Farming Insight: 2013 brings us new challenges

ROBERT RAVEN, who farms 650 acres on a family farm at Henstead, Suffolk and is participating in the NFU’s Cereals Development Programme, on a new era which is dawning for farming

IT is well known that the global supply and demand of food is now a finely balanced equation, with not much room for error.

Populations continue to rise and become wealthier, demanding ever increasing amounts of high quality food, though still at an affordable price.

Farmers are told we need to produce 50% more by 2050, which will prove a serious challenge given that there is not much ‘new’ land that could be brought under cultivation.

All farms, in East Anglia and around the world, will be required to pull their weight, to produce more from each acre, and at the same time consume less of the finite resources they currently consume, a process known as ‘sustainable intensification’.

Failure to achieve this will lead to greater and more frequent food shortages, which inevitably lead to price rises that hurt the poorest the most.

How is this to be avoided?

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Farmers are generally a resourceful bunch and will be keen to rise to this challenge.

To do so effectively they need to be part of an industry that is supported by its government.

After a couple of decades of not having to worry about food supply, agriculture has been terribly neglected.

Lack of governmental support in lean times has meant that much of our agricultural infrastructure, such as grain handling facilities, land drainage and irrigation systems, are now many decades old.

Research and development budgets have been pared to the bone, meaning that new technologies to increase production have been few and far between.

This is why yields have stagnated, while demand has quietly crept up and up.

Governments around the world are now remembering that agriculture is not to be ignored.

However, the government cannot support agriculture unless the lines of communication are open.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is of paramount importance in this area, talking to individual famers, understanding the issues that are holding back their businesses, and communicating this information in a useful way to those politicians who can make a difference.

One thing is certain - agriculture is due a renaissance, and one of the key questions is ‘who will the next generation of farmers be?’

Some reports suggest that the average age of farmers in the UK is now 59, with a big shortage of new entrants.

Surely one of the best ways to secure our future food supply is to encourage promising candidates into the industry.

Teaching children in schools about where their food comes from and how the industry operates would be a good start, as would offering careers advice to those who are interested.

There are myriad opportunities to work within agriculture, both on the farm and in the services that surround it.

I am lucky enough to be a farmer in Suffolk, and am passionate about securing a sustainable and productive future for our industry.

We practise our own interpretation of sustainable intensification, growing the highest yields we can of the best quality crops, while replacing fossil fuel derived inputs wherever possible.

The waste you put in your green bins ends up, thoroughly composted, on our fields, reducing our need for synthetic fertilisers.

Cover crops are used to improve soils, and diesel-hungry ploughing has been replaced with planting directly into the stubble.

I am currently taking part in the NFU ‘Cereals Development Programme’, which aims to build a network of younger farmers, while introducing them to some of the organisations that feature elsewhere in the food supply chain.

Happy Christmas and remember to use the green bins afterwards!