Oxford Farming Conference: UK farm sector as a whole ‘lagging behind’ - report

Oxford Farming Conference chairman Richard Whitlock

Oxford Farming Conference chairman Richard Whitlock - Credit: Archant

British farmers are no longer competitive world leaders in agricultural performance, according to the latest research from the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC). But this year’s report to the conference points out that our best farmers are world-class in terms of their productivity, profitability and attention to detail.

The study, conducted for the OFC by The Andersons Centre, explored how well UK farmers compare with their global counterparts - what they do well, what holds them back and where there are opportunities for improvement.

“Our report wholeheartedly acknowledges that Britain has some world-class farmers, but that, as a whole, our farming industry is lagging behind other countries and must make bold strides to becoming more globally competitive,” said conference chairman Richard Whitlock.

“The research repeatedly highlighted that what separates the best from the rest is an individual’s receptiveness to risk, their ability to save cost whilst raising output and an underlying zeal for building their businesses.

“Britain has its fair share of very successful farming entrepreneurs, with a considerable number of them establishing their enterprises from modest beginnings, or from scratch,” he said. If the sector is to improve its global competitiveness, issues such as lowering the barriers to land occupation, increasing the number of joint ventures and giving young farmers their chance to farm, must be addressed, he added.

The report’s author, Graham Redman from The Anderson Centre, said underperformance was linked to direct subsidies which stifled competitiveness, research and development which fails to focus on near-market needs, and lacklustre business appetites.

He recommended that cuts in public research spending on agriculture should be halted and research investments increased to raise farming productivity.

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A greater proportion of research funds should be spent on near-market research to best put the findings to commercial use, he said.

The focus should be on the top and middle sectors of farmer operators, as those that do not seek information will always be very difficult to influence, he said. Opportunities for restructuring UK agriculture by helping young farmers to get a foothold should be encouraged, he added, as younger farmers are often more strategic and visionary operators than their elders. He also believes that farmers should help themselves by seeking greater (non-agricultural) business acumen.