The impressive line-up of speakers shared their views at Hexham Auction Mart on Wednesday, where 180 delegates - industry experts, farmers and politicians - gathered for the 11th instalment of the event.
One of the key messages was the need to lobby the Government for change and ensure it recognises farmers as part of the solution and not the problem.
Conference Chair Matthew Curry, Managing Director at North East Grains Ltd, said: “Now more than ever is a time where we have to respond. We are being challenged and it is evident that the Government aren’t in touch with the farming community as closely as they maybe once were. We need to really show our resolve and get amongst our local MPs and do some lobbying through the NFU, the CLA or even as collective individuals but we can’t sit back and watch the future unfold. We have to be very proactive in how we go forward.
“It would have been good if MPs like Guy Opperman and Anne-Marie Trevelyan were here to answer questions from the floor.”
Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, called on the industry to change the debate and make a case for farming, for an ethical approach to trade deals to ensure British farmers, their high food and animal welfare standards were not sacrificed in achieving such deals (but that they were instead influenced and informed by farmers), and for the Environment Land Management (ELM) scheme to be accessible to as many farmers and land managers as possible.
He said phasing out the BPS before the new scheme is in place is already forcing people to leave the industry.
“If farmers cannot get into the new schemes they will go broke or go backwards, undoing the good work of recent years,” said Mr Farron.
“Farmers need to flourish. One of the greenest things the Government can do is to keep farmers farming. If this is a battle for the future of the environment then you need an army - and farmers are that army,” said Mr Farron.
Baroness Natalie Bennett, former Green Party leader who became the second Green member of the House of Lords in 2019, took a break from the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow to attend the conference.
She said that food security will be the most important challenge of our age, highlighting the importance of growing our own food and working together to maintain and improve environmental standards in producing it.
“Cheap food is costing us the earth and costing farmers their farms,” she said. “What we have to see is a fair price for food and that means a fair price going to our farmers.
“Where we are now is profoundly unstable. We cannot and will not continue as we are.”
In a rallying call to the industry, she added: “Get farmers of the UK united, lobby the House of Lords and we can make a difference. Make politics what you do, not have done to you.”
Meanwhile, Phil Hadley, the AHDB’s International Market Development Director, outlined how his organisation have been campaigning to encourage people to eat red meat and dairy as part of a balanced diet. He also shared insightful information about the processes involved in gaining export access to new international markets.
Mr Hadley spoke of the challenges regarding net zero and sustainability that lies ahead, plus the importance of keeping farming relevant. He pointed to the AHDB’s Farm Business Review as a key tool for farming businesses.
Nuffield Farming Scholar Ed Barnston, of Barnston Estate, in Cheshire, discussed the benchmarking of estates and shared what he has done to transform his 1,800-acre estate in harmony with the “triple bottom line” philosophy of balancing environmental, social and economic needs.
He outlined how a natural capital audit of the estate - a six-month project that provided a detailed record of the estate’s hedges, ponds, trees, soils and wildlife habitats – has helped develop a 10-year environmental strategy to improve its long-term resilience.
Scottish Borders farmer Denise Walton, of Peelham Farm, also shared a journey of the transformation of her land and farming practices to create a low input farm and increase its natural functions.
Over the years, she and her husband Chris have developed the 20-acre smallholding they took on in 1990, to create a 650-acre farm business with enterprises in beef, sheep, free-range pigs and an on-farm butchery. It now supports two families and 11 full-time equivalent jobs.
Fiona Sample, Chief Executive Officer of the Northumberland-based Oswin Project, said her organisation, which gives ex-offenders a fresh start, could help significantly to plug the labor shortages gap.
The economic cost of re-offending, she said, was estimated at £18bn but with education, training and mentoring individuals will gain resilience to function in society without the need to re-offend.
“Farming and associated industries need a workforce and those leaving prison need jobs,” she said. “Can we be bold enough, energetic enough, imaginative enough to grasp the opportunity to look forward rather than back and solve some of our problems by offering work to ex-offenders?”
Also speaking at this year’s event were Lee Baker and Jo Lampkowski, of headline sponsors AMC, who gave an overview of their firm’s services, hot topics lenders are now considering and top tips for farmers and landowners to consider when approaching lenders.
Jo Lampkowski, Regional Agricultural Manager for the North of England, suggested farmers look at the loan structure of their businesses, understand the financial impact if interest rates were to rise and discuss the pros and cons of fixing any borrowing in place. Going forward, she added that farmers will need to have sustainability plans in place if they are considering any borrowing.
The Northern Farming Conference is a joint venture between, AMC (Agricultural Mortgage Corporation), Armstrong Watson, Catchment Sensitive Farming, the CLA, Gibson & Co Solicitors, Hexham and Northern Marts, North East Grains, Womble Bond Dickinson and Youngs RPS.