On Wednesday 13th November the South of England Agricultural Society hosted its annual Farming Conference at the South of England Showground in Ardingly, West Sussex.
Bringing together over 250 farmers, landowners, agriculturalists, and industry representatives from across the South of England, the topic of conversation centred around ‘From Uncertainty to Opportunity’ considering whether, Brexit or otherwise, the industry has a positive future.
Chaired by BBC presenter Charlotte Smith, panel guests included Richard Self, Agricultural Manager for Co-operatives UK, Julian Marks, MD of Barfoots of Botley Ltd, and Kent farmer Owen Piper of M.A. Piper & Son Farms. After each panel representative had delivered their presentations, the over-riding message from all was clear – whether Brexit happens or not makes no difference, farmers and the industry must adapt, collaborate, diversify, and view 2020 as a year of opportunity.
Owen Piper explained the direct success of his family’s farming business has stemmed from diversification, including holiday, commercial and residential lettings, establishing vineyards, solar panels, grass seed and more. On the future of the industry he said: “We as an industry all too often don’t separate the business from being a lifestyle, making it too easy to get decisions wrong. I want to stress that on every farm there are seemingly small and insignificant things one can change. Being future proof doesn’t mean huge structural business changes or investment. I think, for a lot of us, it just means being better at what we do.” He added: “Policy makers now have a huge opportunity with the end of European subsidy on the horizon, and a clean start with the Agriculture Bill, to assist farmers in accessing the tools they need, to be sustainable businessmen and women in the future. We also need to work collectively to make this an attractive industry to work in for the next generation, as people are the future.”
Richard Self used the conference to highlight just how far behind the UK farming market is regarding co-operatives – only 6% of the UK market is from farming co-operatives. Richard, backed by all panel guests, stressed that now is the time for farmers to recognise the difference between independence and individualism, as well as recognise the role that collaboration and co-operation play in the future of farming to facilitate change, help make farmers more productive and internationally competitive, and make supply chains fairer for the primary producer. He expressed how strategic reviews are critical, and risk management at this uncertain time of change is crucial.
Julian Marks concluded the presentation by addressing how farmers must now just accept the ongoing climate, political, legislative, and environmental consumer challenges. He explained why Barfoots had taken the business decision to expand into the global market and adapt their supply chain strategy via exclusive joint growing ventures to drive competitive advantage. A poignant quote within his presentation that resonated with the audience was one from an American general – “Gentlemen, you might not like change, but you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Julian’s final comments on the future included: “Our aim needs to be to ensure that we are not irrelevant and that we, through innovation, through differentiation, through driving efficiency, through being better, through everything we do, that we are able to survive.”
Summarising the event, Duncan Rawson, a Nuffield Scholar sponsored by the South of England Agricultural Society and organiser of this year’s Farming Conference said: “Given the uncertainty facing the industry at this time, it was fantastic to hear from speakers who see opportunity ahead of them. There will be challenges, but for those who are prepared to adapt, the future can be an exciting place.”
The Society also hosted a technical forum ahead of the main conference. Chaired by Doug Jackson of NFU Mutual, and Vice-President of Sussex YFC, the forum brought together several experienced speakers discussing this year’s subject ‘Harnessing the best of technology to drive productivity’ including Stuart Hill, Head of Technology & Innovation for Hutchinsons crop production specialists, David White, co-founder of RTKF, and Duncan Rawson, Partner at European Food & Farming Partnerships.
The 2019 South of England Farming Conference was sponsored by CLM, Mayo Wynne Baxter, Richard Place Dobson, Hutchinsons, Lloyds Bank and Fram Farmers with media sponsor South East Farmer.