Wednesday, 21 February 2018

2018 NFU Conference Highlights - Recipe for Change

Here are my Top Ten highlights of the 2018 NFU Conference at the ICC in Birmingham. The theme was 'Recipe for Change', so lets see what ingredients make up this year's dish. The usual caveats about typos, grammar and spelling apply.

1. There was a rip roaring 'Food Business Session' with Terry Jones, the NFU's Director General, using his retail nous in the hot seat. He drew out 'loss leader' questions but expected 'quality brand' replies. Paul Muphy (Jordans CEO), Jo Whitfield (Co-op Food CEO), David Gunner (Dovecote Park CEO), Derek Wilkinson (Managing Director Sandfields Farm) and Arla's Managing Director Tomas Pietrangeli provided a lot of rat-a-tat-a-tat in this pacey panel debate. They covered food waste, trade, working with universities and farmers, labour, consumer messaging and they even slipped in the West African Trade Agreement. I was only talking about that in the pub the other day !!

Terry Jones was in fine form conducting the Business Panel session

Quotes for consideration " We've got to get the 90% trade with the EU right before we turn to the 10% in the global market." "We're looking at strategic options, rather than strategic decisions." "Turning our worries into meaningful solutions". Great Stuff.

2. The trade session with Shanker Singham (Legatum Institute) and Julian Braithwaite (WTO Ambassador) showed conference that this arena will require serious negotiations. We'll need an 'Enigma Code Machine' just to understand the permutations of WTO rules, food standards, regulations, trade deals, quotas and subsidies. Although David Gunner from Dovecote later picked up that sometimes "Reality is different to making statements". These two speakers were cool, calm, collected, there was something reassuring about their soothing overtures. The official NFU report will give you a far more comprehensive report than I could ever assemble.

3. It's not often Michael Gove gets dropped into the mixing bowl as the third ingredient, but much of his speech's content had been kneaded and rolled out at the recent Oxford Farming Conferences and Government's 25 Year Environment Plan. A coherent food policy, with payment for public goods, review of current inspections, joined a promise to not undercut home market standards in the pursuit of post Brexit trade deals. It was 'all about alliteration' as the Secretary of State acknowledged Meurig's effectiveness as an 'advocate for agriculture'. Other phrases punctuated the prose such as, farm to fork, a consultation not a conclusion, contributions for conversation, future funding, productive and profitable  -were rolled out during the Ministers speech. One tweet made me smile.
lots of announcements about announcements that will be announced very shortly when I do some more announcing

But make no mistake Michael Gove is astute and charismatic, he is moving and shaking whilst whisking up this new agricultural era. He wants people to help him improve the recipe, rather than tell him you can't cook and eat it.

4. Four hundred folk registered for the Environment breakout session, that's a 400% increase from 2 years ago and had it to be housed in the Main Hall. Farmers realise that future support is coming from landscape schemes and public goods. This opportunity has to be grasped with a continued cohesive NFU policy that will recognise the opportunities that exist in both food production and  farmland management. DEFA's Gavin Ross is talking a 'simplification and verification' message, rather than a 'complication and inspection' regime ,which is music to my ears. If farmers are to have a mindset change; others in government, industry, and civil service will have to follow suit, to help us deliver tangible environmental and food production goals.

5. Greg Clarke MP delivered the 'Trade Brief 'and whilst the government's industrial and Agritech strategy got an airing. There did seem to be a message of simplification a call for effective delivery of our R&D programmes and money commitments (£90m) were  also promised. A theme repeated by others was a better pipeline between blue skies and applied research, this really needs to gather some traction - a simple diagram of the process would help the practitioners understand how the system could help agriculture's efficiency and productivity.

6. The 'safeguarding your people breakout session' sent a clear message to the industry, this is one ingredient that you can't substitute for anything else. Well done to the organisers for highlighting the need for improving health and safety on our farms.
Every gathering need a health and safety meeting.
A few of the usual suspects who probably have high viz safety pyjamas. Some of this campaigns great advocates.
7. It's sometimes easy to forget that flour, eggs and butter and key components of your recipe and need paying attention to. Dreaming of jam and honey from policies years away can lead to a 'shoddy show stopper' or a 'saggy signature dish'. With this in mind the NFU's commodity sessions are a reminder that the day to day farming issues still have to be addressed. We almost certainly can mitigate risk, market our produce better, review our machinery, buy energy cheaper or improve our breeding programmes. All of these will continue as the Brexit spaghetti unfolds.

8. Miles Jupp entertained the 1200 guests at dinner with such self- deprecating and understated humour, it had me gently chuckling at such a delivery of witticism. Some of his quickly worded observations about agriculture convinced me they were part of CAP policy. I was delighted for Richard Bramley who received the Meurig Raymond Award for his commitment to the NFU.

9. As I close in on the final few elements of out recipe for change, an emotional Meurig Raymond bowed out of his main stream involvement with the NFU.  Meurig leaves the union in good shape, 14 years as an office holder, but decades of commitment to British agriculture. Words and phrase are sometimes difficult to compose when really you could write a book on his journey to our Farming Statesman. Thank you Meurig.

10. The banquet would not be complete without the conclusion of the officeholder elections. A current (not a currant) of energy, throughout the conference, provided heat for this contest to simmer on the hotplate. Congratulations to Minette Batters, who was elected as the new President with a substantial mandate. Stuart Roberts pushed Guy Smith all the way in the Deputy President race but had to settle for a convincing winning margin as he stepped into the Vice Presidents position.

So as we leave 2018 NFU Conference, thanks to the team that put this event on, it is a mammoth logistical exercise which is expertly put together. It seems food is up the agenda, DEFRA is up the agenda, the environments up the agenda and we don't really need to make it much more complicated than that. 

The ingredients have been marinated, mixed and this 'recipe for change' has been added to the menu.

Your full Conference report has been assembled here by the professional NFU chefs. Bon Appetit.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A Tale of Two Conferences

Over a thousand participants attended the two Oxford Farming Conferences last week, the GWCT’s Phil Jarvis reports on his highlights from the proceedings.

“I managed to navigate my way through a number of events in Oxford, heard and saw plenty of signs that there is common ground. Several commentators talk about developing an organic fusion in approaches to food production and landscape management. This shared vision was evident in the architecturally stunning quadrangles and courtyards that hosted farming sessions. That is not to say there are different approaches or wide-ranging views in each camp, but the quicker this joined up thinking is presented to government the better the outcome is likely to be for the British countryside. I have highlighted OFC or ORFC initials after each highlight to show where mutual areas are shared.
My first event was the Daylesford Farm Visit which in collaboration with Agricology gave an opportunity for Organic and Conventional Farmers to tour the farm and hear speakers extol the virtues of grass leys, livestock and cover crops in a mixed farming system. Soil health was top of the bill and earthworms, non-grazed leys, sainfoin and cultivations practices all got air time and questions came thick and fast from the assembled audience. Agricology is a great starting place to develop a much more holistic picture of best practice for food production and environmental rejuvenation our farmland. ORFC/OFC

A quick dash to Oxford through a windswept countryside saw me get some top-notch science from the BBSRC Innovation Hub. Sitting on the BBSRC’s Agriculture and Food Security Strategy Advisory Panel I’m always keen to see how are scientists are delivering knowledge and innovation to the practioners. Tackling food waste, in-field herbicide-resistant blackgrass testing and drone technology all came across my radar and some illuminating discussions ensued. OFC

The Great Beer Debate, organised by Innovative Farmers brought together ingredient growers, a maltster, an agronomist, brewers and a thirsty audience. The process from field to firkin was debated over an hour in the delightful St Edmunds Hall. When I say debating, there was discussion from the panel whilst the assembled throng put Marstons and Stroud Brewery’s products through a vigorous series of taste tests. Three of the ales seemed to get the thumbs up whilst the other two were a more acquired taste. Ranking them did get more difficult as the evening progressed!! An enjoyable debate, although when the subject of drinking and glyphosate were mentioned in close proximity, it was time finish the spicy crisps and head into the night. OFC/ORFC

The Oxford Real Farming Conference with its four strands of farm practice, big ideas, growing and supporting a new generation of farmers and Brexit, made its’ way to the centre stage. Kath Dalmeny from Sustain made an admirable job of explaining what is in store and her props kept a complicated subject visually compelling. The Michael Gove Roadshow rolled into the town hall and the question and answer session with Zac Goldsmith was full of semantics which required code breaking to understand their full meaning. It was a championship performance in diplomatic replies from an astute politician. There is changes afoot in agricultural support payments and the ORFC audience certainly applauded the future environmental intentions.

The two other sessions I attended did fill me with some dread, not for the content or the passionate discussion, but the shear complexity of measuring farmland rejuvenation and the infra-structure that will be required to deliver a future environmental and food production policy. The potential for regulatory bedlam looms large. Many farms have small workforces, so collating meaningful measurements for soil health and greenhouse gases or planting millions of trees under a overbearing monitoring regime will cause problems. The plans by academics, politicians and NGO’s have to be practical or the complexity will become counter-productive and the tangible benefits lost. ORFC/OFC

The Oxford Union Debate’s motion that ‘this house believes that by 2100 meat eating will be a thing of the past’ pitched George Monbiot against Gareth Wyn Jones and whilst the result was probably preordained, the motion proposers presented a sound, articulate and humorous argument. I did feel that I might speak from the floor and ask if the same legislation that we could use to increase soil organic matter could be adapted to file down our meat eating incisor teeth by 0.1% per anum. So that by 2100 they would be 8.2% smaller and level with our vegetable chewing molars. OFC/ORFC

The Oxford Farming Comedy Night. Now, farming and stand-up comedy don’t appear to be natural bedfellows, but as business diversifications go Jim Smith’s is one of the more innovative. Farming in the Perth region (That’s Scotland not Australia) he certainly lightened up a late night in Oxford. Back to back shows to over 150 folk was a top effort. Jim’s conversational style certainly engaged the second shows Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian audience. He was onto a winner with farming as his subject matter, from Young Farmers, sanitised farming TV shows and a delightful exchange with Tim Papworth about how he could have helped with his injury recuperation. Now of course there are serious networking dinners and events throughout the conference but the organisers should be applauded for ‘embracing change’ and putting on a comedy show. An hour in Jim Smith’s company was tip top end to the evening. OFC

I then turned my attentions to the Oxford Farming Conference lectures in the Sheldonian Theatre. I am a great believer in delivery and style at big conferences. We spend an extraordinary amount of time dealing with the nitty gritty of everyday life and farming facts and figures. James Wong and Eve Turrow Paul gave polished and absorbing narratives on the challenges facing our industry and the ‘tribes’ of people that make decisions on the food that we produce, but they eat.

As Michael Gove and Dieter Helm had reminded the OFC on Thursday, the direction of food and farming is environmental. It could alternatively be described as payment for public goods, natural capital or helping ecosystems, it’s easy to get confused with the terminology.  The conference continued with this theme and talked about the birds and bees. What were the policies and practicalities of greening and biodiversity likely to look like over the coming years. AHDB’s Paul Temple made it clear that farmers were a large part of future solutions to a rejuvenated farmed landscape. OFC/ORFC

Steve Murrells explained another sort of rejuvenation to a British institution. It was his message to the conference, to support and champion the Co-op as it goes about championing British produce, that hit home to me.

I congratulate the organisers of both conferences, the humour from Caroline Millar at OFC certainly could have neatly fitted into a routine at the comedy night. I know her committee have worked tirelessly to put together the programme and the final day lunch was a triumphant taste explosion.

My final words are about Mark Lynas and his tentative 7-point plan for a peace treaty between anti and pro-GMO warriors. Now we’re all looking for common ground and we need to get off our polarised pedestals and Mark probably has a blueprint that a future Agroecological approach to food production requires. It would be wise for all sides to open their ears and reduce their oral volume. OFC/ORFC

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Good food, good people, good farming.

A quick photo blog from Amelia looking back on this years Rutland County show and Open Farm Sunday.

Off to a great start with a sunny day. 

The sheep look lively, not sure about the cow!

Farmer Phil and James embrace modern technology. 

Open Farm Sunday 

Our visitors were welcomed by some friendly faces from Oakham YFC. 

Plenty of people about.. 

Some great kids activities were on offer as part of the NFU discovery barn. 

A quick sit in the combine to learn about what we grow with Farmer Jim! 

Plenty of tractor tours around the farm- Our most popular attraction! 

'Facetime with the goats'

A pig, a pig, a pig, a pig, a pig...

South Devons in the sunshine. 

Plenty of animals to see!

A big thanks to Kellogg's origins for the cereal for all our visitors! 

That'll do pig, that'll do......lie down. 

Huge thanks to everyone who helped make the day a great success! See you next time- 10th June 2018. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Open Farm Sunday

Planning is well under way for our Open Farm Sunday, our gates will open on the 11th June 2017.

The Allerton Project, Hall Farm, Main Street, Loddington, Leicestershire, LE7 9XE.

We know how important it is to share the farming story and ensure we have public support for British agriculture. The future of UK farming depends upon trust from the general public for what farming delivers in the world today. Open Farm Sunday gives us the opportunity to showcase this and ensure people from all ages and backgrounds engage with food production and the countryside around them.
We’re sure to have a jam-packed, fun-filled day with tractor and trailer rides, local produce, Leicestershire Longwools, South Devon cattle, chickens, pigs, alpacas, farm machinery, children’s activities and more!

So, do come and see us, suitable for all ages, grab friends and family for a brilliant day out on the farm! And of course, it’s free entry.

Good food, good people, good farming. See you there! 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Drilling home the message

Ensuring farming is supported by government policy has never been so important and at the top of our industry’s priorities. With Brexit and the upcoming general election presenting more uncertainty within agriculture, it is paramount that the future interests of food production and farming are heard.
The government often discuss their long-term goal to make Britain a world-leading agricultural and rural nation, especially when it comes to self-sufficiency. The Secretary of State has set out five priorities for action for achieving these aims;

  • To improve productivity and competitiveness of the whole food supply chain. 
  • To increase global demand for British food and drink. 
  • To strengthen resilience of our agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors. 
  • To increase sustainability by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting, enhancing and investing in our natural environment. 
  • To build consumer trust to ensure confidence in the food they buy.

At the end of March, The Allerton Project had a visit from Andrea Leadsom. The purpose of the day was to gain an understanding of the Allerton approach to integrated farm management, complete with a farm tour from Farmer Phil. The visit also gave GWCT and The Allerton Project the opportunity to express our initial views on post-Brexit farming and environment policy.

The project has also been busy with many events and training days. We have recently hosted a national soils days in partnership with the NFU and LEAF covered in our last post, followed by a  soils day for Syngenta, this focused around infield practices and soil armour alongside fertiliser and pesticide application. There were many take home messages from the day, centering around sustainable intensification and conservation agriculture. Key principles of this include minimum soil disturbance through reduced tillage systems, continuous ground cover and diverse crop rotations. It was great to see the candidates learnt so much- shown here:
The farm has been equally as busy with spring drilling and the Longwools going out to grass. However, the dry weather has presented some challenges. Our oats and barley are beginning to come through after being drilled straight into stubble or cover crop residues. This has helped with moisture conservation during the current dry weather, but can also compromise seedbed preparation. Direct drilling has led to some varied crop emergence on heavier land where wet conditions at drilling time led to some smearing with the drill. Our winter crops have come under stress from lack of moisture and cool weather, which is making our decisions for fungicide and fertiliser use more challenging. If the fertiliser isn’t used when conditions are favourable, it can volatilise rather than being washed into the ground. Drought stress and late frosts after fungicide and growth regulator ‘tank mix’ applications can lead to scorched crops. In other words, there is one farmer in Leicestershire who is doing a rain dance (but not too much)! 

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Raising the Sustainable Soil Profile

At the Allerton project in Leicestershire, numerous studies are in action to investigate the impact of cover cropping and cultivation methods on soil resilience. The Project in partnership with the National Farmers Union (NFU) and LEAF hosted a stimulating event, sponsored by Dale Drills and Kings. A range of experts attended to discuss the latest industry research and how farmers can and are leading the way to achieve healthy soils for the benefit of the environment, crop yields and consumers.

We know that soils are important for our crops and therefore food security, as well as the wider environmental benefits supported by good soil health. By its very nature, without this essential component, we would not be able to grow food, provide wildlife habitats, prevent flooding or have clean water.

 £5.3 billion is spent on agriculture annually and 25% of this goes on soil degradation costs (Defra, 2012). There is no one single strategy to tackle this impact. It is therefore important to consider objectives and management strategy, from sowing methods and dates, pest protection and establishment along with crop rotation, which advances in agricultural technology will help with.

The soils day was attended by nearly 50 farmers, NFU members, industry advisers, researchers and policy makers and was chaired by Mike Hambly (NFU, National Combinable Crops Board).
We kick started the day with a research review from Dr. Felicity Crotty (the Allerton Project soil scientist), who highlighted the innovative 3-year SIP project and the benefits that cover cropping can bring. These include, but are not limited to, nutrient retention, ecosystem provisioning, increased organic matter, reduced soil erosion, livestock forage and weed control. We also learnt that earthworm weight can be greater per hectare underground than the livestock above ground which graze it!

Following this, Ron Stobart of NIAB evaluated the impact of cover cropping at a landscape scale, he was quick to point out that;
Patience and careful management in cover cropping is required! Benefits are not always immediate and there are challenges along the way.’
There are many risk factors within these systems which require careful management. Greenbridge pests and diseases, rotational conflict, weeds such as volunteer cover crops in following cash crop and destruction methods must be thought out.
Mike Hambly concluded this session; ‘Like with anything, in farming, timeliness is everything’.

Chris Baylis- LEAF demonstration farmer and head of farming for Sutton Settled Estates gave a farmer’s view on the practicalities of cover cropping and direct drilling. In his system, there are 6 key aims;

  1. utilise cultural control of weeds, pests and diseases, 
  2. maintain the soil nutrient balance, 
  3. spread financial risk, 
  4. increase biodiversity, 
  5. maintain soil structure,
  6. spread workload to utilise on farm resources. 
It is worth noting that success isn’t always what you see. This can be put into context with green area and rooting depth, although it is important to retain soil cover, we also want the underground benefits of cover cropping, so balancing starter fertilizer is crucial. Chris also commented that drainage must be managed, as there are challenges with cover cropping on heavy land.

Our final speaker, Professor Jonathan Leake discussed the importance of mycorrhizal fungi and what they can deliver. In 2 million hectares of wheat in the UK there is mycorrhizal hyphae that would stretch from the earth to the sun 26,000 times or over 500 times to Pluto! Cover cropping can be used as a nurse crop for mycorrhiza and its presence will encourage phosphorus capture and nutrient use efficiency. It will also contribute to improved soil structure and greater organic matter. However, it must be said that soil structure cannot be attributed to one sole component but a combination of management strategies.

A soils day wouldn’t be complete without a farm tour, looking at the Allerton Project’s research in action and of course, a look at some shiny kit. In the field discussions on future challenges facing soil management ensued. Conversation centred around soil management practices across the diverse soil types in the UK. Sited on the farmyard were examples of machinery and a quick drilling demo- this included Dale Drills, John Deere, Sumo, and Claydon, some of which are used by the Allerton project to direct drill seeds into the untilled land.

Changes to cultivation techniques can help to build a resilient soil, that can withstand more frequent and exceptional weather events such as flash flooding and drought. This will be vital as we go forward so that we can continue to farm our food efficiently while caring for the environment.
Phil Jarvis, Head of Farming at the Allerton project stated;
 ‘I want to improve my soil health and profitability, but patience is key, there's no right or wrong, it's what fits with the system’.

The day brought some insightful debate. These systems are not easy on heavy land but are important for the diversity across all farming systems. We must not ignore the massive impact the approaches discussed can help increase soil resilience. This can help reduce the £1.5 billion cost to the economy of soil degradation. The real question is how to reward farmers for delivering resilient soils, but establishment methods and success is measured by an individual farm basis, there is no one size fits all solution.

This event at the Allerton Project has shown how food production works in harmony, as well as enhancing the farmed environment. With a UK population of 60 million people, set to rise to 70 million in the next decade, food and farming needed to be at the heart of Government and that the A in Defra should once again stand for agriculture. Although we strive for farming to be profitable it is more than being a businessman, it's about being environmentally aware.

Friday, 24 February 2017

#NFU17 Top Ten - Conference Highlights

If it was a close run race last year about what was the number one conference issue, then rather unsurprisingly Brexit continually threaded its way through this gathering.

So off we go with my top ten personal highlights.

1. I was encouraged by  the theme of the Conference - Success - and NFU President Meurig Raymond gave us a glimpse of what vehicle might assist us on that journey. The three strands in the next step for a domestic agricultural policy seem to revolve around productivity, volatility and the environment. A timely reminder was made about the return to the British economy of £7.40 for every £1 spent on agriculture. HS2 is to return £2 which is surprising as its meant to revolutionise the way the country increases productivity.

2. Andrea Leadsom found some favour with conference stating she would fight to get farming the best deal at home, in Brussels and around the world. She spelled out a five point plan to guide us through this transitional period, it will be interesting to see how it looks after Government department 'deal, divide, ration, share, split, allot, dispense, allocate' the resources and other rural stakeholder consultations. There were also some reassuring words for livestock farmers on the TB eradication programme. The  Secretary of State advocated farm clusters for environmental management and recognised  's part in promoting them.

3. Ian Wright, Director General  of the Food & Drink Federation perhaps provided us with the most entertaining speech of conference. He managed to convey the Anglo Saxson language he encountered on the way into conference and I had to admit this is the first reference to Boewolf and Chaucer I encountered in 5 years of conferences. He stressed the importance of collaboration with primary producers and the Brexit transition deal was more important than the final free trade deal. His take home message was we have to work together. Other comments such as  'If you can't feed a country, you haven't got a country' and a 'dogs brexit' and 'world class leakers' were both hard hitting and humorous.

4. The keeping ahead of the game session that looked at robotics and four farmers from different sectors highlighted there use of technology. Simon Blackmore  from Harper Adams, with his tongue firmly in cheek, did express concerns of driverless tractors being controlled by Microsoft Windows.
When the panel was asked what there next technology would be, Andrew Griffiths who has robotics milking and feeding stated that his wife said he had all his toys, so a robotic house cleaner was next. I offered the collective nouns for the panel of farmers (on social media) as a convey of..., a cluster of..., a punnet of and of course a flock of farmers.

5. George Pascoe-Watson gave a very accomplish 'Jeremy Paxman' performance (that is a compliment George) in making George Eustice and Lesley Griffiths feel slightly uncomfortable if he thought they were avoiding the question, skirting around the issue or just playing politics. The questions from 'half man half cheetah' (see later), weren't letting the DEFRA minister off lightly either.

6. The cross sector breakout ' Produce', focused on productivity and innovation. How can the research and innovation pipeline from blue skies to the practical implementation achieve this. The launch of the Feeding the Future - Four Years On brings us right up to date with the innovation needs for British Farming.

7. The Environment breakout had the simplification of agri-environment scheme administration being a clear message to Government, policy makers and DEFRA. The increase in Fly tipping incidents was reflected in the questions to the panel and Government departments have to get to grips with this 'landscape blighting' problem.

8. The Crops board had some intense discussion on glyphosate and marketing. Whilst much of this was quite technical, it importance was paramount!!!

9. This year my feeling was we were a little light on humour, but that wasn't the case with Marcus Brigstocke's after dinner entertainment. A vet on my table said ' of course we're all use to sex, basic animal instincts and functions. Marcus covered all of these and it made me laugh. Some comments were made that he looked like a young John Charles-Jones but I couldn't possibly comment.
 A comment almost lost on conference was made by Guy Smith who called the fun run organiser Stuart Roberts ' half man, half cheetah'.

A wild savannah landscape... in the foreground 'half man half cheetah' - Stuart Roberts

10. Last but not least, the conference organisation is exemplary. Thanks to those in charge, the staff, the sponsors and the venue. The organisation behind the UK food hamper to Liam Fox really shows the professional nature of this team.

A message to Liam Fox (in charge of International Trade) you must Back British Farming.

The official version of the conference is available here