leave the EU and support our country because I’m sure the EU need us more than we need them.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Rural areas can help to drive the economic recovery - if government will give them a chance

RICS Policy Manager Tamara Hooper urges decision makers at every level to recognise the potential of our rural areas to boost economic recovery in this latest Landbridge blog.

The potential of Rural England, economically and environmentally, is a long rumbling debate. In August 2015 the current government released a plan for rural productivity, having earlier announced DEFRA would develop two 25 year strategies on food and farming and on biodiversity, whilst the Conservative manifesto promised a renewal of the Natural Capital Committee in the Cabinet Office. Discussion however is not leading to action.

RICS recognised the pressure that land is under from competing use priorities, environmental pressures and a lack of appropriate evaluation of its full potential, releasing a rural policy paper at the beginning of 2016, containing 37 recommendations across a broad range of themes and priorities. These included soil management, flooding, productivity, property in the rural economy, the land based industries, energy production and use – and finally the emergence of natural capital markets. The flooding across Northern Britain in late 2015, highlighted the need to recognise the potential multi-functionality of our land. Proper planning, precision farming and land capability assessments can help increase the productivity of land within the UK and appease the competing narratives in land use and farming.

The UK’s land is finite but the demands on it are increasing. The existing land classification system is outdated and not reflective of land's true potential, beyond agriculture. A new Agricultural Land Classification is required; retaining the well understood basis of the ALC, but adapt it to a more European style index system, that recognises the new breadth of land use rather than purely its productive ability. There is a need to know not just what land can produce but what it is capable of. Typical uplands grazing land is not high quality agricultural land but in addition to grazing could be additionally capable of carbon storage, wind energy or improvements in biodiversity amongst other uses, which land classification doesn’t capture.

Water retention in the uplands is another good example. Often during times of flooding farm land is not seen with the same priority as the built environment despite flooding being one of the greatest factors affecting soil quality and retention, potentially disturbing food security through the loss of the land.

There is also a growing need to recognise land's potential in flood defence, which can lessen the damage done to towns as well as protect and enhance good agricultural land. Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) as an approach to flood management through the entire catchment can help to mitigate flooding and allow land to recover from flooding more quickly. ICM cannot prevent all flooding or avert the damage done such as that done in December’s floods but it is more cost effective than building re-enforcements and walls, and should be used as part of a greater flood defence strategy that recognises the importance of protecting agricultural land and the place ICM plays in this. ICM should be incentivised by agri-environment schemes and taxation, practical work in the uplands can complement sustainable hill farming such as tree planting and measures to slow water has been shown to be successful in the prevention of flooding downstream.

With devolution of powers, the onus of funding and revenue raising is increasingly being imposed on local authorities. Rural authorities are smaller and their opportunities to increase growth limited, looking at land differently through its capability will help drive growth, however; 22% of the English population live in small and market towns. RICS urges government to extend the current devolution agenda to market towns, as well as Local Enterprise Partnerships thinking creatively about how market towns – and not just cities – can be enabled through funding, powers and mechanisms

Before its closure the Commission for Rural England reported that Rural England had the economic potential of the eight core cities minus London, and that its businesses had survived the recession better than urban based businesses. To continue the thriving nature of rural towns and boost new business start-ups, the Government must deliver on its broadband commitment, whether through established rollout methods or less conventional but cost effective methods. Local plans must also incorporate growth opportunities, including prioritising town centre rejuvenation and creating landscape or catchment scale zones with the right incentives to benefit land based industries in their enterprise zones.

The UK rural economy already contributes some £211bn, equivalent to 19% of GVA. It can do far more to bolster our economic recovery and help the rebalancing of growth across the regions. This requires a joined up approach, not just in Whitehall, but also at LEP level – and perhaps most importantly – at landscape scale too.  To continue and increase this productivity, and ensure sustainability of rural industries, the UK must start looking at rural in terms of what it is actually capable of not just what it can produce.