Real Results Roadshows Sustainability Blog

01.05.2020

Mike Green, York

With the UK under lockdown and lives up-ended in an instant by the spread of Covid 19 across the globe, farming has continued. In this key industry, growers across all types of agricultural systems; organic, conservation and intensive are working to help to be part of the solution, by supplying food.

Against this sudden, shocking and largely unforeseen backdrop, arable growers are having to prepare for change. A change from Direct Payments to the proposed payments for Environmental Land Management and in order to get through it growers will have to to take a long hard look at their business’ performance in order to find ways to become financially stronger.

Speaking at the BASF Real Results Roadshow in February, Mike Green, Agricultural Sustainability Manager for the company said, “It is possible for agricultural systems to be profitable and deliver the Government’s environmental policy.

BASF have invested £1.4 million into data gathering on their Agronomy and Sustainability Farms at Rawcliffe Bridge in Yorkshire and The Grange in Northampton to show that this is the case.”

Data has been collected and collated on biodiversity metrics such as the number and species of birds, butterflies, moths and bees using farmland to show those who shape agricultural policy, and others, that  farmland is profitable and also delivers a healthy environment.

In 2011 the Government committed to the objective, “to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited” and two years ago the 25 Year Environment Plan was published, highlighting what needs to be done to achieve this objective. This will be done  through legislation contained in the Agricultural Bill which was going through Parliament prior to the pandemic. Its aim is to boost productivity and reward environmental improvements in the farming sector; at the heart of this is the principle of public money for public goods.

Mike said, “Public goods is an invented term which can mean whatever we want it to, but in terms of the Agriculture Bill it will be: clean air; reductions in environmental hazards and pollution; thriving plants and wildlife; clean water; mitigation and adaptation measures to minimise the impact of climate change and enhanced landscapes. These are the services which enable  a thriving natural environment alongside local food production.”

Agricultural systems already deliver many public goods. However, in order that they can be measured and valued, the industry needs to learn to describe them, for example  the value of precision application to clean air is not known or costed. For those environmental assets which already have recognised measures, Mike said, “Growers should establish baselines and then measure annually, keeping records to show their progress.”

There will be a transition period over which the  Direct Payments will be phased out. This is due to start in 2021 and run for seven years.

Mike said, “There is likely to be a very real cut in money coming on farm when Direct Payments are reduced. Growers need  to take a critical look at their businesses, as it is likely that many are currently unprofitable when subsidy money is removed.

It’s all about deciding break even points; the key is to find out where the cropping can’t be profitable and remove it from production. Yield mapping is a very useful tool for this, it shows where the areas of break even and below are, however, often they are very spread out across the field, so care has to be taken that profitable land is not taken out of production when the line is drawn.

If you can’t make a profit from a bit of land, think about another income stream. An agri- environment scheme may allow you to make a profit but don’t go into it unless you can spend the time on it.

It may be better to use your time to think about all the possible ways the yield could be pulled up, for instance through agronomy, or adopting different techniques and innovations in order to make a profit.”

For farmers new to environmental work or hoping to do more than they currently do, the transition period will also allow them time to understand how new schemes can work best for their farm.

Mike said, “The Government’s aspiration is to have half a million hectares of land in biodiversity measures over the next 25 years. In a country  with 15 million hectares of arable and grassland, it is clear that we’ve got to think carefully as to where that will come from. We don’t want to be taking profitable arable food producing land out of production, but we could deliver some of it with arable field margins, we know how to do that in a range of different options styles.”

The UK Government has set a goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. For this to be achieved agricultural land will have to be released for actions that reduce emissions and sequester carbon. This can be done through low carbon farming practices such as controlled release fertilisers to reduce emissions from soils; afforestation and agro-forestry and bioenergy crops.

Mike said, “Up to 20% of agricultural land could have to be used for these purposes in order to meet the target, which, will involve an extra 53 000 ha of trees and energy crops being planted annually from now until 2050.”

An area which has been brought sharply into focus during this hellish pandemic is food security. The UK is not self-sufficient in food production, importing just under half of the food consumed. Time will tell if recent  empty shelves in supermarkets will change the Government’s or the population’s view on the importance of increasing our self-sufficiency. In this uncertain time, one thing is clear, change is likely to be at the  top of the agenda for the foreseeable future.

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