February 16, 2015
Lincolnshire Growers Address Farming Challenges
More than 250 arable growers and specialists came together with the country’s leading agricultural support business, Agrii in a forward-looking conference at the Lincolnshire showground this month to explore how best to cope with the challenges facing British farming.
Under the chairmanship of Lincolnshire grower and Forage Aid founder, Andrew Ward, an impressive panel of industry experts – including NFU vice president, Guy Smith, BBC Countryfile presenter, Adam Henson, Bishop Burton College principal, Jeanette Dawson, Agrii chief executive, David Downie and Andersons partner, Graham Redman – focused on a series of pressing issues. Not least, sustaining profitability in volatile times; dealing with legislation and greening; securing effective succession and training; building public understanding; and improving soil, black-grass and farm wildlife management.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, they identified no single simple solutions. Instead, on the advice of agricultural competitiveness specialist, Graham Redman they adopted the British Olympic Cycling team’s winning approach of looking to build the biggest possible sum of margin gains.
“There’s a huge gap between the best-performing farming businesses and most of the rest,” he stressed. “But the best are invariably slightly better at many things rather than much better at any one. So our task in improving profitability has to be to find as many areas as possible in which we can make tiny (1%) improvements. All the more so because a small improvement in one area doesn’t just add to improvements in others, more often than not it multiplies them.
“Taking this approach will put us in the best possible position to steadily improve the efficiency and profitability of the core farming enterprises which will become more and more important in a future in which a progressive reduction in the value of subsidy support seems inevitable.”
Picking-up this challenge, amongst other things, Guy Smith urged farmers to start working on their Basic Payment Scheme applications as early as possible given the complexity and problems of the new arrangements; do everything they can to weather-proof their production systems in the face of growing climatic volatility; and take control of measuring their own farm biodiversity to counter detractors with a vested interest in talking it down.
“In parallel to our NFU work making the case to politicians in Westminster and Brussels, everyone must take every opportunity to explain what we do positively to non-farming friends, neighbours and countryside visitors,” he insisted. “Unlike so many other professions, people have a natural curiosity and interest about farming. We need to take full advantage of this unique position to show them what we’re doing every day to ensure their food security and health as well as sustaining the countryside they enjoy. It’s not easy, but from our experience farming near Clacton it really does help.”
As someone who’s done more than most to champion British farming and explain it to the public in recent years, Adam Henson underlined the importance of this open approach to communication with every bit of his usual infectious enthusiasm and plain-speaking.
“To attract people we need to excite them,” he said. “And in doing this there’s no place for the miserable farmer image of old – despite the challenges we face. We mustn’t be ashamed when we’re successful either. Nor of the shiny new bits of technology we employ to do our job. The public want to know about the highs and lows of what we do. So let’s drop the barriers and tell them in an upbeat and forward-looking way – taking as much advantage as we can of the media’s hunger for good local farming stories.
“Rather than trying to do everything ourselves, our business strategy is to surround ourselves with people and organisations like Agrii who can help and support us in trusted partnerships. We work closely with them to improve our performance and manage our risk. At the same time, we have created a strong brand for our farming and live it in everything we do and say. As well as giving ourselves an increasingly important edge in the school of public opinion, doing this on an industry-wide scale will make a major contribution to recruiting and retaining the calibre of staff essential for what I have no doubt will be a hugely exciting and increasingly technology-driven farming future.”
Investing sufficiently in an enthusiastic and well-informed new generation of farmers, managers and staff is an essential Bishop Burton College principal, Jeanette Dawson was adamant our industry must work much harder at. To do so, she too emphasised the critical importance of learning partnerships with committed businesses across the food industry.
Having taken on the running of Riseholme College in 2012, she underlined Bishop Burton’s determination to replicate in Lincolnshire its successful transformation of local land-based education over the past 12 years.
“Along with our industry partners and the brand new campus which will open at the county showground later this year, we intend to make Riseholme a major hub for developing and exchanging knowledge and skills in precision agriculture, in particular,” she explained. “The premier agricultural county of Lincolnshire deserves to be treated as the precious jewel it is. And we have to start with the young people that are its future.
“As we’ve shown at Bishop Burton, the right approach can make the whole business of farming really attractive to youngsters once more, creating a vital ladder of opportunity for them and for the farming businesses that will depend upon them.”
Adding Extra Marginal Gains
“We aren’t likely to see any new blackgrass chemistry for at least 10 years. But our Stow Longa work shows we can radically affect weed populations and wheat yields by how we cultivate, when we drill and what we grow. And it’s also underlining the vital contribution soil structure has to play in blackgrass management.
Colin Lloyd, Agrii Head of Agronomy
“Our living depends on a thin layer of soil covering the 3% of the world’ surface on which we grow our food. We must do everything we can to reduce and repair the damage we inflict upon this with modern machinery.”
Professor Dick Godwin, Harper Adams University
“Key to our primary purpose of adding value and creating prosperity for farmers and growers is helping them to manage all the many components of their businesses to become more efficient, to increase yields while reducing costs, to better target inputs and manage risk, and to build greater resilience.”
David Downie, Agrii chief executive
“Habitat quality and variety are the keys to farm wildlife improvement. We know how best to improve wildlife by growing the right habitats. But just like other crops they need managing. So let’s get on and do it before the politicians impose more greening on us.”
Marek Nowakowski, Wildlife Farming Consultant