With an uncertain future ahead for British farmers, it’s now time to get your ducks in a row, says SWFC Tom Tolputt
The slight lull in activity over the last few weeks has given many farmers time for reflection. And I think we all need to use this time wisely because it looks like British agriculture as we know it is about to change quite dramatically—and we all need to be ready.
A word to the wise
As a farm consultant, the potential impacts of trade negotiations with the United States of America (and the wider world), anticipated future reductions in farm subsidy, and the likelihood of a post-COVID-19 recession (where the public will have less to spend on things like food) causes me real concern—especially when I consider some of the farm business models that I work with. That’s not to mention the ‘new normal’ of extreme weather patterns many of us have had to contend with over the last six months that are linked to climate change.
In light of these challenges, it would be wise when reviewing your business to prepare for the worst-case scenario of a halving in farm-received subsidy (tapering to zero of BPS, Stewardship agreements coming to an end and uncertainty about the new ELMs payments) and a 10% reduction in the farm gate price of the materials that the farm produces. When these two things are combined it can have a dramatic and sobering impact on the potential cash flow and profitability of many farm businesses, and highlight the fact that we all need to plan ahead.
We’ve actually gone through this process for our organic beef and arable farm business here in Cornwall and the outcome was quite chilling. As a result, we made two immediate decisions: first, to ensure we’re making full use of the land area we have available and, second, to rationalise the business and get rid of anything that is not making a profit.
But I would also strongly advise that farmers start to explore any practical measures that could help improve overall farm resilience. More on that below.
It’s not all doom and gloom
But it’s not all doom and gloom, and all is not lost with this worst-case scenario. The NFU’s campaign to highlight the potential (negative) impacts of a free-trade deal with the U.S. on British farmers and consumers has received over a million signatures—and counting. There is clearly a significant minority out there who are interested in food quality and recognise the importance of domestic producers for our future food security.
Empty supermarket shelves
At the same time, millions of desperate people turned to local farmers and growers (and independent shops and alternative suppliers) when the initial impact of COVID-19 meant that the supermarket shelves were bare. While many shoppers will obviously go back to the same old routine, that experience of buying local and direct won’t have been forgotten by all.
In light of the impact of COVID-19 on our food system, it is well worth considering if there are any opportunities to add value to your products, perhaps selling locally or online, or if there are ways to promote your farm produce in a positive manner to these potential new customers through a farm certification, for example.
If you’re looking to introduce a new enterprise to the farm or you’re thinking about going organic or getting Pasture for Life certification, we can help. SWFC’s Tom and Anna have been advising and supporting organic and grassfed farmers across the UK for over 15 years (click here to find out more!), as well as working with clients on pastured pig enterprises and, most recently, introducing a new 300-cow organic dairy to an arable farm.
What about wider opportunities for on-farm diversification? In light of the COVID-19 travel restrictions (and limited disposable incomes), many people will be looking at holidaying here in the UK this year and next. Agritourism is also growing rapidly as public interest in food, farming and wildlife continue to grow. Can you offer holiday accommodation or camping—or even glamping—on your farm? What about linking up with businesses your area who already provide camping to offer barbecue meat packs or other easy meal options for those that want a holiday but aren’t yet ready to venture into pubs and restaurants? (What about supplying those local restaurants anyway?)
What about potential opportunities to work with forward-looking arable farms, some who are looking to re-introduce livestock into their farm rotations to improve soil organic matter and soil health or resolve intractable weed problems (hello resistant blackgrass)?
Building resilience from the ground up
As well as assessing your business financials, the added threat of climate change makes looking at soil health and the overall resilience of your farming system ever more important.
Now is the time to look at grassland management and the potential to improve grazing resilience and forage production, for example. Have you considered deep rooting herbal leys or drought-resistant sainfoin to provide more reliable grazing and forage supplies? SWFC has been advising on (and growing!) diverse leys with a mix of species depending on farm location, soil type and what the ley will be used for. (Click here to read our Farmers Weekly article on establishing herbal leys.) There are a lot of different options out there and, in our opinion, some are much more useful than others. We can advise on what will work for you and your farm.
Similarly, measuring and managing carbon stocks on your farm is another key area to explore. Not only will building soil organic matter help to improve the overall resilience of your farming system (for example, improving infiltration rates in the wet and retaining moisture in the dry), but gathering actual data on your farm carbon status will enable you to communicate the benefits of your farming system to customers and potential funders and will stand you in good stead as policymakers increasingly look at ways to reward farms that are actively sequestering soil carbon and improving soil health, as well as traditional farmland biodiversity.
We’re excited to lead a large project to improve soil health and carbon sequestration and reduce costly inputs in the Cornish dairy sector. We’ll be soil scanning (above), testing & more
SWFC is already working with a number of farms to assess the overall carbon footprint of the farm – for example, using the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit but also on a field-by-field basis using a variety of techniques from hi-tech soil scanning to laboratory testing and in-field soil health assessments. We will not only help you get an idea of your current baseline position, but we can build a plan for short, medium and long term management changes to improve it.
We can help
Regardless of your circumstances, now is the time to get your ducks lined up so you are able to make the most of new prospects, as and when they arise.
If you would like to discuss the potential impacts and opportunities of this brave new farming world ahead, please do not hesitate to get in touch. We’ll do our best to help. Call for a no-obligation chat on 01503 220002 or send us a message on our Contact Page.