From the the 3rd to 5th January I attended the Oxford Farming Conference following SBAS kindly awarding me one of their YFC scholarships at the SFYFC AGM in November 2023.
Day 1 round-up
Panellist Hannah Darby, an arable farmer from Huntingdon, discussed the benefits of using companion cropping and winter cover crops to help reduce soil temperature and water evaporation in hot summers, and to increase water uptake and prevent surface run off in the winter months. Both of these options can be taken up by farmers as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI).
Mike Green from BASF talked about Project Fortress, which is trialling solutions for dealing with extreme weather, soil health and profitability. Herbal leys grazed by sheep in areas of the farm that have been notoriously difficult due to soil type, have been extremely effective in increasing soil health while still offering some output in the form of grazing. Herbal Leys can be incorporated into the rotation as part of SFI, so can be funded while being a useful solution to increasing soil health.
Martin Andersson, a mixed farmer from Sweden, also talked about the importance of knowing your soil and employing efficient technology such as GIS. By undertaking the right soil and nutrient analysis, yields have been increased and inputs reduced by effective application of nutrients. Again, soil testing and nutrient management can be funded by SFI.
Day two round-up
Regenerative agriculture hype or hope?
Leading innovators discussed their hopes for regenerative farming and the ways in which it can help deliver pest, nutrient and soil improvements. Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, head of farming systems at NIAB, talked of ways regenerative practices can be adapted for almost all farms to sustainably intensify.
Antony Yousefian, vice president of climate and circularity and partner of The First Thirty, gave insights on the potentially marketable health benefits of sustainably produced food which can often have much higher levels of nutrients as well as the environmental benefits that have the potential to be valuable in mitigating flooding.
OFC 2024 Report Launch “Is the UK food supply chain broken?”
Ged Futter, a food retail expert, presented a report stating that the practice of farmers subsidising consumers’ appetite for cheap food cannot continue. After years of crisis as a result of Brexit, the Ukrainian War, the Covid-19 pandemic and high levels of inflation, farming’s confidence is at an all-time low.
The report was discussed by several influential panellists, including Tom Bradshaw, NFU vice president. He stressed that consumers must understand the value of sustainably produced food and that it must be clarified who is liable to pay for this sustainability – the government or the consumer.
Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Steve Barclay, summarised the Conservative manifesto for agriculture. Most notably, he announced additional Sustainable Farming Incentive Options for 2024, to add to those that have been available in 2023.
In addition, recognising that the existing payment rates did not incentivise the scheme, payment rates have been increased by an average of 10%. From this summer, it will be possible to apply for Countryside Stewardship and Sustainable Farming Incentive options in a single application, to allow farmers to have a flexible agreement which suits their individual farming business. The minister summarised the manifesto as more money, more choice and more trust.
Politics Discussion Session
The politics session featured interesting insights from Caroline Van Der Plas, party leader of the Farmer Citizen Movement (Netherlands), Stuart Roberts, food and farming advisor to the Liberal Democrats and Steve Reed, OBE, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Mr Reed outlined Labour’s proposed new deal for farmers which featured low priced, sustainable energy to be made available to farmers, an increase in British food for schools and hospitals, higher food exports to neighbouring countries and an increase in flood protection for farms.
Address by The Princess Royal, Princess Anne
The Princess Royal summarised the challenges faced by farmers over the long history of the conference and the industry’s ability to adapt to events such as conflict and poor weather. She emphasised that farming is a family enterprise that has a deep understanding of long-term value.
The Agricultural Transition and Environmental Land Management (ELM) and Latest State of Play from DEFRA
Jonathan Baker, DEFRA deputy director, updated delegates on the SFI offering which will be open for applications in summer, 2024. To incentivise the scheme, payment rates were being increased by an average of 10%, which will automatically apply to those with live 2023 agreements as well as those who apply in 2024.
Jim Egan, of Frontier, summarised the SFI options, including the importance of selecting options to benefit the farm rather than just those with the highest payment rates. Also, the importance of record and evidence keeping and ensuring that all scheme benefits, including its flexibility, are seen by farmers.
Day three round-up
Farming a Greener Future – The diverse role of livestock with AHDB
Professor John Gilliland, OBE, environment consultant to the AHDB, highlighted the success of pilot schemes on dairy farms in Northern Ireland where soil testing of all fields was conducted, alongside the mapping of all habitats, such as trees and hedges. The trial saw an 80% change in farmer behaviour, with trial farmers feeling that soil testing helped them to not only meet the requirements of their milk contracts, but also to become more efficient and profitable in applying nutrients. Similar options are available currently within the SFI in England.
Diversified Leadership – Could Farming Do Better?
Minette Batters, NFU president, reflected on her term leading the union and the importance of breaking barriers as a female leader. She closed her address by urging the government to recognise the importance of farmers and food production when compiling Environmental Land Management (ELM) strategies.
Professor David Hughes of Imperial College London, encouraged farmers to lead on issues relating to food production, employing regenerative techniques and sustainable farming, stating that early uptake will prevent a “Go Green or Go Broke” situation.
Getting People into Agriculture – Could Diversity Fix Farming?
Nick Evans, managing director of Oxbury Bank, spoke of the importance of encouraging new entrants into farming, especially those with an agricultural background that may not have a family farm. The Oxbury New Gen offers 100% funding and business and financial advice to new entrants.
I think that attending the conference was of great benefit to me, as someone in the early stages of her career. It was great to ‘have my finger on the pulse’, so to speak, regarding policy making.
My highlight was hearing from multiple speakers with a progressive mindset that were all hopeful for the future of farming. At present the agricultural industry is undergoing some of the biggest changes in policy and practice since the Second World War, but the conference summed up that, although the industry can be a scary place for farmers at the moment, with challenge comes opportunity.
I was also very privileged to attend the debate regarding the impact of livestock farming on nature recovery in protected landscapes, a hotly disputed topic with some insightful views from industry experts. This was followed by the dinner held at Christchurch College, which allowed me to network with fellow delegates.
Overall, the conference was an excellent opportunity and I cannot thank the society enough for their generosity in supporting YFC members attending this event. I would encourage any of my fellow members to apply in future years as it is truly a great opportunity and I feel very privileged to have been selected as a delegate in 2024.
By Kate Oakes