The Agriculture Act 2020 slipped quietly into law last year. All change ahead as it takes over the driving seat from the 1947 Agric Act.
It’s time to get on board now.
Range of roving matters
A little context. Where to start? Let’s try 1970. The birth of the Range Rover, 6 types of open air combines, benchmark date for farmland bird populations, excitement of new farm kit, new pesticides (now banned), an explosion of supermarket choice. And a journey into Europe.
Wind forward through years of Common Agricultural Policy – with all its butter mountains, various reforms – to recent history. I found it unsettling to re-read my 1990 student project’s conclusion.
The ‘Health and Harmony‘ consultation was a creative attempt to link farming practices more harmonious with the environment, along with promoting healthier eating habits. The press enjoyed an Essex joke after my conversation with Minette Batters at Hay, though Michael Gove soon got the ball rolling in 2018 with clear hints as to the direction in my exclusive interview with him.
Of course, this journey stretches back way before 1970. A guest blog from the late Sir John Marsh reflects on this 1950s period – arguably setting a rose-tinted tone for some bucolic thinking about going backwards rather than forward.
Beyond Health & Safety
It’s important to acknowledge what farmers were historically asked to do by govt policy. Now discharged, forgotten and discarded 70 years after World War 2, these practices changed many ecosystems dramatically. Farmers were asked to plough uplands they didn’t wish to touch. Some died delivering it. Hedges grubbed, ponds filled in.
Three generations of farmers spanning 80 years are still sitting at the same kitchen table as this new era dawns. The cheque book may have moved, but not all minds may have. It is important context to be factored into a complex system facing deep psychological change.
Standard good practice
There’s much in the Ag Act still to unpick. Standards (food safety/animal welfare/environmental/farming practices – pick or mix conflate) have had an energetic outing. The Economist expressed some of the issues well in “Pig of problem” (free to read here).
The upcoming Environment Act will help stimulate fresh thinking. As long as it doesn’t stifle, overregulate or overrule creative innovative subsidy-free thinking. The Ag Act is bearing the grunt load of ‘RPA-administered‘ action charged with delivering public goods, nutritious food, and net zero by 2040. A tall order.
Semantics, reductionism, partisanship all cloud the field – as witnessed by the temporary use of neonic pesticides for sugar beet, to heather burning legislation. Dig out informed nuance where you can!
Small print, big issues
It’s worth exploring the Ag Act now. Sustainable Farming Incentive (now closed), Farming Investment Fund, Farm Resilience Fund (apply by 7 May), Innovation Research. Don’t leave it to others. Or too late. Or to consultants. It cries out for creative, at times disruptive discussions, even contrarian thinking.
Push for profitable realistically ambitious Enviro Land Management (E.L.M) schemes. Explore reverse auctions, hope for a pragmatic RPA, and practical productivity grants. Engage on public access (a letter in The Times). Stay in enviro schemes. Go a little wild on the fringes – spend less, create more. Destock, increase profits (listen to this podcast).
Find out what wildlife’s on your land, consider doing environmental stuff gratis – if only because it makes you proud!
There’s support for facilitated farmer groups (from machinery rings, buyer co-ops, to ‘producers’ of wildlife), and funds to upgrade failing slurry stores. Time to reform tenancies – to temper unsustainable rents to enable tenants to sustain family farms, mental health, soils and skylarks.
And, of course an overlooked element of the Ag Act. Funds for forestry activities. Especially when State of Nature reports unmanaged woodlands have a negative impact on biodiversity. So, fire up the chainsaw, and don’t forget to check ash trees for dieback decay.
A link to Defra’s start-of-the-journey booklet – they are seeking to co-design. There are robust tough farm kitchen discussions ahead (hopefully more face-to-face than online). Be curious around land sharing and sparing narratives at different scales: don’t fear becoming a land manager. Talk and walk with others. Shelve ideals and be open to ideas from all parties.
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuityGeneral George Patton
This is a live, adaptive blog! Updated anytime. Click links, be curious. Read between the lines. Engage. Leave a comment, however robust.
Addendum James Rebanks on challenges ahead in his 2018 talk to Iowa farmers – from 54min)