The challenge facing farming is now greater than ever before

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LOVELY weather again, although the frosty mornings are holding growth back; but its dry and sunny therefore no complaints.

Lorayne is worried about the magnolia trees, will the frost spoil the blossom, or are they not sufficiently forward to be damaged? Time will tell. In the woods I have seen the first wood anenomies and violets - which I think is early. Primroses are in flower, as are speedwell and celandine.

All the grassland has now had its first dressing of fertilizer at Crouchlands, and we wait to see when it might be best to apply the second dressing for the silage ground.

We have been out with the vacuum tanker, spreading dirty water on silage ground, which really is very early on the clay. Let’s hope we can continue with this activity for some time to come, as it is far better than chemical fertilizer and of course somewhat cheaper.

The grass at Tillington remains on a knife edge, as we hold the heifers back as much as possible, allowing the pasture in front to grow.

Gwenan has managed to gain one day more than I targeted, which is vitally important. I am more confident this week than I was seven days ago, but we are not out of the woods yet.

At Crouchlands the grass is moving very slowly, and we are a very long way from any excitement regarding turnout here.

n The Women’s Institute is holding debates up and down the country regarding the future of farming, showing concerns over large scale farms; calling for them to be banned.

The NFU has in the past worked very closely with the WI on many occasions, harnessing their communication and lobbying power. This time, we find ourselves at odds with this latest proposal, but fully prepared to engage in the debate. NFU President will be addressing the WI Conference later this year, but in the meantime, all farmers will have an interest in this debate.

I welcome this debate, I think it is overdue and we should discuss with society at large how we produce our food in this country.

It is an opportunity to try and get across some facts regarding where we are as a country, what the challenges are, how we might meet them and what we do not want ruled out. There is huge media interest and single issue groups dominate the debate with all sorts of emotional and spectacular headlines such as ‘mega farms’ or super farms’.

This is unhelpful in a rational debate, and we need to engage the ‘silent majority’; ordinary consumers who buy food and look for value, high standards and good taste.

Many underestimate the contribution agriculture makes to the UK economy; the rural economy is in fact worth £300 billion a year, and employs 5.5 million people.

When it comes to looking after the landscape and nature, almost two thirds of the farmed land (16 million acres) in this country is in conservation agreements.

You would think listening to some organisations that whole scale destruction is taking place.

The truth is that our rivers are cleaner, and we have more trees in this country than we have had in our recent history.

Size of farm often has little to do with the type of activity taking place.

Very often, smaller farms in dairy for example can be intensive as far as high yields and high output per cow and per acre are concerned; indeed for many in dairy areas, land is often the limitation, and therefore they need high production in order to survive. In other areas of the country, more extensive systems are employed, some of these are very large, but output per cow or acre can be much lower.

It is a myth that large scale necessarily goes hand in hand with ‘intensive’. Not that this makes any difference of course; it is the quality of the management and stock-manship which determines the welfare standards and economic performance of any farm.

Some organizations have very fixed views on ‘systems’, but again the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a panel of experts who advise government have declared that what matters is how various types of farming systems are run is what counts for good welfare, and not the system itself.

The RSPCA has declared that ‘Large units can provide good welfare’. It is true that different types of dairy cows need to be treated differently, and the right cow under the right management in the right system is as content as the next cow.

The vast majority of dairy cows in this country are inside for the winter and out in the summer, with only a few cows kept in all year, or outside all year.

These two systems need more specialist knowledge and expertise, and are run by farmers who have that expertise and dedication.

It is a challenge to explain to the general public that grazing is very hard work for a cow, and it is often intensively managed due to the nature of grass growth.

There are less than a hundred farms in this country producing more than four million litres a year, but 5,000 farms producing less than half a million litres with the others in between; the average these days being around 120 cows producing just over a million litres of milk.

The trend is very clear though, farms are getting bigger as the challenge of regulation, cheaper food and higher standards takes its toll.

This is true both in Europe and the rest of the world, and will continue to be so. It is a trend that will see fewer larger farms, and more part-time farmers.

n The challenges ahead of us now are greater than ever before. We are being asked to produce more food, with higher animal welfare standards, lower environmental impact and footprint, whilst not increasing food prices to our customers.

That is a massive challenge, but we are up for it as an industry, and it is science and technology, coupled with good management and skills which will enable us to succeed, and not myth, misconception and emotion.

There has been severe underinvestment in agriculture over the past 20 years, due to low returns and the mistaken assumption by government that food can be imported into this country without limitation.

Many farmers are willing to invest, and failure to carry out this investment will be to the detriment of the industry as welfare and environmental regulations cannot be met. In pigs and poultry, state of the art buildings with improved ventilation and space, push the welfare standards of these sectors higher, and proper labeling will play an important part in protecting this investment from cheaper imported foods produced to a much lower standard.

I look forward to this debate, as I happen to think that food security, food quality, and price (value), will depend on it being won.

It will not be easy; we are up against powerful organizations, who each have one angle or issue to pedal.

‘Sustainable Intensification’ is what is needed according to the Government’s ‘Forsythe Report’; that takes a bit of explaining and I do not underestimate the challenge.

I hope farmers across the country will engage in all the WI branches; we have a very good story to tell, and we should not shy away from engagement.