Farmers urged to ‘seize the initiative’ at top Northern agricultural conference

Q4 2019

Farmers urged to ‘seize the initiative’ at top Northern agricultural conference

Farmers have the power to drive their own businesses forward by being agile and embracing new technology and approaches, despite the uncertainties presented by Brexit and climate change.

This was the key message from speakers as they addressed the theme of ‘Sweating the Assets’ at the 2019 Northern Farming Conference, now in its 10th anniversary year, whichattracted about 200 delegates to Hexham Auction Market in Northumberland (6 November).

CLA deputy president Mark Bridgeman urged farmers and rural businesses across the region to explore diversification to deal with changing times.

Showcasing his own diversification journey, Mr Bridgeman explained how his mixed estate now comprises an organic farm, three let farms, woods, a housing development and biomass plants. These various strands of activity have ensured his rural business is more robust and resilient, especially important in these uncertain times.

Mr Bridgeman also suggested that while the climate change agenda presents challenges, it will also create new opportunities for farmers and landowners.

These include the ability to tap into private and public investment by trading carbon credits, providing ecosystem services and delivering environmental net gain through the planning system.

Mark Suthern, national head of agriculture at Barclays, said he was completely optimistic about the future, but urged farmers to be agile and clear about their objectives.

“The questions I pose to you – if you are running any kind of farming business – is: What assets do you want to sweat and why do you want to sweat them? Because if you haven’t got a goal for your business, why are you going to put yourself through it? Why are you going to make extra effort if you don’t know what your vision is?”

He also reminded delegates of the importance of focusing on profitability, rather than solely turnover or output. “Think margins, not yields,” he warned. “There aren’t many other sectors that celebrate a yield over profitability.”

In his opening address, Matthew Curry, conference chairman and head of farming in the Morpeth office at Strutt & Parker, said while changes in government policy were clearly important, businesses could put themselves in the best position by seizing the initiative.

“One of the messages coming from government in recent years is that it wants farm businesses to become more self-reliant,” he said.

“Policy changes are important, but business innovation, product development and the adoption of new technologies will be critical in helping to raise productivity, generate new revenue streams and cut costs – all essential in driving our sector forward.”

Alex Brewster, a livestock farmer and Nuffield Scholar, demonstrated his business innovation as he spoke of his learning in terms of getting the most from grassland on his family’s 1,000ha beef and sheep farm in Perthshire.

He has managed to improve profitability by managing his grassland and grazing management in a more holistic way and building in diversity at every level.

Careful management of soil and pasture has built root mass and improved soil biology, improving resilience. He is sowing forage crops with 15 or 16 different species, with grass mixes of up to 20 species. The farm no longer uses fertilisers, but has managed to double grassland production and the nutrient density of the plant. His use of bagged minerals has halved.

“We used to house a lot of stock, but last year we only housed 10-15% and this year the plan is to house nothing because the land has the capacity to carry the stock,” he said.

Rupert Wailes-Fairbairn, who farms at South Berrington Farm in Northumberland and is a director at insurance brokers Lycetts, suggested farmers make use of risk-management tools like index insurance to make their businesses more resilient.

Farmers would soon no longer have the cushion of Basic Payments to fall back on in difficult years and climate change was leading to greater volatility in terms of crop yields, he warned. For example, in the North East of England there had been a 42% variation in winter wheat yields over the past eight years.

But UK farmers could protect their business against yield shortfalls for winter wheat, winter barley, winter oilseed rape and spring barley using crop protection insurance.

“Volatility is here to stay and the question is how we manage that volatility. We will be using index insurance increasingly in the farming sector over the years to come,” he predicted.

Robert Ord, one of the founding members of Drone Ag gave an insight into how advances in technology are opening up opportunities for farmers to increase profit, while also helping the environment.

Mr Ord explained how the Skippy Scout software platform had been developed to enable automated crop-scouting drone flights. This allowed farmers and agronomists to check pest, weed and disease levels more quickly and accurately than through crop-walking.

Lyndsay Chapman, chief executive of the Centre for Innovation Excellent in Livestock (CIEL), spoke about how science would provide the answers to many of the challenges currently facing the farming industry.

CIEL is a farm animal research alliance which brings together government, academics andindustry with the aim of driving productivity, efficiency, resilience and wealth in the agri-food sector.

Meanwhile, Bob Middleton, national programme manager for Catchment Sensitive Farming,which provides advice and support to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture, expandedon the environmental priorities, explaining how its work has contributed to a 34% reductionin pesticides in England’s rivers since 2006.