Meeting Defra

Late night posts are never usually a good idea, but having just returned from an event down in mid Essex it seems right to pen my thoughts straight away, while it’s fresh in my head. This evening I went along to a Young Farmers Club event near Chelmsford, chaired by the ever inspiring Ed Ford (NFYFC chair). It was part of a series of similar sessions during which Young Farmers across the country can meet and speak with Defra civil servants. This was the turn of YFC members from the East of England. The Defra representatives (Andrew, Selena and John) told us that they were there ‘in listening mode’ and sure to form the amount of notes they scribbled away by the end of the night was impressive.  I just hope it equates to something positive in the long-term.

It’s a concerning time for everyone in the farming industry at the moment and uncertainty looms over us like a cloud that is threatening to rupture but never actually does so. This is the waiting period and it’s troubling for all. Planning ahead is tricky, and it was good to be able to speak through these concerns with others at the event. I myself have a number of plans for next year, taking the rather daunting leap into new enterprises (watch this space), the future of which depend hugely on the policy and economic climate in the coming years. I welcomed the opportunity therefore to voice my hopes and concerns with those who will be influencing the content of the future British Agricultural Policy and payments (if there is any money left once the Treasury has gifted it left right and centre to other departments! – I joke, but this might prove to be the case)

What were Defra particularly interested in and what did we tell them?

Andrew outlined ‘five pillars’ of interest so far as the policy makers are concerned:

  • Productivity and growth
  • Resilience
  • Environmental Outcomes
  • Animal and Plant Health and Welfare
  • Rural Growth

One might look at these and think they are vague and meaningless, but I got the impression that those who hold the future strings are keen to adapt them to the real concerns and wishes of those who work on the ground. This said, the critical restriction, and reading between the lines this seems increasingly clear, is that there is going to be a lot less money available in future; a lot less. The money that is available must give maximum value for money for the taxpayer. Personally I believe there are many things farmers do already that justify the public paying for; but as a sector farmers still need to put this across more explicitly.

There was actually a great deal of consensus within the room when it came to thinking about the issues faced by young farmers, and how to solve some of them. Each table gave lengthy feedback on some of the things that are working well at the moment and should continue post-Brexit, as well as some of the things that perhaps don’t work quite so well.

How best to manage risk and volatility was a key issue of the night, as were a plethora of other subjects including training, technology, getting a foot on the farming ladder, access to land, bureaucracy, robotics and technology, CPD (Continuing Professional Development), the future of conservation on farmland, developing brand Britannia, dealing with competition from abroad, productivity, subsidy, investment…indeed the list was immense.

I want to thank Ed and YFC for organising the event, and Defra for funding it. I know how useful these sessions can be – Defra funded an event I organised with NFYFC on behalf of A Focus on Nature, held at Loddington a couple of weeks ago for young farmers and conservationists, which will hopefully blossom into something broader. By talking and meeting together we can help build consensus, whether we are farmers, policy makers, conservationists, young, old, urban or rural. Never has there been a more important time to air views when it comes to the countryside, farming and the environment in the UK and I was glad to have this opportunity.

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