Here CLA South East Regional Director Michael Valenzia reflects on an unprecedented 2020 and looks ahead to a crucial year for farming, the rural economy and communities across our region...
With the looming prospect of Brexit and a new Agriculture Bill passing through parliament, 2020 was going to be a challenging year for rural communities across the South East; then a global pandemic appeared and added to the wave of uncertainty.
Those who have diversified their rural businesses into the tourism and hospitality industries have been particularly hard hit, despite the effort many have put in to find ways to survive. And while it is promising to hear of the progress of a vaccine, it could still be many months before we see any return to business as usual.
While it is difficult to consider too many positives that have arisen during the pandemic, the crisis presented those who work in the food and farming sector a chance to increase understanding among the general public of their vital work.
In the early stages when the big supermarket chains struggled for many weeks to supply eggs, flour and yeast for example, it was the local independent farm shops, with short supply chains and high quality, locally sourced produce that filled a much-needed gap. The increased number of visitors to the countryside has helped people appreciate the diversity of the land and how it is managed, to both feed the country but also to provide an attractive and healthy environment for many to enjoy responsibly.
2021 will be a pivotal year for farmers and landowners across our region. New agricultural policy will be implemented, with cuts in direct payments to farmers and there will be pilots for the new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELM). CLA South East, which represents thousands of farmers, landowners and rural businesses in Kent, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and the Isle of Wight, is working with our members to look at how they can make the most of their natural capital. This could include working with the private sector on carbon off-setting, planting new trees or biodiversity net gain opportunities.
Climate change has also been a key focus of the CLA agenda throughout 2020 and will continue to be so in 2021, with the UK hosting COP26, the major global climate summit, in mid-November. The CLA team is supporting rural businesses on a range of topics, from alternative farming methods and water management to energy efficiency of rural housing and renewable energy networks.
2020 has been a year like no other but rural communities and the businesses that operate within them are extremely resilient, agile and open to change. They are often at their strongest when faced with adversity. Let’s hope 2021 gives them more to cheer.
CLA South East Regional Director