Richard Hollingum runs the rule over farming in Northamptonshire…
According to a National Farmers Union (NFU) report, in 2013 Northamptonshire produced 687 million loaves of bread, 32 million litres of vegetable oil and 300 million eggs – which is one big fried egg sandwich.
Here, in the west of the county, there is a lot of arable land, and quite a few sheep, and the fields thrum to the sounds of combine harvesters during the late summer. Farming is an important industry for the county and for us.
The NFU report also said that farming looks after over 75 per cent of the countryside. This is an important aspect, as we are capable as forgetting where the eggs come from. How the countryside looks and how it creates the right environment for the raising of food are high on the Government’s agenda, and certainly the appointment of Michael Gove as Secretary of State has brought much hope to the environmentalists.
His address to the Oxford Farming Conference in January this year focused on four main areas: A coherent food policy, providing the time and tools for farmers to adapt to the new situation, new methods of financial support for farming and building natural capital into land use
Gove’s aspiration is to ‘transform food production’, build on the quality of the product and integrate high animal welfare and environmental standards. Here in Northamptonshire we take such things seriously – and accolades like the Northamptonshire Food & Drink Awards clearly endorse these standards.
However, such aspirations by the Secretary of State seem to be aimed at niche products – Belvoir soft drinks, Botanist Gin, Cumberland sausages, Melton Mowbray pies. All admirable in their own way but they are not the food of the masses. Actually, he does mention meat: grass-fed beef from Devon and Welsh lamb, but it still leaves me wondering about the basics.
I think that this wondering has its roots in the fact that I am confused about the crops that are grown around me, where they go and where they fit in the great scheme of things. I went to find out from farmer Charles Matts. Charles is a partner in TC Matts & Sons and a founding director of Brixworth Farming and is well-placed to offer a view on Michael Gove’s vision.
I started by asking if 687 million loaves was enough for a county to produce? Was there not a debate not too long ago about needing to feed the world? Are we as a nation self-sufficient in bread and other staples? Charles recalls that in 1975, John Silkin launched the White Paper, Food From Our Own Resources, and the resultant push for greater self-sufficiency worked – for a short while. During the Thatcher years other priorities came and went and Charles says that we are now about 76 per cent self-sufficient. Yet “even though farmers are aiming for a higher figure we shall never achieve 100 per cent for home-grown produce due to the vagaries of the weather, pests and diseases.”
Being self-sufficient is not at the top of the current agenda but being sustainable is. If the farmer finds achieving an acceptable level of self-sufficiency difficult, achieving sustainability is even harder.
“Lots of farmers produce wheat in Northamptonshire”, Charles tells me “which goes to Weetabix and keeps it in the county. That is quite an easy model to demonstrate sustainability. Growing field beans, however, is a difficult one. We used to take great pride in the beans we grew for human consumption but now we can’t get into the human food chain because we won’t use the insecticides that have to be applied at inappropriate times of the year. The beans go off to salmon fish farms in Scotland and I now have to ask myself how sustainable is that?”
Such pressures are an example of how difficult the lot of the farmer can be but the real devil seems to be what will happen to the industry when we leave the EU.
Ah yes. The Brexit factor.
Gove aims to provide tools and time for farmers to adapt to the changes ahead, and the changes to the payments systems, are central to keeping the British agricultural industry running. This requires an effective system of Government support. Everyone knows that the current system, the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), whereby farmers receive funding as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is coming to an end.
What will replace it is subject to conjecture, but it is clear that there will be a distinct shift in emphasis to supporting the wider environment within which the business of farming operates.
I get the impression that for many farmers the issue of finance is not straightforward and many, like Charles Matts, can get quite frustrated by a scheme that often does not pay at the time it should: “If you don’t receive the cash on time, it can affect your business. There is an expectation that you will get paid in December, or at the latest January. There was one year when we didn’t get paid until May and we had to go to the bank for assistance to fund our business until the payment arrived”
What happens when the subsidies and payments dry up? Charles thinks that we don’t really know. Ever since the Second World War, British farmers have always received some form of assistance in order, initially, to help become self-sufficient in food, and then, after joining the EU, receiving its portion through the BPS. But after we leave the EU there is an expectation the funding will eventually shrink, and that any money will be for environmental and ecological purposes and not primarily to support the production of food.
This is quite scary for an industry that has relied on support for over half a century. Some look to New Zealand to see what life is like once the subsidies have gone. The government stopped their subsidy scheme overnight at the height of the world slump in the 1980s and it does look as if the change in New Zealand has been positive.
However, Charles counsels a bit of caution, saying that whilst direct subsidies had been withdrawn, there is a lot of government support for things like research & development, a different and possibly favourable taxation system, and assistance with fuel costs. “There is no doubt though,” he says “that the industry in New Zealand came out leaner, meaner and a lot slicker”.
Will this happen the UK? Even if the short-term effects are managed properly, there will, as Charles points out, undoubtedly be casualties: “If the financial support is withdrawn, I do fear for the small family farm.”
Whatever the Government does, it is clear that farms need to diversify. Even now, with the subsidy system, Charles’ business, like so many others, cannot survive just on the income from farming. In the year 2014/15, cereal farms lost on average £9,500. For Charles’ own farming business, they cannot afford to pay the rent from the income from farming. They have had to diversify, looking to see what other ways there are of making money out of the assets – from bed & breakfast to yurts, from niche gin to craft beer, from riding stables to business rentals.
Natural capital is a relatively new concept that looks at all aspects of land and the biosphere as having a value. Yes, I know it has always been valuable but it is only recently that there has been a movement to put a value on such assets as hedgerows, patches of woodland, streams, headlands. In fact, this concept has a much wider remit than just farming, playing an increasingly prominent role in planning.
Natural capital is recognising that crops cannot thrive without pollinators and that pollinators cannot thrive without flowers in the field margins, in the hedges and in the woods. This is the recognition that the soil running off a field when left bare after a harvest has a value; that applying more fertiliser to replace that lost natural health costs money. This is the recognition that finding ways to slow down the streams, holding back some of the water upstream, helps control erosion and flooding. Natural capital is recognising that farming is part of an ecosystem, not an ecosystem in itself.
It may have been a small paragraph tagged on the end of his speech to the OFC, but perhaps this is the most important challenge he has set himself: convincing everyone, especially the farmers, that the new approach to farming must consider the wider ecosystems, for their businesses sake as much as for all our sakes.
The Future? Gove’s aspirations set a positive tone to the huge period of change for farmers. There is a growing awareness of food and its provenance and a coherent food policy would bring many strands together. Similarly, growing environmental awareness means that we take a much keener interest in the rural world. But for the farmer, it is the business aspects that are the hardest to control. Knowing whether or not they are getting financial support and if so, when, can radically affect a business in any sector.
For Charles Matts, as for all farmers, it is the not knowing that is the hardest thing to bear – that and the fact that a change of Secretary of State can mean a change in aspirations.