Summary from the South of England Farming Conference 2023

The South of England Agricultural Society held its annual Farming Conference at the South of England showground on 1st November, with over 200 landowners, agriculturalists, and industry representatives from the South East in attendance in person and online. 


Having hosted the conference for over 20 years, the Society chose this year’s central theme to be a critical examination of whether we can save the planet from a farming perspective.


Society trustee Tom Gribble introduced the event, which featured a discussion led by BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today host, Charlotte Smith, alongside Sue Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Food, Farming, and Countryside Commission (FFCC), and Phil Jarvis, Chair of Albanwise Farming and Environment.




During the panel discussion, the challenges confronting farmers were a central focus. These challenges included issues like flooding, policy changes, biodiversity, climate change, supply chain pressures, and the influence of social campaigns.


Phil emphasised the rapid and significant shifts in weather patterns, citing examples such as floods and wildfires that had occurred within a short time frame. He noted that the scale and speed of these changes were particularly challenging. He also pointed out that market volatility, strategic uncertainties, global dynamics, and the impact of social media further compounded the challenges. Despite these difficulties, Phil highlighted the resilience of farmers in tackling these issues head-on.


Sue acknowledged the overwhelming nature of the challenges, particularly in the context of climate change and its potential for reaching critical tipping points. She stressed the lack of a blueprint for the future and the uncertainty surrounding the impacts of climate change on various sectors, not just farming.


Sue underscored the necessity of confronting these challenges, asking tough questions, and working together to find solutions – how farmers are at the front line of changes, experiencing it on their farms, in the soil, and in the quality of their grass and crops. She emphasised that there are no easy answers or straightforward blueprints, but those farmers who are really rolling up their sleeves and actively engaging in the mass of learning it are the ones who are likely to navigate their way through this more successfully.




While Charlotte pointed out that there is no such thing as a standard farm, stressing the diversity of farming operations, Phil and Sue were then asked about the changes required in farming, whether they should be minor adjustments or major shifts in approach.


Phil highlighted several fundamental aspects of addressing changes, including the importance of effective business planning and making sure the financial aspects of farming are sustainable. He also mentioned the need to explore opportunities in the environmental sector, such as those related to Sustainable Farming Initiatives (SFI), and to surround oneself with a supportive community to navigate the challenges effectively. Phil suggested starting with a comprehensive farm review. Things like the LEAF wheel, covering areas like soil, energy, and wildlife, could be a practical approach to address these changes.


Sue expressed some scepticism about the term ‘regenerative farming’ and its potential for greenwashing, instead preferring to use agroecology for a more defined and holistic approach. She talked about the importance of considering not only farming practices, but also the governance of food systems and the fair distribution of risks and rewards. She then shed light on invisible players in the food system, such as commodity traders, and their significant profits, which were up 23% in the last year despite the rest of us struggling through a cost-of-living crisis, and farmers and food prices having a massive impact on the till. She encouraged asking critical questions about the fairness and sustainability of the current food and farming system. 


Phil added that regardless of the terminology, the key was to maintain profitability on the farm by implementing changes. He discussed potential cost-saving measures, such as reducing cultivations and exploring wide rotations to address pests, weeds, and diseases. He also highlighted the importance of practices like soil covering with living roots for soil conservation. Phil emphasised that the mindset of embracing these changes was crucial and that these practices could lead to win-win situations, enhancing profitability.




Sue questioned who should bear the costs of these changes, saying: “If you’re going to start really doing the work that’s needed, start doing your worm cans, start investigating your soil, start managing your hedgerows. If you’re going to start doing all of those component parts that are needed to build more resilience in your farm, then that has a cost. It has an immediate cost but also a consistent cost. We might be able to stomach it for a year, but is that cost built into our business plan, and if it isn’t, who needs to pay for it.”


Phil acknowledged the cost implications of these changes and noted that, while farming has become more efficient over the past 40 to 50 years, it could still be better, but the marketplace often did not reward these efforts. He called for a more functional marketplace where farmers are adequately rewarded. He also mentioned the role of government support as an incentive to encourage farmers to embrace these changes and highlighted the need for signposts to guide the transition.


The discussion then moved on to government policy and subsidies in farming, with Sue expressing the need to change the language around subsidies. She suggested that instead of referring to them as subsidies for farmers, they should be viewed as government investments aimed at helping the entire farming sector transition to a sustainable and resilient footing, aligning with the national interest – similar to how when the government was investing in renewable energy and using devices like the feed-in tariffs, it was considered to be an entirely appropriate economic incentive to help shift a whole sector from where it was to where it needs to be.


Charlotte noted the differences in the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) across the UK, with England receiving half of what it was pre-Brexit, while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland maintain their previous levels. She asked how this would affect farmers when transitioning to the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), where payments are tied to specific actions.


Phil acknowledged that SFI payments might be less but emphasised again the potential for win-win situations. He mentioned practices like covering crops, integrated pest management (IPM), and preserving hedgerows to enhance existing farming practices. He also noted that implementing some of these practices might lead to cost savings in other areas, such as herbal lays and natural pollinators, making it worth considering the transition.




Charlotte highlighted that some farmers are reluctant to participate in government schemes due to concerns that the rules may change in the future. Phil recognised the frustration stemming from policy changes but maintained that it’s worth pursuing such schemes as a source of income if farmers have the patience to follow through.


Sue pointed out that the effectiveness of these government schemes varies, with some farmers better equipped to navigate them, while others face challenges based on their farm type and existing practices. She mentioned that in Wales, support for organic farming is being phased out, leaving little room for additional actions for those who have already implemented environmentally friendly practices such as riparian corridors, woodland, unimproved grassland, and species-rich grassland. She also highlighted concerns in upland areas where landowners might end tenancies in favour of rewilding or natural capital solutions, potentially leading to unintended consequences.


Phil echoed these concerns, noting that some farmers have protected valuable assets with their existing practices. He warned that if governments don’t provide the right incentives or support, some farmers might abandon these practices or revert to more profitable but less sustainable approaches, again leading to unintended negative outcomes. He highlighted the need for well-thought-out and coherent planning when it comes to implementing changes in the farming sector, calling for a more rapid pace of change, emphasising that change management should be more efficient and comprehensive, stating: “Our strategy should be that we have secure food, safe food, affordable food and it should be looking at farming environmentally responsibly. We can have consortiums, but someone needs to take some leadership and say this is what we are doing.”


Sue introduced the ‘equation for change,’ consisting of three components: identifying current dissatisfaction, defining a better future vision, and outlining the methods to reach that vision. These components must collectively outweigh the pain or cost of change. Sue noted that not all stakeholders are dissatisfied with the current state, and some are profiting from the status quo. To drive change, new incentives and a shared vision of the future are necessary. Additionally, there are disparities in the tools and resources available for transitioning to more sustainable practices, such as various carbon toolkits and natural capital markets, which lack proper regulation and oversight.


Sue emphasised the importance of creating conditions for stakeholders to come together and build a broad consensus on the necessary changes and the support required to achieve them. The discussion highlighted that while challenges exist, solutions can be found through effective collaboration and planning in the farming sector.




Later in the discussion, the importance of strategy in agriculture was brought up. Charlotte listed various strategies she’d spoken about in the last week alone on BBC’s Farming Today, including a land-use strategy, a food security strategy, a public procurement strategy, and a water strategy. 


Phil emphasised the need for a clear and concise strategy that includes objectives, action plans, and measurements for success, stating: “The problem currently is that no one (government) is getting past the aims and objectives stage; they are just having meeting after meeting – they don’t have a timeline and they don’t implement anything or measure it. We never get to the point where a written script is transferred into an executive summary, then into a task force that gets on and does it.”


Sue, on the other hand, highlighted the complexity of the global food system and the diversity within the farming sector. She said: “The global commodities traders, the global chemical companies, the global food process and companies such as Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo, all have a whole set of interests in the food system which are about maximising shareholder value, and what shareholders expect of them. They are operating in multiple political jurisdictions, in countries all over the world, and in each of those countries, they are doing what they can to maximise value for themselves.”


She argued that while setting frameworks and providing clear direction is essential, individual farmers should be free to create their own strategies based on their specific conditions and context. Both Phil and Sue stressed the importance of government support, policy levers and guardrails to help farmers rather than imposing a single overarching strategy.




Discussing the issue of fairness and transparency in the food supply chain, Sue highlighted the significant power imbalance beyond the farm gate – where food processing companies (often invisible to citizens and consumers) and national retailers play a substantial role in determining the composition of the food on consumers’ plates, often leading to highly processed and unhealthy diets. She emphasised how, in the UK at the moment, 60% of our diet is now made up of ultra-processed foods, which is by far the highest in Europe and just about the same as the US, so there is a need for society to address the implications of this for health and waste.


Phil pointed out the impact of world trade on fairness in the marketplace and the challenges of ensuring that food labelled as from the UK is genuinely produced in the UK. He called for supporting farmers in supplying the local market to keep food production in the countryside and reduce dependence on global supply chains.




Sue and Phil discussed the need for more equitable relationships between buyers and producers in the food industry. How what we’re seeing now in the arguments around red and green tractors is revealing the unasked and unanswered questions about who pays for the kind of farming that we want. Citizens want farming to be fair and sustainable, greener and healthier, and the government to support farmers. 


Sue mentioned how the “Get Fair for Farming” campaign, which called for buyers to honour contracts, payments, and quantities as agreed, was clear and easy to get behind. She emphasised the importance of addressing the challenges consumers face in making sustainable and ethical choices when shopping, as they are currently frustrated by the dilemma of whether to buy local, organic, seasonal, fair trade, plastic-free, plant-based, etc. when they are rushing around a supermarket.


Phil pointed out that while the marketplace often does not reward environmentally sustainable practices, farmers are increasingly required to meet higher environmental standards. He raised concerns about the monitoring and costs associated with the Green Tractor initiative and questioned who benefits from the data collected. He also highlighted the positive aspects of the red tractor and its role in ensuring food safety standards for British farmers while acknowledging the challenges facing the farming sector.




When asked about their visions for a more sustainable and healthier future for agriculture and food in the UK, Sue emphasised the importance of investing in changes that lead to growing healthier, ecologically suitable food in the country. She envisioned a future with minimal food processing, increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, sustainable meat and dairy, and many more pulses and legumes (including use for fertility building and livestock rotations), and a more varied landscape with enhanced natural features like hedgerows, woodlands, and regenerated peatlands and wetlands that are performing the functions they should be.


Sue also emphasised the role of public money and procurement in supporting healthy food from UK farmers, ensuring access to nutritious food for everyone, especially in schools and hospitals, stating: “Kids will be having good healthy food cooked by chefs in schools every single day, hospitals will be serving good quality food, and we’ll be valuing food almost like the fifth emergency service – fundamental to our health and well-being, we will recognise that if we can fix food, the planet and our health, it will give us so much more scope, shape and opportunity to live a more fairer, more sustainable life in the future.”


Phil recognised the pressures on the land due to population growth and economic complexities. Still, he stressed that farming is vital in achieving environmental responsibility and improving soil health. He believed that farming holds solutions to many of these challenges and can contribute to a better future.




In a short conclusion, Sue emphasised the necessity of saving the planet from an agricultural perspective, stating, “We don’t really have a choice. The alternative is pretty grim. So the question is not can we, but how can we.” 


Phil expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Yes. We’re going to have to. We have got to get ourselves in a place whereby, first and foremost, if we’re producing food, we’ve got to do it sustainably.”


Following the talks, the panel received questions and debated the topic. Tom Gribble then concluded the evening, thanking sponsors and the audience for their participation.

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