Full report – Future Farmers Spring Debate 2023

Farming’s culture is being challenged by the so-called regenerative agriculture movement, with its role in shaping resilient and profitable farming futures at the heart of the debate, a packed audience of Future Farmers of Yorkshire heard at the Great Yorkshire Showground.

Some 240 farmers and allied industry professionals took part in a lively Spring Debate held by the Future Farmers of Yorkshire network, a group supported by farming charity, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to bring together like-minded farmers, vets and industry supporters.

Farmers were asked to consider whether they can carry on farming in the same way they have done for decades, at a time when farm input costs have reached all-time highs and existing farm support payments are being phased out, amid an ever-growing population and the challenges posed by a changing climate.

Regenerative agriculture approaches have been adopted by some farmers as a way of adapting to these challenges, with ‘regen ag’ perhaps best defined as prioritising soil health on farms.

Its key principles are avoiding soil disturbance, keeping the soil surface covered, keeping living roots in the soil, growing a diverse range of crops and incorporating grazing animals.

At the Spring Debate, a panel of industry speakers examined these principles as they answered the question ‘Is regenerative agriculture the future for all UK farmers?’

Challenging the clique

Opening the Debate as Chair, Andrew Meredith, Editor of Farmers Weekly, recognised that Regenerative Agriculture is a divisive topic.

Andrew Meredith

Andrew, a former beef and sheep farmer in Mid-Wales said:

If we are honest with ourselves farming is definitely a club, but sometimes it is a bit of a clique, and if I was guessing as to your motives for why you have come here this evening, it’s because regen as a topic has attracted a lot of contention; it is seen by some farming people as a bit of a challenge to the clique.

Time to ‘sit up and think’

Picking up the topic, Alastair Trickett who runs a mixed arable and sheep farm near Leeds defined regenerative agriculture as “a way of farming which seeks to mimic nature as closely as possible whilst also achieving a sustainable profit for your business”.

Alastair Trickett

Alastair, a co-founder of Grassroots Farming which supplies beef from regenerative farms to restaurants, argued that all farms will be regenerative in the future because of political will to incentivise environmental outcomes on farms and meet net zero targets, public interest in the environment and climate change mitigation, and the direction of corporate business.

Alastair said:

Over the last three years, corporates with combined annual turnovers of $1.4trillion have made public commitments to procure from regenerative farms.

That should be making every single one of us sit up and think ‘am I going to be swept up by that, or am I going to be a little island on my own?

Reinventing the wheel?

Bradley Sykes, a first-generation farmer based near Selby, who has a contracting and farm business growing potatoes, carrots, wheat, barley and peas, said regen ag is a reinvention of farming practices of old.

Bradley Sykes

Bradley emphasised the need for regen practices to equate to profitable farming.

If you look back to our ancestors and what they were doing with rotation, incorporating muck, crop rotation; everything they did is what we are being told to look at now.

Bradley said, adding that he believes he already farms regeneratively by, for example, not ploughing to plant potato crops.

Bradley concluded:

If regenerative farming helps our system to create profit, then we should do it, but if it doesn’t, why are we bothering?

Promising results

As a grazier in Aberdeenshire, Nikki Yoxall collaborates with landowners to help them achieve regenerative goals using cattle as ‘ecological engineers’ to boost plant species diversity, habitat creation and carbon sequestration.

Nikki Yoxall

Nikki believes the benefits of regenerative agriculture are becoming clear.

She said:

Again and again we hear from farmers that moving to regenerative systems has reduced the need for inputs, both to the land and animals.

Animal losses have reduced, fertility is up, systems are more resilient, and the business has more scope to cope with shocks and change.

For the last century, farmers have stressed the top line and prioritised increasing production.

Regenerative agriculture addresses cost and sees profit as more important than production.

Important to be adaptable

Doug Dear, a fourth-generation farmer at Osgodby Grange near Selby, explained why he believed it was crucial to remain adaptable as a farmer amid evolving trends and challenges, and why he would not be dogmatically tied to regenerative agricultural principles.

A phrase I use is ‘adaptive till’, so that’s min and max till, some ploughing and direct drilling on my farm.

Whatever suits the crop and the land on the day. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is geared towards efficiency.

An acre covered for the least cost is the way forward. Our main driver in the business is profit.

Doug, whose family run arable and animal feedlot businesses, already use manure as a natural fertiliser for a wide variety of cropping and uses crops to graze sheep and as feed to finish about 3,500 cattle year.

Doug Dear

Doug said:

Mixed farming has been rebranded as regenerative farming. What am I going to do when the planet shifts, which it does on a regular basis?

I’m going to adapt to survive in whatever form that might take and I’m going to move on.

Keep talking

Andrew Meredith concluded that a key frustration of regen advocates was that too often its principles get lost in “farming’s culture war”, adding:

This is a brilliant debate within farming, how to achieve margins and business resilience, and I think that’s a debate we should seek to continue to have in the future.

The Future Farmers of Yorkshire’s Spring Debate was held at Pavilions of Harrogate at the Great Yorkshire Showground on the evening of 6th March 2023,  sponsored by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and McCain Foods.

GYS Breakfast Meeting

Save the date for Wednesday 12th July 2023 for the Future Farmers of Yorkshire’s Breakfast Meeting at the 164th Great Yorkshire Show.

If you haven’t attended our GYS get-together before and would like a flavour of what to expect, click here to read our report from last year’s Breakfast Meeting.

GYS Breakfast Meeting

To access the Breakfast Meeting at this year’s Show, a valid Great Yorkshire Show admission ticket for Wednesday 12th July 2023, or a 2023 Yorkshire Agricultural Society membership pass is required.

Wednesday is traditionally the Show’s most popular day, visitor numbers are capped and tickets are only available in advance and so we advise booking your tickets sooner rather than later to avoid disappointment.

More details about the 2023 Breakfast Meeting will be announced ahead of the Show. Stay tuned for updates on our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

And if you aren’t a member of Future Farmers already, and you would like to receive our e-newsletters sharing all our latest news and opportunities, join us here.

Membership of Future Farmers is free and is open to everyone with a stake in British agriculture.

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