Farming feature: Beyond Brexit - how sector must adapt

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. Left to right, Michael Aubrey (Mills & Reeve LLP), Christoph Wigger (John Deere), David Walston (Cambridge Farmer and Nuffield scholar), James Kerr (writer), Graeme Taylor (European Crop Protection Association) and Anna Jones (Journalist). - Credit: Gregg Brown

Wednesday’s annual Sentry farming conference at Newmarket brought together six diverse speakers to examine what may be one of UK farming’s toughest periods as we prepare for Brexit. SARAH CHAMBERS reports.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Will Brexit change the way we farm in the UK?

For one speaker at this week’s thought-provoking Sentry Conference, the answer was an emphatic ‘no’.

Cambridgeshire farmer and Nuffield scholar David Walston, who runs an arable operation near Duxford, is taking a sanguine approach to the many unknowns the industry now faces.

There is little certainty beyond 2020 for the industry, but David plans to keep ploughing on, and believes that farmers should be innovating and finding efficiencies anyway - not simply because of what might or might not emerge in any future deal with Brussels and the European Union.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. Michael Aubrey (Mills & Reeve LLP). - Credit: Gregg Brown

“To me, Brexit and politics, it’s like the weather. It happens. We have just got to deal with it and I don’t get too worried about it,” he told a packed audience of around 400 farmers and farming professional delegates gathered at Newmarket’s Rowley Mile.

“You want to be running an efficient business all the time. In good times, you’ll be making more money, in bad times you keep your head above water.”

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David joined the family business at the age of 28, and his approach has been to focus on soil health in addressing the great gap in yields he found on different parts of the land. He has adopted a no-till approach with cover and companion cropping, and uses livestock to help reinvigorate its fertility.

But he warns against some of the conclusions which may come out of faulty or incomplete field data. “There are millions and millions of variables going on,” he said.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. - Credit: Gregg Brown

He explained how wheat yields had flatlined on his fields from 1998 to 2014, and concluded that, given the advances made in developing better wheat breeds, these yields were actually declining.

“That to my mind comes from a decrease in the quality of soil we are farming,” he said. “If you look on our fields, organic matter correlates with where the high yield is.”

Over the same period, he spent more and more on pesticides. A disease outbreak in one year resulted in precautionary approaches in following years. “You end up treating every year for a problem you don’t have,” he said.

Thus his approach has been to preserve the soil through his no-till approach, adopting it fully a couple of years ago, and he grows a wide range of crops - 11 last year. He has discovered that where he has used treatments, such as for cabbage stem flea beetle on rape crops, the results have not been widely different from in the areas where none was used, something to weigh up against the cost of treatments.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Christoph Wigger, vice president of farm machinery giant John Deere, said sustainable agriculture and precision farming were the future. He was optimistic about the future of the industry. “There will be bright days ahead of us,” he told conference-goers..

He divided the progress of farming technology into four eras - the latter being Farming 4.0, or ‘connected’ farming, and this was a ‘huge’ potential growth area, he believed. Just a fifth of the industry is currently hooked up to the information from which substantial savings can be made, but it would bring benefits as farmers and machine operators and the fields they were working are linked up to partners and to data, he predicted.

“Farming 4.0 will literally make out of farming a factory without a roof,” he said.

Michael Aubrey, a partner at Mills & Reeve law firm, looked at the legal implications of Brexit, and explained how they will affect the industry. Interestingly, in a show of hands, most delegates believed there would be more regulations post-Brexit, or the same number.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. James Kerr (writer). - Credit: Gregg Brown

Farming journalist Anna Jones discussed the ‘disconnect’ between farming and the media and the urban/rural divide. Both sides had a responsibility to tackle this, she argued, and farmers needed to open up to the press.

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. David Walston (Cambridge Farmer and Nuffield scholar). - Credit: Gregg Brown

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. Graeme Taylor (European Crop Protection Association). - Credit: Gregg Brown

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. Christoph Wigger (John Deere). - Credit: Gregg Brown

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, N

The Sentry Conference 2017 - regional farming conference which is taking place at The Rowley Mile, Newmarket. Anna Jones (Journalist). - Credit: Gregg Brown