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Farming

Gove’s Oxford speech sparks debate on farming’s future

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We must develop coherent food policy: Michael Gove

DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove used a keynote speech to the Oxford Farming Conference to say that if UK agriculture does not embrace change we will be left behind, and Brexit offers the opportunity to shape that change and how we meet the challenges ahead.

SUBSIDIES CONTINUE TO 2024

Mr Gove guaranteed farmers the same level of subsidy until 2024, but said that CAP was created for a post-war world which is no longer relevant.

He said: “Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. Indeed, perversely, it rewards farmers for sticking to methods of production that are resource-inefficient.”

In his paper, Farming for the Next Generation, as well as moving away from subsidies, Mr Gove’s proposals for future agricultural policy are based on incentivising innovation and giving the farmers the tools they need to progress, maintaining the UK’s reputation for quality food and high welfare, and building on natural capital to sustain the countryside for the future. He is also aware of the Government’s responsibility to public health.

Mr Gove told his audience: “I want to ensure we develop a coherent policy on food – integrating the needs of agriculture businesses, other enterprises, consumers, public health and the environment.

“I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.

“I want to give farmers and land managers time and the tools to adapt to the future, so we avoid a precipitate cliff edge but also prepare properly for the changes which are coming.

“And I want to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for our countryside.”

Addressing both the pace of demographic change and the challenges posed by Brexit, Mr Gove said: “We can’t stop change coming, we simply leave ourselves less equipped to deal with the change. There is a tremendous opportunity for productivity in our farms. We have some of the best performing farms in the world and there is no reason why our farmers cannot lead the way in achieving better levels of productivity throughout adoption of best practice and new technologies.”

Touching on the vexed issue of migrant labour’s importance to farming, Mr Gove suggested that seasonal labour would still be easily available and looked to a future where labour-intensive farming was replaced by as yet undefined new technology.

The government now proposes to keep similar payments to the BPS available until 2024. The current EU payments may well end at the end of 2020 to tie in with the EU budget, and Mr Gove suggested that area-based support payments would be phased out over a longer period after that, but “we won’t perpetuate that forever”.

‘PERVERSE’ SUBSIDY SYSTEM BENEFITS THE WEALTHY

Responding to Michael Gove’s speech, Professor Ian Bateman, Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP), at the University of Exeter, said: “Michael Gove’s reaffirmation that the public money supporting farm subsidies should be spent on delivering public goods is to be welcomed; if this is carried through then he will deserve to be congratulated on breaking more than four decades of failure in agricultural policy. But it is disappointing to see that the system of paying most subsidies on a per acre basis is going to carry on for several years.

“At present 75% of public subsidies go to just 25% of farms; the largest farms in the country. This rewards multi-millionaire estate owners while other farmers remain in poverty. I have no problem with large farms getting payments if they produce high levels of public goods; but to get these payments just because they are large is perverse. It’s good to hear that this scheme may be capped, but it needs to end.”

INCENTIVES SHOULD TARGET ANIMAL WELFARE

RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said: “Paying farmers to achieve high animal welfare standards is a no-brainer. Farm subsidies targeted at animal welfare will be good for new trade deals, good for consumers and good for the animals.

“If post-Brexit farm support schemes include ring-fenced incentives for farmers to improve animal welfare, the government’s laudable ambitions for the UK to produce the highest quality food will be met. This, coupled with Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s newly announced comprehensive food labelling system which includes, amongst other things, indicators on animal welfare standards, would be the icing on the cake.

“As the UK leaves the EU and nationalises the farming support system this presents us with a once-in-a-generation chance to radically transform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) into a British policy for humane animal and sustainable land management.

“If we get it right now, the UK’s food quality can become the world’s gold standard – and that can only happen with the highest possible animal welfare.”

The RSPCA also welcomed Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s commitment to a much more comprehensive food labelling system that measures how a farmer or food producer performs against a number of indicators, including animal welfare.

ENVIRONMENTAL INCENTIVES WELCOMED

Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association said: “We warmly welcome the move towards an agricultural policy that prioritises environmental protection and the new emphasis on the vital links between food, farming and public health. The clear timetable provides much-needed certainty for farmers, whilst the commitments on public procurement and better labelling are important for food producers and consumers alike. We now need to see more detail on how farmers will be enabled and encouraged to shift to higher animal welfare systems, move away from synthetic pesticides, restore degraded soils and improve water quality.

“We don’t see these proposals as leading to a reduction in UK food production – but rather about a fundamental shift in how we produce food so that farming systems are truly sustainable. In many areas, we want to see more domestic production to meet demand, especially fruit and vegetables and organic.

“The greatest test of this transition is whether the UK’s food and farming system measures up to the monumental challenges of public health, which was highlighted in the speech, and climate change, which received just two mentions. The Government must also make an ambitious and unambiguous commitment to organic and other agro-ecological approaches which are proven to deliver on animal welfare, biodiversity, soil health and climate change – both during the transition and after 2024.”

CAP BAD FOR THE COUNTRYSIDE

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner said: “Michael Gove’s speech confirmed the direction of travel for British agricultural policy post-Brexit.

“The move away from area based payments to rewards for delivering environmental and public goods is far from the revolution some have hailed, but it will be significantly accelerated by a departure from the Common Agricultural Policy.”

Mr Bonner continued: “Interestingly, just about the only thing that all sides of the Brexit argument, from the Liberal Democrats to Farming minister and Brexiteer George Eustice, seem to agree on is that CAP has been bad for the countryside, consumers and farmers. Attempts to reform the CAP have been achingly slow as the EU convoy moves only at the speed of the slowest. Brexit creates an opportunity for the UK to create our own farming policy for the first time in more than 40 years and move ahead of the pack.”

However, Tim Bonner sounded a cautionary note: “That is the good news, but there are also valid reasons for concern. There remains an inherent contradiction between agricultural productivity and protecting the environment which has not yet been addressed in detail by the Government and which goes to the heart of the big long-term question: how much will the public be willing to continue to pay for the countryside that farmers maintain?

“Under the CAP the question of farm support has been decided in Brussels and the combined weight of the European farming lobby has had a significant influence. Post Brexit levels of farm support will become a direct domestic political issue for the first time for a generation. The farm support budget will have to compete with the NHS, Defence, Education and all other areas of Government expenditure in future spending rounds. In order to maintain levels of support farmers will have to persuade the public, and through them politicians of all parties, that the public goods they provide continues to justify the money they receive from the taxpayer. This will be the greatest challenge for UK farming outside the EU.”

‘A TRIUMPH OF HOPE OVER PRACTICALITY’

TFA Chief Executive George Dunn said “We are used to having our hopes dashed of hearing a meaty Oxford Farming Conference speech from incumbents as DEFRA Secretaries of State but not this time. Like or loathe what we heard, we received a fairly firm view of future Government policy, the like of which we have not seen since Hillary Benn’s speech in 2010 in which he set out his 20 year plan to boost domestic food production. That plan fell by the wayside when Labour lost the 2010 General Election later that year and we will have to wait to see if the Gove plan survives the political choppy waters of our time.

“Disappointingly, there was a triumph of hope over practicality in the extent to which Mr Gove seems to be relying upon technological change to provide the swift answers we need to address labour shortages and the urgent need to increase farm productivity. Also on the negative side, there was nothing said specifically about the tenanted sector of agriculture, and there also continues to be too much reliance on the market being the means by which we sort out our food safety and food standards issues in a free trading environment.” said Mr Dunn.

“On the plus side there was a clear understanding of the need for a sufficient period of transition to a new policy framework. A commitment for the Government to act as a strong champion of British produce at home and abroad. A pledge to deal with market failure in the food chain and a promise that no one entering into an agri-environment scheme today will be disadvantaged when new schemes are developed for the post Brexit era,” Mr Dunn concluded.

FUW WANTS ‘MEAT ON BONES’

The Farmers’ Union of Wales described the as welcome, but says Welsh farmers remain in the dark over many important issues.

FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “We very much welcome Mr Gove’s apparent commitment to agricultural funding until 2024, and the general thrust of his speech, which described a prosperous and forward looking post-Brexit industry which is rewarded for delivering the very best in terms of food, the environment and social contributions to society.

“However, the nuts and bolts of turning such a vision into reality are where the obstacles will lie, and we look forward to seeing more meat on the bones in the long-awaited DEFRA white paper, due in the spring.”

Mr Roberts said many Welsh farmers would also be concerned that nothing was said about progress on talks between devolved regions on how devolved powers and funding might operate once we leave the legal framework of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

“Wales currently has devolved powers over agricultural and rural development spending and policy, but this is within the limits laid down in the CAP framework.

“The FUW fully supports such devolved powers continuing. But, we now need to ensure that devolved powers are fully respected by all 4 nations and that we don’t see the creation of support mechanisms that benefit one nation over another. Therefore we need to develop a UK framework which ensures equivalence between producers in the four nations, which respects devolved powers and allows a degree of flexibility.”

While acknowledging that this was a difficult balance to strike, especially given political differences between devolved regions, Mr Roberts said progress was necessary.

“We currently have such a system, so it is not difficult to see how a framework could be developed which strikes a sensible balance between respecting devolved powers and avoiding the dangers of a free-for-all.”

Mr Roberts said reaching sensible agreement on spending frameworks should be a priority, in order to avoid inappropriate and unfair divergence between spending areas in devolved nations.

He also emphasised the need for Mr Gove’s vision for the future of UK agriculture to be underpinned by an acceptable post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

“I therefore welcome his fellow speaker’s, Professor De Castro’s, confirmation of the EU’s desire to ensure tariff-free trade between the UK and EU post-Brexit,” he added.

Mr Roberts also welcomed USA Under-Secretary McKinney’s comments regarding the desire to increase agricultural trade between the UK and US, but warned that care needed to be taken to ensure any new arrangements did not compromise existing markets.

“Standards in the US are very different to those in established UK and EU markets, and we need to ensure new arrangements do not compromise or undermine established markets.”

Farming

FUW explores innovation at Royal Welsh

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Bernard Griffiths, FUW: Excited about possibilities to innovate

AMERICAN entrepreneur Steve Jobs, Co-founder of Apple, once said that ​’i​nnovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower​’​. Recognising the importance of innovation in the agricultural industry, the Farmers’ Union of Wales is hosting a special seminar at the Royal Welsh Show.

The innovation seminar, which is held on Tuesday, July 23, at 2pm at the FUW Pavilion, will focus on how farmers can embrace innovation in many different ways, and stay ahead of their competitors as Brexit looms.

Those attending the seminar can look forward to hearing from Geraint Hughes, of Madryn Foods, who leads on Business and Innovation in the Farming Connect’s Agri-Academy scheme, whose forum include Welsh farmers looking at technologies such as Genomics, Smart farming, Virtual reality, Social Media and Vertical farming.

He also operates as a broker for the European Innovation Partnership programme that aims to bridge academia and industry by conducting field trials of cutting edge technologies in a commercial environment.

Previously, Mr Hughes conducted agriculture research at Bangor University and was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship to study “Crops for functional foods” in 2006.

“I look forward to sharing knowledge I have gained from travels seeing innovation at work, which has now become reality, such as retail vending, the “farmacy” concept in supermarkets such as Planet Organics where shoppers buy with their health being the main consideration, pasture fed meat, robotics, genomics and more,” said Geraint Hughes.

Also joining the panel of speakers is Karina Marsden who is a post-doctoral researcher in the Ecosystems and Environment group at the Environment Centre Wales, Bangor University.

She has researched soil nitrogen cycling in livestock production systems, with a particular focus on emissions of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, from agricultural soils. Karina works alongside Professor Dave Chadwick who specialises in sustainable land use systems and Professor Davey Jones who specialises in soil and environmental science.

Bangor University researchers have been investigating novel methods of utilising nitrification inhibitors to reduce diffuse nitrogen pollution from agriculture, including nitrate leaching and emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Novel strategies include targeting the use of these inhibitors to critical pollution source areas and quantifying how effective they are in terms of cost of application and alleviation of nitrogen pollution. Compounds of biological, rather than chemical origin are also being investigated. There is potential to adopt these technologies, possibly under the support of agri-environment schemes, but research is key to determine how effective they are and how their use can be optimised before wider adoption can take place.

Another novel technology being studied is the use of real-time in-situ sensors which can detect soil nitrate. The major aim is to better improve nitrogen use efficiency, to match the supply of nitrogen fertilisers to the demand of the crops.

The research will assess how these sensors perform in comparison to existing technologies,such as crop canopy sensors measuring greenness. The technology has been advancing with improvements to sensor robustness and design.

Research is continuing into how this technology could be adopted on farms e.g. how many sensors would be required across a given area and how to link the soil nitrate concentration data to crop growth and nitrogen demand.

FUW Policy officer Bernard Griffith​s​ said: “The FUW has collaborated with other industry Welsh stakeholders for the past 18 months to tackle diffuse and point source pollution from agriculture sources and innovation was identified as one of the 5 key prongs to bring about improvement.

“We therefore welcome innovative research that will develop alternative strategies to keep Welsh farmers working on the land and we look forward hearing more about this from Karina at the seminar.“

Updating attendees on the latest developments on a range of sensors to help farmers remotely monitor livestock in extensive systems, is Shiv Kodam of Hoofprints Technologies – who have carried out a year-long trial in collaboration with Scottish Rural Colleges at their remote hill farm in Crianlarich, Scotland.

The company has also developed gate sensors to monitor the opening and closing of gates on farms. The gate sensors could play an important role in notifying the farmer if a farm gate has been opened by someone other than the farmer.

“Currently, Hoofprints Technologies are working on several farms across the UK on a range of different systems for different uses. For example, cows and sheep are collared which log and transmit the location of the animal every few minutes. This can then be displayed on a dashboard in real time.

“Other technology developed will accurately and automatically “mother-up” ewes and lambs within 48 hours with up to 99% accuracy of the ewe and lamb relationship. This also works with ewes with multiple lambs. The technique can be used on suckler cows to identify cross suckling traits.

“The technology allows the accurate identification of the behaviours of remote livestock so that farmers could be notified if their animals behave differently from the norm, or if the animal displays signs of illness, characterised by lack of movement or motion. I’m looking forward to provide further updates on this at the FUW’s seminar and look forward to seeing many of you there,” said Shiv Kodam.

FUW Policy Officer Bernard Griffiths said: “We are very excited about this seminar, which will explore a variety of innovations made, that can help the sector progress in future. The seminar is free to attend and open to all – I hope many of you can join us in exploring further aspects of innovation in agric sector.”

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Farming

FUW focuses on mental health

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Talking mental health: FUW aims to increase understanding

THE FARMERS’ U​NION OF WALES made a commitment at the Royal Welsh Show last year to continue raising awareness of mental health problems in rural communities and in line with that commitment is continuing the conversation about the wider issues surrounding mental health in rural areas at this year’s Royal Welsh Show.

Hosting a dedicated seminar on Thursday, July 26​,​ at 11am at the FUW pavilion, the Union looks forward to hearing from Alzheimer’s Society Cymru, The Farming Community Network and DPJ Foundation.

Speaking ahead of the event, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “Mental health – good or bad – has affected us all at some point in our lives. Standing by the commitment we made at the Show last year, I’m pleased to see the excellent line-up of speakers we have with us once again.

“They will be discussing a variety of issues and look at solutions that are available to those who have suffered, are suffering or are supporting someone close to them who is affected by mental health issues, may that be depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s or any other form of poor mental health. I therefore hope that many of you will be able to join us on the day.”

The discussions are chaired by Lilwen Joynson, Agrisgop leader, who said: “I appreciate that for many farmers, rural businesses and families having a chat about being stressed out and what to do and where to go for help, sits below the to do list of a busy rural enterprise.

“The thing is, if we don’t talk we don’t support and we end up with problems and an industry that isn’t facing up to the reality of how mental health affects us all.

“I want you to think right now of one person who is affected with stress, anxiety or depression it could even be you. Where do they go for support? Very often nowhere and that’s why we have been known to be an industry that shuts up and puts up. We have an industry that thinks that a person is soft if we are feeling depressed; we all know that well-oiled phrase “pull yourself together”.

“That’s why as a working practitioner I am keen to push forward and pull together and talk about mental health – let’s take the stigma out of mental health in farming. And I hope to see many of you at the seminar.”

David Williams, Wales Regional Director for The Farming Community Network, who manages a group of 40 Welsh volunteers and is the FCN’s lead contact with the Welsh Government on farming-related issues said:

“It is very easy to underestimate just how important the mind is when it comes to farming. Along with the body, it is, without doubt, the best bit of kit a farmer can have.

“However, if your mind and body are not well-maintained, the consequences can be disastrous. There is a significant amount of stress and anxiety in farming at present. Concerns about the unpredictable weather, animal disease, support payments and the impact of Brexit are weighing on the minds of many farmers throughout Wales.

“Coupled with the loneliness and isolation that comes with farming means that farmers and agricultural workers are highly susceptible to poor mental wellbeing. Failing to deal with poor mental wellbeing could lead to all sorts of issues. It could lead to the farm running inefficiently, a serious injury, relationship breakdowns, poor physical health and, even worse, it could lead to suicide.

“Thankfully, the stigma surrounding mental wellbeing in farming is slowly reducing, thanks to the incredible support services that are now available to the farming community. One of the aims of the FUW’s “Let’s Talk” seminar, is to help farmers better understand mental health, identify poor mental wellbeing in both themselves and their loved ones and signpost them to the most appropriate support services for their situation.

“I would encourage anyone who has a passion for rural life and wants to support the farming community to attend this seminar at the FUW pavilion.”

Emma Picton-Jones, who set up the DPJ Foundation after her husband took his own life July 2016, will provide an update on the work of the foundation, which aims to support people in agriculture and in the agricultural community by reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health and supporting them by signposting them to support systems that are available.

She said: “We have set up a talking therapies service specifically for people in the rural communities, men in particular who struggle with their mental health and we are currently running a pilot year in West Wales and have taken on on average 1 client per week for each week we have been running. That just shows how important mental health support is in our communities and I hope many of you can join us for this seminar at the Royal Welsh Show to explore what help is available.”

Sue Phelps, Alzheimer’s Society Cymru Country Director, said: “Alzheimer’s Society Cymru estimate that there are 17,000 people affected by dementia living in rural communities across Wales. They face a specific set of challenges and barriers; these include access to specialist support, peer support and a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia within the community.

“Loneliness is a real problem for people with dementia. Alzheimer’s Society research states that a third of people report to have lost friends since their diagnosis. Two thirds of people with dementia remain in their communities, but many feel trapped in their own homes – with almost one in 10 only leaving the house once a month. Carers are also more likely to feel isolated and unsupported.

“Our Side by Side service supports those affected by dementia to remain part of their community and continue to do the things they love. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness which can lead to depression and other mental health related issues. We are particularly keen to recruit volunteers from the Welsh speaking and farming community to Side by Side to help us to keep connected with people living with dementia.

“Alzheimer’s Society Cymru will continue to shine a light on the needs of people affected by dementia in rural Wales, and will be keeping a close eye on the implementation of the Welsh Government’s National Dementia Action Plan, to make sure people in those communities receive the care and support that they are entitled to receive.”

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Farming

Horizon document looks to future

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Sheep industry: In the firing line

A NEW analysis of Brexit’s potential impact emphasises the need for agricultural businesses to prepare for the future to ensure the long-term prosperity of the £1.6 billion Welsh farming sector.

The Horizon document, ‘Exploring the implications of Brexit for agriculture and horticulture in Wales’, has been produced by Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and analyses a range of scenarios surrounding trading access, agricultural support payments, and movement of labour.

The report echoes other independent analyses which conclude that the sheep sector is most exposed to a ‘hard’ Brexit scenario. Over a third of PGI Welsh Lamb is exported abroad – over 90% of it to the EU – therefore the prospect of Tariffs or other barriers to trade is among the greatest risks.

Various other sectors could be affected in different ways in terms of trade and rural payments, and the report notes the potential vulnerability of the abattoir and processing sector to restrictions on migrant labour.

However the report concludes that the most efficient enterprises are best-placed to thrive in a changed environment, and lists a range of resources, provided by AHDB, HCC and Welsh Government’s Farming Connect programme, which can help farmers to prepare.

HCC’s Industry Development and Relations Manager John Richards said​:​ “The scenarios presented in the report represent the extremes of what we might expect from Brexit – anything from a free trade deal with Europe which allows us to trade exactly as we do now, to full tariffs on all agricultural imports and exports.”

“However, it’s very important that agri-food businesses take steps to assess the possible impact on their sector, and begin to plan accordingly through benchmarking and other tools,” he added. “HCC is ready to work with Welsh Government, Farming Connect and the whole sector on a range of initiatives to help make the transition.”

“We had a number of interesting discussions with farmers and industry representatives at the Brexit roadshow events we held – again jointly with AHDB – earlier this year,” said John. “It’s not easy to plan when we don’t know the final outcome, but knowing their costs and maximising efficiency is something farmers can do straight away which is certain to help.”

AHDB Head of Strategic Insight David Swales said: “For some sectors, Brexit presents a number of opportunities, while other parts of the industry face some potential challenges when we leave the EU.

“While we do not know all the details, we would rather farmers and growers start to prepare now based on the information we have at present. We will be updating our report as more information becomes available, but this latest Horizon document allows industry to avoid the wait-and-see approach, which we believe is high risk.”

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