Suffolk: CLA president Harry Cotterell tells farmers they must ‘raise their game’

Members of the audience ask panel speakers address questions at the annual Suffolk Agricultural Asso

Members of the audience ask panel speakers address questions at the annual Suffolk Agricultural Associations spring conference. - Credit: Archant

GOVERNMENT policy on energy is in a “real mess”, and farmers must “raise their game”and farm better, a landowners’ leader told Suffolk farmers this week.

Speaking at Suffolk Agricultural Association’s spring conference, Country Land and Business Association president Harry Cotterell said until there was a “proper” price in the market for carbon, the value of renewable energy would never be truly understood.

“If there’s an area of Government policy that’s in a mess at the moment, it’s energy. I personally don’t feel confident to invest in renewable energy until there’s a more certain commitment by government to support it,” he told a packed audience at Trinity Park conference centre in Ipswich.

The productivity and efficiency of land is going to become more and more important as food security becomes a big issue, he predicted in his speech on productivity and public goods.

“We have to do our farming better, we really do,” he said, pointing out that just 5% of farmers are responsible for 85% of production of livestock and crops.

“We must all raise our game to the level of at least the top 20% and if we can’t, we have got to allow someone else to do it,” he said.

At the moment, too many farmers are farming too small an area of land, he argued. “I think holdings will get bigger,” he said.

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The skills of the farming workforce needs to be improved and staff need to be rewarded properly through mechanisms such as productivity bonuses, he said.

“For too long farming has been the career of last resort for the stupidest person in the class,” he said.

Added to this, too much land was subject to “arcane” tenancy agreements which weren’t “delivering the right farmers to do the right job”.

The public goods challenge, or the goods which farmers provide which are not rewarded in the market place, was “slightly more complicated”, he said.

“Don’t think the pressure will not continue on what we provide,” he said. “The pot is only going to get smaller and government is going to expect more and more delivery on every penny it’s providing.”

He added: “I think the key going forward is to understand that productivity and public good need not be viewed in isolation.”

It was possible to become a farmer of public goods and be rewarded both by the Government and in the market place, he said.

Farmer Richard Symes, of Bramfield, near Halesworth, explained how he had embraced renewable energy on his 162ha LEAF marque certified farm, and was now reaping the benefits of his decision.

“I have literally doubled the turnover and profit of the farm with renewable energy,” he said.

Concerns over climate change led him to develop a larger, more profitable business that is net carbon neutral. Included in it is a 55m to the hub wind turbine, a straw-powered grain drying store and solar panels on roofs.

The grain store is run as a joint venture with another farmer, he explained. The straw burner paid for itself in three years and without a subsidy.

“We should all aim to be carbon-positive,” he said. He pointed to Feldheim, a now very wealthy community in Germany where inhabitants, mainly farmers, had set about producing renewable energy.

“There’s a lot of people out there who want to see a lot more renewable energy,” he said.

However, success with planning applications and with schemes in general depended on factors beyond your control.

“It does depend on who your neighbours are and it’s pot luck,” he said.

Andrew Ward, a Lincolnshire farmer and 2008 winner of the Farmers’ Weekly Arable Farmer of the Year Award, showed delegates how he included every cost asssociated with the business in order to give himself a “true” picture of how much each of his crops cost to grow.

This had revealed significant increases in costs of production over the last three years, with his oilseed rape costs rising from £180 a tonne in 2010 to £216 a tonne in 2012, and his wheat costs going up from £81 a tonne to £130 a tonne over the same period.

He spoke in favour of genetic modification and the biotech industry and said communication was key in getting out a more positive message about them.

“Communication is everything. We need to get out there and shout aovbut what they are doing,” he said.

Ashley Gilman of Framlingham-based farmers’ co-operative AtlasFram explained how farmers needed to manage risk in what remained a volatile commodities market whose extremes were fuelled by climate change, supply and demand and speculation. To give some certainty, farmers needed to fix a proportion of their future costs.

“There’s no doubt that the risks are here to stay and there’s no doubt that the risk are going to get greater,” he said.

AtlasFram had created a fertiliser pool to ensure farmers could buy at the bottom of the market, he explained, mirroring the success of more established schemes for areas such as grain, he said.