Farm sustainability must be both environmental and financial – Joe Weston

Joe WestonIn this blog post, Future Farmer Joe Weston covers some key talking points from the National Farmers Union’s (NFU) recent virtual conference.

It is remarkable how little sheep notice when they have some freshly rolled barley in front of them and their heads are in the trough.

Even my young and extremely keen sheepdog will concede defeat and resort to pilfering protein from the lamb mix that has missed its intended target.

With everything that has been going on over the last year I realised recently that I too have had my own head in a metaphorical trough, barely raising from it to appreciate the ramifications of yet another lost active ingredient or the seemingly scarce morsel of good news.

I have found that throughout the pandemic, webinars haven’t held the same appeal as the ‘in person’ events do. They tend to lack the peer-to-peer knowledge exchange where the science and the theory is deciphered into real world interpretations of problems or opportunities.

Major NFU date

However, the opportunity to attend the NFU virtual conference, thanks to the Future Farmers of Yorkshire and the NFU North East office, was an opportunity not to be missed.

Not many industry events can boast a recorded address from the Prime Minister and attract the attendance of two Cabinet Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition.

Sustainable farming

Unsurprisingly, sustainability was at the heart of many of the messages being conveyed. Refreshingly though, this went beyond just considering the environment and it was re-iterated that for an agricultural business to be sustainable it must also be profitable. It seems that the Government wants to encourage ‘green growth’ by improving profit, reducing costs and improving natural assets along the way.

The Sustainable Farming Incentive looks like the first major step in this direction following our departure from the EU. The pilot scheme will open later this year and I’m sure we all hope that this will as successful as it is promised to be.

Payment for the scheme is set to take a ‘Natural Capital’ approach and will reward farmers for outcomes and improvements. It should prove to be more flexible than previous schemes and many previously ineligible features will now be recognised and rewarded if they have a positive impact.

Political promises

Reassuringly, all three Conservative MP’s assured us that the Government would not compromise on environmental, welfare or food safety standards in any trade talks.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss highlighted the great opportunity we have to market our ‘high value, high quality produce’ to the world but that this would not mean we would lower our food standards to secure a trade deal.

Working as a fieldsman for RS Cockerill, who are both a grower and a processor of potatoes, I was particularly interested in Defra Secretary of State George Eustice discussing his desire to increase transparency between suppliers and processors.

As costs of production increase and retailers squeeze the top line, we must remember that there are finite efficiencies left to be gained in the middle.

As the weather gradually improves and the land slowly dries out, it just shows that if we lift our head from the trough and take a look around then we might just see some positive signs starting to emerge in the distance.

Read: Small-scale abattoirs are key to sustainable meat production – Daniel Binns

More: YAS launches hare coursing survey

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Future Farmers of YorkshireJanet Hughes Q&A