Politicians only achieve success when failure eludes them. I have been unable to find the origin of that epigram but I frequently find it apt if somewhat cynical. However, the best news this year is that we have achieved a trade deal with the European Union and punitive tariffs have been avoided. Of course, there will still be barriers to trade, not least the extra paperwork, and it will take time for the new arrangements to become familiar.
For most of us, especially farmers, 2020 was a horrendous year of which we are glad to see the back. For many arable farmers it was the worst year on record with harvest yields the lowest since the drought summer of 1976. The weather was extreme from an extraordinarily wet autumn and winter followed by a dry and sunny spring. And yet, the weather was only one of the three adverse factors with an impact on farming.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected us all and there were dire warnings, exacerbated by the Government’s increasingly stringent immigration policy, of a shortage of labour for the harvest of fruit and vegetables. In the event, there were few reports in the media of crops rotting in the field for lack of pickers.
One area of the rural economy to be hard hit by the pandemic was sport. Fishing was relatively unscathed as the end of the first lockdown coincided with the start of the game fishing season, 1st of May on the Town and Manor of Hungerford’s stretch of the River Kennet. But there was a significant impact on shooting right from the outset.
Commercial shoots rely on bookings and deposits to decide how many poults to release and to pay for them but guns were reluctant to put down a deposit for shooting that might never take place. In the event, there was a significant reduction in the number of birds released with some shoots deciding to close for the season. Even where shooting was planned, it was severely disrupted, particularly by the second lockdown in November and now Tier 4 restrictions.
The hospitality sector has had a torrid year although to some extent income was boosted by day visits and holidays in the UK rather than overseas, although not, of course, during lockdown. Fund raising has been hit hard from the cancellation of events from the village fete to point-to-points.
The third depressing factor was uncertainty about policy and trading relations after we left the EU. The fact that a deal was struck on Christmas Eve was a huge relief although what effect that will have on farmgate prices remains to be seen. Certainly the livestock sector, notable beef and sheep, would have been severely impacted by no deal.
The Government’s policy to replace the Common Agricultural Policy has been roundly criticised for its lack of detail and for not guaranteeing in law the rejection of imported produce that undermines our environmental and animal welfare standards. However, taking a broader view, this is the first time since 1947 that we have attempted to design a new purely British agricultural and land use policy. It is not surprising that it is taking time to thrash out the detail; better that than rushing into a regime that may not achieve the desired results.
The Government paper, The Path to Sustainable Farming, is an exciting vision of the future and is far more appropriate for our time than the cumbersome and anachronistic CAP. I believe it offers a good prospect for our agriculture but, of course, we have seen very little detail yet. But, to quote that old Irish joke, if that’s where we are going, we shouldn’t start from here! The question is how will farmers adapt to the changes and how many will not survive the journey?
So, as we start a new year, let us be optimistic, at least it cannot be any worse than 2020! Farmers will need to plan for the next seven years, indeed the best have already started. The priority must be to improve productivity which, for the arable farmer, is largely determined by soil health and fertility. New rotations of crops must be developed to get away from the focus on oilseed rape and wheat and to introduce restorative phases. Whilst it is not realistic to revert to grazing livestock across the country, it is hoped that ELMS will include grants to grow restorative crops such as grass and clover leys or leguminous rotational wildlife habitat such as pollen and nectar mixes.
There will be less emphasis on autumn and more on spring sowing, mostly after an over-winter cover crop. There will be a broader range of energy, fibre, pharmaceutical and industrial crops, especially as the climate changes. Soya beans offer great potential, they have the benefit of being a legume and thus restorative, and newer varieties more suited to UK conditions are now available.
Poorer land that cannot show a margin will be taken out of arable production and planted to trees or wildlife habitat. There will be a huge growth in opportunities to gain private money from public goods as companies seek carbon or biodiversity offsetting and other benefits. Water companies paying farmers to ensure cleaner water courses is already a well-established market. There is more opportunity for livestock farmers to add value but producers must consider changes in the nation’s diet, not least a reduction in the consumption of red meat.
The phasing out of direct subsidy will bring structural change especially as it is estimated that 60% of farms would be unprofitable if it were removed overnight. It is critical that farmers review their business and use the seven years of transition to find ways to be profitable without it. There are huge opportunities and those farmers able to seize them can be optimistic about the future.