Changing Times

By The Bevis Trust In | January 8, 2018

Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference this week gives a clearer picture of where things are heading in in the farming scene. While he proposes to continue Single Farm Payments until Brexit, the transition will move away from area payments towards environmental benefits for the public good.

Of course we have seen all this before. We are returning towards the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold , reconciling land use and economics. There is a growing realisation that land cannot be managed solely with economics in mind. This led us into the pesticide era, and now a 75% loss of insect biomass and global warming. Our daffodils that flowered on 9th November were over by Christmas. Here in Wales the diffuse nitrate pollution, mainly from dairy farms has led to major concerns which are currently still unresolved.   The Nitrate Vulnerable Zones in Wales are widespread and it is estimated that if restrictions are declared, it could cost around £80K per farm to bring them up to standards for slurry storage and disposal. As about 95% of farms in Wales would be declared bankrupt businesses if it were not for the subsidies, this is not a rosy picture. And if those subsidies are taken off agriculture itself, and put onto environmental schemes, we could see many farms going bust. This is hinted at in some of the reports we are seeing, and it is not new. A number of Welsh farms were abandoned and bought up by the state in the last agricultural depression, and planted into forestry.

The Farming Unions are not fighting for the future, but to retain the past. It is no good keeping our heads in the sand and hoping it will all go away. We have to innovate and adapt to the future.

Our work with beavers has shown their potential in smoothing peak water run off and purifying water by filtering slurry particulates. Exeter University and others have published many papers showing the results of the scientific trials. So beavers are great news for dairy farmers. With a change of emphasis on the grant system, we will be pushing for farms hosting beavers to receive points for their environmental schemes and a financial benefit too. As well as purifying the water, the beavers are opening up some of the shade canopy which allows the aquatic invertebrates to flourish, providing increased growth rates for fish fry.

Even thirty years ago the small family farm was profitable. A family could live well on 100 acres. But the price of land has gone crazy, so that the return on investment does not stack up. Also, even in my youth, just after the war, farming enjoyed much simpler lifestyles. Electrification and tractors were just coming in, and freezers and TVs had yet to come. The aerial photos of the Bevis Trust farms in 1967 all show flourishing vegetable gardens. All gone now. The increasing demands of a cash economy and higher standards of living mean that 100 acres simply cannot produce this level of income any more.

Having farmed in New Zealand in the 1970s when we still had subsidies, and seen what happened when subsidies were removed in 1984 , it would be calamitous if this happened in Wales. New Zealand saw land prices (which had been held up by the subsidies) plummet. This is likely to happen in Wales too, resulting in a massive loss of equity. For those with mortgages, this alone would cause bankruptcy. Whereas New Zealand farmers are young and innovative, the average age of Welsh farmers is over 60. Many want to retire but cannot, while potential young farmers cannot get on the ladder or don’t want to. Farming Connect’s Joint Venture Scheme has 23,000 acres available but is struggling to find young farmers willing to take up the opportunities.

Here at the Bevis Trust we have been pioneering how wildlife can live alongside productive farming. About 30% of the land area has been set aside for woods and water. We currently have about 35 ponds on the farm thanks to the beavers. No slurry is spread anywhere near the water courses, we try to keep a one-field barrier of old grass between any slurry and a stream or river. Some of our wildlife land is now producing more income, even without subsidies, than our best silage land and we have diversified so that we can survive without subsidies.

Times are changing. The writing is on the wall. Trying to plod on as we have always done is no longer an option.

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