Shining a light – thought leaders presents their views at this year’s Northern Farming Conference

The 2023 Northern Farming Conference, now in its 14th year, was today held at Hexham Auction Mart and attended by 245 delegates.

This highly anticipated and popular event in the North’s agricultural sector, provided a dynamic platform for farmers, landowners, and industry experts to share ideas and views around the challenges and developments shaping the future of the sector.

Held against the backdrop of ever-evolving agricultural landscapes and a growing emphasis on sustainability, and under the banner of ‘Tomorrow’s Farming Today’, the conference proved to be a pivotal gathering, offering attendees a unique opportunity to gain valuable insights, and foster connections in a rapidly changing industry.

As the Chair of the Northern Farming Conference and Head of Agriculture for Armstrong Watson, Andrew Robinson set the tone for the event with an inspiring opening address that emphasized the importance of innovation and sustainability to secure the nation’s food security.

Janet Hughes, Defra’s Director for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, the programme responsible for taking England out of the Common Agricultural Policy, returned for her second year in a row to talk about progress of the programme. Reporting that both she and the RPA were delighted to see that farmers are choosing to engage in the SFI scheme, with more applications received in the first 5 weeks, than there were in the whole of last year.

Confirming significant updates to Countryside Stewardship would be announced next year, Janet stated that the programme is “all about working with farmers, walking with you and not getting in your way” and that they “will not cease until we get to a position where we make things work.”

Following Janet was Martin Hanson, the Head of UK Agriculture at HSBC with his extensive experience and deep understanding of the agricultural sector, emphasized the importance of strategic financial planning to ensure the long-term success and sustainability of farms.

He stressed that in an ever-changing and unpredictable agricultural landscape, it is essential for farmers to proactively plan for the future, taking into account factors such as market volatility, regulatory changes, and environmental sustainability. His address highlighted the bank's dedication to supporting the growth and resilience of the agricultural community, making it clear that strategic financial planning is a fundamental aspect of modern farming practices in England.

Joe Stanley ARAgs, Head of Training & Partnerships, GWCT Allerton Project, in a last-minute change of topic inspired by the recent flooding, delivered to an engaged audience his suggestions on building resilience into farming in the face of adverse weather episodes, the likes of which we are seeing nationwide currently.

Commenting that “climate change has hit us massively since 2018 [in his opinion], every month seems to be extreme”, and has thus had the biggest impact on farming in the last five years.

Joe spoke about how they are delivering Natural Capital benefits on an arable farm while still primarily producing food production with also delivering for the environment, and at the same time minimising input costs and looking after soils to deliver sustainable farming for the future.

The Rt Hon Lord Benyon, took the floor to open questions for the panel with an impassioned call to action for the younger generation to step up, claiming “this is the most exciting time to come into this industry” but that, “we want to make sure we entice the right people.”

He talked about how the government wants to support the future of farming through a period of significant change, but also delivering innovative agriculture which provides resilient crops. He also referred to a need in addressing the barriers of planning to allow farmers to re-purpose and develop farm buildings in order for the next generation of farmers to thrive.

After fielding questions from the floor Lord Benyon closed the session with a final plea to farmers to work in clusters. Going on to state “Farmers can help each other through this. This is when change really starts to happen.”

The future of farm payments is a pivotal topic that resonates deeply within the agricultural community, and Andrew Meredith, Editor of Farmers Weekly, presented the findings of their research project that delved into this critical issue. In his address, Meredith shared valuable insights derived from the research, shedding light on the evolving landscape of farm payments and their significance for the farming industry.

With “seven in eight English farmers having no clear idea how they will survive without BPS”, the research served as a beacon of guidance for farmers and policymakers alike, underlining the need for sustainable, fair, and transparent farm payment systems that will help shape the future of agriculture in a rapidly changing world.

As a representative of one of the UK's leading supermarket chains, Peter Illman, Tesco’s Sustainable Farming Manager, shed light on Tesco's commitment to sustainable sourcing and its role in supporting local farmers and growers. His insights into the complex web of relationships between retailers and agriculture underscored the vital role that supermarkets play in ensuring a stable and accessible food supply for the nation.

Special Adviser to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Professor John Gilliland, a distinguished willow, and livestock farmer hailing from Northern Ireland, addressed the formidable challenge of steering farming towards a "net zero" future. As an exemplar of sustainable agriculture, his farm's independent verification as "Beyond" Net Zero underscores his remarkable achievements in mitigating carbon emissions and promoting environmental stewardship within the agricultural sector.

In his capacity as the Professor of Practice in Agriculture and Sustainability at Queens University Belfast, and as the chair of the pioneering, EIP-Agri funded initiative, ARC Zero, Gilliland is at the forefront of innovative approaches to carbon farming.

Gilliland's expertise and dedication to the cause of achieving net-zero emissions in agriculture were evident, offering a compelling vision for a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future for the farming industry. He closed with a warning that “your global competitors are ahead of you!”

The penultimate spot was taken up by Caroline Grindrod from The Roots of Nature Consultancy, Wilderculture, and Primal Meats, covering the opportunities and challenges that regenerative agriculture can offer for 'tomorrow's' farming today. Discussing the current ‘polycrisis’ the industry is facing, Caroline went into further detail about how “regenerative farming doesn’t have all the answers but is showing a lot of solutions” but with a “need for systems thinkers to make this work.”

Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward MBE had the job of closing the day’s proceedings. Andrew, Farmers Weekly Farming Champion & Arable Farmer of the Year and Founder of Forage Aid, gave the audience a very detailed view of the importance of farm trials, such as his, and engaging with like-minded farmers to find the right path for your farming enterprises.

It’s clear from the sold-out conference that the North East’s farming fraternity’s commitment to innovation, sustainability, and the highest standards of animal welfare sets them apart on the global stage. They are the driving force behind our agricultural success and, without a doubt, a source of pride for the entire nation.


The Northern Farming Conference is a joint venture between Partner links: Armstrong Watson, The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Hexham and Northern Marts, North East Grains, Womble Bond Dickinson, and YoungsRPS.

The 15th Northern Farming Conference will take place at Hexham Auction Mart on Wednesday 6 November 2024. Presentations (collated as one) will be available on the website from Thursday, 2 November.

Key contact:

Henk Geertsema
Henk Geertsema Acting Regional Director, CLA North