Rural Aspirations of a Semi-upland District

This is a response to the Government's consultation - Sustainable Food and Farming: Working Together - on the issues raised in the report from the Policy Commission on the Future of Food and Farming (the Curry Report). It was provided on the basis of research on rural aspirations that I carried out for a Metropolitan authority situated in a semi-upland area of Northern England. They are my views rather than those of the local authority. The first section is an overview of the findings from that district's rural community. The second section contains responses to the specific questions raised in the consultation.


The FMD outbreak of last year left few unmoved. Farmers are looking to their future with perhaps more urgency and there has undoubtedly been a more reflective mood amongst rural communities and their associated services, and a greater willingness to talk about future options.

Common issues face many farmers. They include concerns about the ageing farming population and young people leaving farming; the loss of local abattoirs and markets; falling incomes and the need for off-farm income; planning restraints and pressures to diversify; uncertainty about new access from the Right To Roam and the importance of tourism for the rural economy. There is also concern about the future use of rural landscapes, as this may become more pressing in semi-upland areas if there is not an upturn soon in farm incomes.

Overall, farmers are emphatic that they need to know from the public what is wanted from them so that they can produce a quality product that sells for the right price. They want solid markets to produce for and a sense of fairness in the supply and distribution chain, without the predominance of any one set of players such as the supermarkets. They sense that the current emphasis on product and market flexibility suits only the small-scale niche producer/processor. Instead, their business strategies are by necessity mostly based on mid to long-term plans that cannot easily be changed mid season in response to seeming fluctuations in agricultural policy or minority consumer demand.

A picture can be developed of rural land users being on top of immediate needs for information, but having less time or easy access to search out guidance on new information or options. It does exist for rural land users in the form of government initiatives (ERDP) and local or direct services (FBA, ADAS, FWAG and LEAF) but there are misperceptions about these services and a reluctance to engage with more presumed bureaucracy. There is a vital need for matching delivery with better promotion and accessibility. There is a strong case to be made for the need for Government to contract agencies to provide an extension service that operates in a more pro-active manner, working in partnership with sector farming organisations and local authorities, with the aim of taking information out to the farmer's place of work - be it their farm, local branch meeting or market.

Farmers have decreasingly few opportunities to meet together. In livestock producing areas, markets are a social occasion and often a means of relieving stress. Significantly, they also provide a very important means of receiving and passing on information. They are an opportunity to pool knowledge and experience of new schemes or regulations that periodically come out. Farmers often point to the difficulty in wading through every document that arrives, but with the spread of people at livestock markets it is possible to fill in the gaps from what others have read or experienced.

During the winter months, farmers who are members gather at local Branch meetings of the NFU. These are vital and productive occasions that are increasingly seen by agencies and services as an efficient means of engaging with farmers and disseminating information. It should be recognised that farmers often rely on these meetings as a source of information and understanding of new government initiatives. Thus an initiative launched at the turn of the year may not reach the agenda until the following autumn. This creates a time lag.

Farmers are independent businesses. They relinquish control of production and marketing warily. They appear not to be natural formal co-operators, preferring instead to remain independent but collaborate when necessary. Basically, they see no distinct business advantage in co-operation and instead see a loss of control, particularly in obtaining the price that they want. They have concerns over loss of control over animal welfare and fear the effect on rural communities of large transporters used in collecting co-operatively marketed livestock. The advantages in co-operation are seen only in potentially obtaining bulk discounts on inputs.

Farmers recognise that the trend is for subsidies to be switched from production to stewardship schemes such as Countryside Stewardship Scheme of the ERDP. There is concern that the modulation of EU subsidy that created funding for the ERDP is simply taking away income from all farmers. However, they acknowledge that the schemes do provide funding for farmers to look after the countryside. Some fear that farms in peri-urban locations are less likely to get onto a scheme than farms in more rural areas. Others felt that the Organic Farming Scheme was drawing away money unnecessarily when at present there was an overproduction of organic milk. There is little knowledge of the other strands of the ERDP such as vocational training, woodland schemes or the Rural Enterprise Scheme.

For farmers in a semi-upland area, the common concern was for a stewardship scheme tailored specifically to the needs of their distinct landscape that will allow them to look after the countryside and that may, in the future, allow them to do this without necessarily producing food. They recognise there were other public goods that could be provided through better water management, carbon sequestration, and access and amenity. The farmers recognised that the local authority could be a player in defining this locally specific scheme, and in being an advocate for it to central government.

Farmers were interested to work together with the local authority on countryside stewardship when their lands bordered. Farms near a publicly owned local Moor have a common concern with the Council on the control of bracken. Farms around the moor carry out management that encourages the flourishing populations of grey partridge, lapwing, cuckoo, sparrowhawks and woodpeckers. This was of value to the potential perceptions of the Moor and suggested that the Council could raise the profile of this Moor as an important wildlife habitat in the same way that efforts are made through initiatives in the South Pennines.

The District's farming and land use community found it was a novel experience for the local authority to engage with their concerns and issues. They regarded it as ultimately reassuring and recognised the potential for the local authority to be an important advocate for their farming community and a catalyst for local partnerships between agencies, services and utilities that could work on the broader issues of the District's farming.


(The paragraph numbers relate to the specific questions in the consultation, with the issue being within the broad headings shown)

Farming and the food chain

4.7 Information on Best and Improving Practice should be a key target, delivered to farmers at workplaces, marketplaces and meetingplaces by a new, more pro-active EXTENSION SERVICE working in co-operation with local agencies, services and Councils. There are perhaps some lessons on this that can be learnt from DfID and their sustainability agenda.

4.8 Collaboration and co-operation needs to take place BELOW regional level. The local authority in the first section provides example. It should also be recognised that the greater emphasis on Parish and Town Councils given in the Rural White Paper indicates their potential for a role in partnerships as well.

4.10 There is a misconception here that value added, niche, regional or local products are a panacea for British farming. In effect, it often separates out winners and losers based on their relative location, scale, type of product and accessibility to urban markets. There would seem to be an inequity in funding these initiatives when farming in many cases is about primary production suited to soil and climate conditions.

Improving the Performance of Farmers and other Land Managers

4.17 Farmers need to be able to accumulate skills that are transferable through training that is accredited. Much training at present falls outside of this, although it does meet immediate farming needs. If off-farm income becomes vital, farmers will find themselves with skills (such as plumbing) but without any proof of those skills, often required in the general workplace.

4.19 The VTS recognised the need to take training to the workplace. The provision of outreach and peripatetic teaching for rural skills should become the norm.

4.22-23 Present demonstration farm networks are the result of varying competing farming philosophies, using them as a shopfront for their wares. This presents a dilemma for the farmer in that there may be apprehension about visiting a demonstration farm for fear of having to embrace all the philosophy rather than take away example that meets their specific needs. It would be futile for the Government to be seen to be backing every horse in the race, and it should not solely support a network that ultimately has practice that is inaccessible to the majority.

The Government should make more use of the example of the various experimental research centres that receive public funds and which are exploring new and future practice, particularly in the integration of non-food crops and in approaches to increased woodland production and cover. The badging of these examples is the Future of Farming, in contrast to the moribund nature of any present-day rigid philosophy that seeks only to make its philosophical process work. Evolving, evidence-based farming practices in current use may also be allied on the basis that they provide a pathway for a continuum of improving farming practice.

4.24 An Extension Service, as is frequently cited in this response.

4.25 The research Priorities Board should develop a vision for the Future of Farming, based on a number of scenarios and identify the research required to achieve that vision against the differing scenarios. My preference for priorities would be around integrated farming practices based on whole system planning and design.

Resource Protection

4.34-35 There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Use the Codes of Good Agricultural Practice for the Protection of Soil, Water and Air (1998). Continue to work on the Draft Soil Strategy for England (2001) and Towards Sustainable Agriculture: A Pilot Set of Indicators (2000). Build them all into a coherent action plan for a vision for the Future of Farming.

4.36 This was one of the more obscure ideas to come from the Policy Commission report. The tiering of schemes proposed by the Policy Commission just makes the situation overly complicated and appears to be pandering to the instinct of separating out farmers.

4.37 Assurance schemes are marketing schemes, and the Government should not be seen to be partial in this respect. Moreover, at least one assurance scheme has overstepped reality with rhetoric, requiring the Advertising Standards Authority to make a number of adverse rulings, thus defeating (revealing?) the presumption of the assurance. The Government should take on the responsibility for providing a vision for the Future of Farming and supporting the achievement of that vision where capable. Consumer assurance will arise from Government providing that leadership.

Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and targeting subsidies to promote sustainability

4.42 The Government has made a commendable start in shifting resources from the CAP's first to second pillars. It is perhaps unfortunate that FMD struck so early on in the life of the ERDP, thus diminishing the take-up and reach during its currently short life. Information and understanding of the opportunities of the ERDP is patchy to non-existent within the farming community. FBAS is a particular example of difficult take-up for what could be an essential grounding for the Governments aspiration for an improving farming industry. Review progress (as is scheduled) and continually monitor and seek feedback.

4.43 A Government-backed national vision for the Future of Farming. A New Direction for Agriculture (1999) and An Action Plan for farming (2000) did not incorporate the benefits of Foresight, nor lay out an integrated landuse and social policy for agriculture and rural areas. Agriculture, since it dominates much of our landmass, requires this approach so that it reduces the influence and gets away from production and markets as being the drivers of countryside change.

4.44 A shakeout in marginal livestock farming enterprises, but this would be a positive impact rather than a negative. However, it requires a landuse policy that gives purpose to land (and probably financial support) that is not an agricultural activity.

4.45 The rural landscape should be redesigned to bring about better water management. The flooding of the last few years could be avoided by paying for the land to function as a part of flood protection. Thus broad-leaved woodlands would be planted in uplands, and farmland in lowlands could be allowed to flood as seasonal and permanent wetland areas.

Soil acts as a carbon sink when soil organic matter levels increase, and as a carbon emitter when they decrease. Practices to increase soil carbon not only reduce atmospheric carbon, but also deliver many other public goods, such as improved biodiversity. Low tillage systems must be encouraged.

Funding habitat restoration is probably the best approach for rural landscapes. Agri-environment schemes can be beneficial, but the gains are often negligible. An alternative is to combine carefully targeted agri-environment schemes with large-scale habitat restoration. Restoration provides the opportunity to deal with several problems simultaneously, such as sea-level rise, water-catchment protection, and flood defence while at the same time as increasing and safeguarding biodiversity.

England Rural Development Programme and Diversification

4.52 Farmers tend to see agri-environment schemes as a restriction on their farming practice, leading to less progressive farming. Thus the schemes appear not to have any purpose that would enhance their business, although they see the contribution to capital expenditure and the compensation for foregone income (farmers have dubbed them "retirement schemes"). Agri-environment schemes suffer from their lack of being seen as having a definite agricultural purpose rather than just mitigating environmental impacts.

Agri-environment schemes should be related to specific agricultural purpose. As an example, Integrated Farm Management (IFM) is a whole farm policy that integrates beneficial natural processes into modern farming practices using current and advancing technology. It aims to minimise environmental risks while conserving, enhancing and recreating natural habitats. It would be perfectly possible to use the aims and practices of IFM as a basis for a verifiable agri-environment scheme, making use of Government funding in a more deliberate and targeted way. It would also close the gap in perception of farming's impact on ecology, and it would act as a driver for continuing improvement in farming practice.

Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) is a national charity that helps farmers improve their environment AND their business performance through encouraging them to adopt IFM. In addition, they create the opportunity for a better public understanding of farming through their nation-wide network of demonstration farms, often used by FWAG for their farm walks. Farmers join LEAF for a modest membership fee and are provided with a detailed self-assessment audit of their farm. Feed back on the audit from LEAF is provided, that helps farmers set targets to improve their business while setting about enhancing the environment on their farm.

4.54 Replace with scheme proposed in 4.52.

4.55-56 Fund by accession to IFM development and results for scheme proposed in 4.52. Tiering of the scheme is a nonsense as it continues to separate out environmental action from agricultural purpose. Regional variations will be part of targeted approach within the scheme described in 4.52 and shows its superiority to the inflexible accession required in the Organic Farming Scheme.

4.57-58 See earlier.

Regulatory framework including whole farm plans/audits

4.65 The approach of IFM (and LEAF) uniquely requires a whole farm plan. Assurances schemes based on product branding for IFM have been muted by a number of organisations, including the National Trust. Thus farmers making a commitment to integrated farming could potentially receive public support though both public subsidy and market recognition. The difference between that and organic farming is that the Government would be better placed to influence the outcomes for the nation compared to the industry domination that shackles organic certification.

4.66 Consult with LEAF on this, and the centres for agricultural research.

4.69 The older generation of farmers feel ill at ease with information technology. They consider personal or small group tuition in their places of work would overcome this. It would be resource draining, but may be considered a necessary priority.

Healthy Eating

4.77-78 Many agricultural areas of Britain are considered to be only suitable in terms of climate and soil for meat and milk production. Partly this is immutable, but it is also because of a geographical polarisation of agricultural during and since the 1980's. This is generally observed as an increasing regional specialisation of farming activities with horticulture, arable and mixed farming retreating to areas considered more favourable (profitable) and giving way to more exclusively pasture-based systems. Reversing this trend may make it more visible that rural areas have a range of produce, but ultimately the consumer's choice of food is independent of production or its location, and is more shaped by distribution and marketing systems.

4.80 While they may answer polls differently, most of people's choices on food are based on price rather than production method or country of origin. Consider the nonsense that attends organic food when the ASA has restricted the ability to make any claims arising from the production methods, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of organic horticultural produce is imported. We can either deal in substance or in generated fantasy.

Animal Health and Welfare

4.87 A level playing field in animal welfare that does not accept animal treatments that are based on philosophy rather than actual medical evidence. Homeopathy should not be tolerated and the EU legislation that codified this for organic farming should be challenged as only in the interests of the organic industry, and not in the nations interests for animal welfare.

Policy Commission Recommendations

5.1 The Policy Commission Report and its recommendations proved a disappointment to many. The report did not appear to reflect the varied views that were known to be received by the Commission and can be checked with the responses and with the notes of the regional consultation meetings posted on the website. Moreover, it did not set out a coherent vision for the future of farming that held out any hope for an improved understanding and better use of rural land, its integration with social policy, and the future-proofing that that requires.

The recommendations of the Report dwelt on the minutiae of processes, particularly marketing, and continued with the fashionable trend of treating organic farming as a separate case while omitting to balance this with any other potential evolution in farming practice. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that a member of the Policy Commission, shortly after the release of the report, spoke out about the hijacking of the report contents by the organic farming lobby. It is worthwhile to recount the article that appeared in The Scotsman newspaper (26 Feb. 2002) detailing this allegation:

Mark Tinsley, a member of the commission, has claimed that conventional agriculture was heavily outnumbered on the commission and its influence diluted. Just one more commercial farmer member would have made a considerable difference and helped to scotch the organic myth, he told a Lloyds TSB sponsored conference at the Royal Agricultural College in Gloucestershire at the weekend.
"If I failed personally on one issue in the Curry report, it was on integrated farm management," he said. "We as an industry must reinforce the work of Linking Environment and Farming as IFM is the logical, efficient and intelligent way of farming sustainably. "I believe that the organic movement has yet to establish a case that commercial organic production is viable, and I include the environmental claims."

Organic was just one of the myths which dogged the commission's work and would damage all efforts to revitalise the outlook for agriculture, he continued, urging the industry to put more resources into dispelling such inaccuracies.
"UK farming must note how successful spinners work and outspin them. We have to gently but firmly work away at the inaccuracies which have been foisted on us... before they, and the perception of them, get out of hand."

Other myths the commission had to struggle with included claims that European farm policy was set up to dole out subsidies to farmers when the original aim was to preserve jobs and standards of living in rural areas, said Tinsley, a Lincolnshire vegetable grower. He also questioned the commercial reality of local farmers' markets.

Spin indeed and it would not be my first choice to end this response to the Government's consultation with a caution about the clamouring voices that seem always to abrogate all attention to themselves on farming issues. I believe that the government could have produced a better report than the Policy Commission achieved, and it was eminently sensible of Government to throw open the Commissions recommendations so that their legitimacy or otherwise could be established. I look forward to the resultant Strategy for Sustainable Food and Farming.

Dr Mark Fisher, 17 June 2002

The research findings on the aspirations from a rural land use community reported in the first section of this response can be found in:

RURAL ASPIRATIONS: SOME IMPRESSIONS AND OBSERVATIONS FROM BRADFORD DISTRICT'S RURAL LAND USE COMMUNITY:A Report by the Rural Affairs Team, Policy Development Service, City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, March 2002.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from here.