Recently I noted that at Agritechnica the UK farmers were not really investing, that they were in a state of uncertainty about the future. This week in Oxford (at the Oxford Farming Conference) you could feel that change. There were many announcements indicating business as usual and funding as usual for the next few years. Beyond then it was clear that funding was only to be for services to the environment. The clear message was “you have five years to get yourself ready to farm very differently.” At last some certainty.
The theme of the conference was ‘Embracing Change’, this is hardly something that SoilEssentials customers need to be persuaded to do and all of you have worked with us to create change in your businesses. So, much of the conference was about data – digital, precision, drones etc. All the sort of things that we engage with daily. It was also putting the environment to the fore, again reflecting much of the work we do. All fine words, but have we heard them before? I would say we have, but this time there does appear to be real drive behind these proposed changes. I was interested to see how ready for change everyone really was and twice I saw a return to type that worried me.
During a discussion on data, an elderly, energetic farmer commented that back in the day the key man on the farm was the man who was good with a horse, then he was replaced by the man at home with a spanner (to keep machinery going) and that he now sees that the next key man will be using the keyboard and studying data, and that was why he saw that his time had come to retire. It was interesting that the key man was never considered to be someone who knew about crops, meat, markets, soil or business. This continuing belief that farming is about the non-business side of the equation slightly concerns me. Also it reminded me that SoilEssentials had the responsibility to supply data back to farming companies in a form that does not require them to be data experts to use it. That the farmer must still be an expert primarily on sales and production, on business and people.
A much stronger concern came on a debate on the last day, entitled “The birds and the bees.” This was about what we had to produce environmentally and how this might be achieved. The undercurrent for this story was that there is £3 billion at the moment in the pot for agriculture and in the future there may be about the same for delivering environmental benefits through agriculture. The more this was discussed the more I could see that there were a lot of people looking for their slice of this cake. In short, one solution might be to set measurable targets for farmers to achieve and pay them if they achieve them. The mechanism would be an incentive and the entrepreneurial farmer would work out how to achieve this. Instead, everyone seemed to be looking for money for research, for running schemes, training farmers etc. There is a great danger, in my opinion, that farmers will only end up with a small percentage of this money and often the costs of receiving the money may be more than the money itself. It is up to us to lobby for a simple target driven system which pays out to farmers rather than a complex series of schemes which keep a large entourage of advisers and hangers-on in jobs, that are, after all, costs.