Reflections on 2021

Latest column from CLA East Regional Director Cath Crowther
Cath Crowther 1.jpg

2021 has without question been another turbulent year. In the early months we saw further restrictions due to Covid-19 which put more strain on us all. Particularly those whose health has been affected by this ghastly virus, and the rural businesses that have been disrupted so greatly by the uncertainty that lockdown restrictions have caused.

With society so limited on what they could do and where they could go, many took to the countryside to appreciate the fresh air and nature on their doorsteps. I think the mental and physical benefits of getting out and about can be overlooked. Those who were using the public rights of way for the first time will have had extremely positive experiences. For some landowners this did present some challenges, and particularly muddy public footpaths would often expand into farmers’ fields where crops were growing, due to the sheer numbers of visitors.

Later in the year the CLA wrote to all candidates standing in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections urging them to ensure they prioritised rural crime if they were successful in their campaign. We urged them to back our manifesto to tackle the issue as everything from fly-tipping and hare coursing to machinery theft and criminal damage remain a constant concern.

At the Cereals 2021 agricultural show in the summer, Secretary of State for Defra George Eustice announced information about the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which is part of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELM).

George Eustice speaking at RBC 2021
George Eustice at the CLA Rural Business Conference

He then delivered a speech at our national conference in December where further detail was confirmed. This is the start of a move away from the basic payment scheme and farmers should be considering how they will replace this funding as it phased out.

Given the complexity of the agricultural transition, with an array of new schemes due to be introduced in coming years and old ones gradually withdrawn, it makes sense that Defra is taking a phased approach, introducing ELM a bit at a time and taking time to test and learn but we also need certainty and detail. In this context, it’s important to remember that SFI 2022 is only a small piece in a much larger jigsaw. Defra needs to keep communicating that bigger picture to farmers and land managers, who need to know what the end goal is.

The government must fill in the remaining details of their blueprint as soon as possible, re-confirming their commitment to an ambitious new policy that unleashes the potential of farmers and land managers to play their part in delivering on the net zero and ecological agenda. This means using the SFI to incentivise gathering data on environmental baseline, creating long-term and holistic land management plans and encouraging farmers to design their farming system around the climate and environmental benefits they can deliver, alongside producing healthy, nutritious food. With many farmers already doing this and the supply chain moving in the same direction, it’s past time the Government caught up.

Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and major changes in agricultural policy, a straight-forward harvest in 2021 would have been welcomed by everyone.

The weather though had other ideas. A very dry start to the spring then turned extremely wet and throughout the summer farmers have been faced with unpredictable conditions. Heavy rain showers early on, some of which included hail storms that wiped out some crops, and consistently cool days with a lack of sunshine meant gaining any sort of momentum gathering in the harvest this year was near impossible.

Climate change was never far from the news agenda across the year but COP26 in Glasgow ensured the spotlight on this important topic shone even brighter. While the impacts of climate change make for largely depressing reading, this is one aspect which can potentially provide new opportunities for many land managers.

Carbon is stored in all organic matter – so natural habitats such as soils, hedgerows, trees, peatlands and saltmarshes can all absorb carbon. They can also be managed to store extra carbon, for example, by increasing organic matter in soils. This means that landowners are in the unique position of being able to sequester carbon as part of their businesses, and with it enter new, potentially lucrative, voluntary carbon offset markets.

However, as with any emerging markets, there are some complexities which need to be navigated. The cost of carbon is volatile, and its true value will only be fully understood in the coming years. Land managers should be cautious about committing to long-term off-setting agreements until the picture becomes clearer in terms of how the markets will operate.

But a first step is pretty clear for land managers: create a carbon account. Whilst different carbon calculators may report different results, it is a useful exercise where land managers can gauge where they are sequestering and emitting their own carbon to see where opportunities lie. The CLA has guidance for its members in this area.

In 2022 the CLA will continue to be a champion for the rural sector, standing up for those who live and work in the countryside. We will lobby those who have the power to help the rural economy achieve its full potential and challenge those who we believe should be doing more for our members.

I sincerely hope 2022 is less turbulent and more prosperous for us all, and we keep well and enjoy good health.