A gathering of industry experts, farmers, and politicians among others were ‘herded’ into Hexham Mart for the 2022 Northern Farming Conference. The aim of the gathering was to inform farmers and others involved in the agricultural sector of developments across the industry and to reflect on the topic 'Sustainable attainable?'
The Organising Committee Chair Andrew Robinson, Partner and Head of Agriculture at Armstrong Watson Accountants, welcomed the delegates and opened the day with a warning that the industry is “in massively volatile times” and that “the lack of clarity brings with it a lack of confidence.”
The first of the guest speakers was the Right Honourable Sir Robert Goodwill MP, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, who spoke about the committee’s current work. After highlighting the crucial importance of politics to farming, he called on more farmers to be active in the House of Commons (although he noted that Rishi Sunak’s government included more than any before).
Sir Robert focused on two reports the committee are currently working on, due early in 2023, one on food security, one on ELMS, stating that “if we can get this (ELMS) right we will have the support of the country.”
To conclude his spurring speech, he explained that another commissioned report on soil health would demonstrate solutions to a complex issue and promised that “we will pull no punches when difficult questions need to be asked.”
Daniel Zeichner MP, Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), was next to speak and he updated those gathered in the opposition’s work especially on EFRA. He introduced his talk by highlighting landlord-tenant relationships as a major issue and by noting that those in Parliament understand the difficulties facing those in the industry such as pressures on input costs and labour challenges.
Daniel expressed concern at the slow uptake on incoming schemes, explaining that the Treasury will reduce spending in those areas if the money offered is not being claimed, “the challenge to us in this sector is to try and convince people to really get involved with these schemes so that the case can be made for maintaining this system” said Mr Zeichner.
He further described his focus as prioritising farmers producing food - rather than placing environmental issues at the top of the agricultural agenda (regenerative farming, agro-ecology). Before concluding by mentioning fairness in the supply chain, Daniel noted the need to formalise land use strategy, specifically in relation to forestry.
Defra's Director for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, Janet Hughes, framed the current situation as the biggest shift in decades to the agricultural industry, before setting out her aims of achieving a synthesis between food production and food security on the one hand, and profitability on the other hand.
The fruits of her labours would help to working to engage and protect the environment, through the sharing of best practices between a range of stakeholders. Janet described the top priorities for Defra’s services: transforming the relationship between regulator and farmer, and replacing the agricultural subsidies being phased out.
Keen to promote the improved access to apply for schemes, while humbly admitting a history of frustration in this process. Sustainable farming incentives and countryside stewardship schemes were highlighted, as well as the free business planning advice offered by Defra-funded advisers which are available for booking.
Janet finished her speech by stating she was “always keen to talk to farmers to make reforms work for you”, via her social media platforms.
Henri Murison, Chief Executive, Northern Powerhouse Partnership, opened the second half of the mornings talks with the importance of the rural economy in the North of England and closing the economic divide that is apparent between the north and south.
Henri went on to discuss the link between George Osbourne's ambitions in raising the profile of the cities in the North, and the synergies between urban and rural growth, highlighting the important role rural business play in underpinning the towns, cities and communities that surround them.
“Our challenge is to start that debate and take forward the challenges in rural places to the treasury”, said Mr Murison, ending his speech with a call for “a vision for the future that is more inclusive than that of the past.”
Paul Temple, arable and livestock farmer, from the Wold Farm Yorkshire and former NFU vice president, delved into the importance of making sense of sustainability from a farmer’s perspective.
Suggesting that a change in farmers approach and mind set can lead to sustainable farming, Paul praised good carbon practice as easily made at farm level, negating some of the increasing extremes that farmers face.
Speculating that most carbon credits bought by firms for offsetting hides the reality, and as he put it bluntly “Net Zero is a meaningless myth without fundamental economic change.”
Paul went on to urge the audience to "act local but think global,” calling for collaboration between farmers sharing best practice he declared “sustainability is a mindset, as is wanting to change.”
After lunch Lucinda Douglas, CLA Director North, introduced the afternoon speakers starting with hosts of the popular Boots and Heels podcast.
Lizzie McLaughlin and Rebecca Wilson entertained the crowd with a talk on attaining sustainable farming in the Digital Age. Becca gave delegates and in depth look at measures undertaken on her family farm in their aims for sustainability, made difficult by the low levels or organic matter.
Among other things they champion women in farming and reach audiences within and without the industry through social media, with Lizzie asking, “how can we expect a consumer to look at farming and get involved without breaking the stereotype.”
Patrick Laurie, Times bestselling author, farmer and freelance conservationist gave an entertaining Galloway-focused perspective warning against intensification of forestry and agriculture on wildlife. Talking passionately about cattle and curlews, he espoused the various benefits of cattle farming on bio-abundance and galvanised us to work together. “You can do great stuff combining forestry and agriculture but that’s not happening “, was his closing statement.
Speaking after this stark warning against intense forestry creation came the strong endorsement of the packages available from the Forestry Commission’s Kate Hawley and Nick Prince.
They advised on locations to plant trees, economic possibilities in woodland management, and the benefits of carbon neutrality. After explaining the various grants they were offering for tree-planting, they fielded a series of probing questions by the enlivened listeners.
The Northern Farming Conference is a joint venture between Partner links: Armstrong Watson, The Country Land and Business Association, Catchment Sensitive Farming, Gibson & Co. Solicitors, Hexham and Northern Marts, North East Grains, Womble Bond Dickinson, and YoungsRPS.
The Northern Farming Conference aims to give farmers and those advising them information on developments across the agricultural industry and public sector to aid farm business planning over the next year and beyond.