Tide of public opinion has changed in favour of farmers, says farming leader

Farming has become an industry with an incredibly exciting future, according to the chairman of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.

Broadland farmer Henry Cator, who is also chairman of the Association of Drainage Authorities, suggested that the tide of public opinion has fundamentally changed.

“Five years ago, farmers were encouraging their children to go into careers outside agriculture. Now, farmers are seeing the future and just how valuable food production in terms of global food security is going to be.”

Since he took over the reins of the RASE, which dates from 1838, Mr Cator is determined to encourage a forward-looking industry capable of producing food and managing the countryside. And given that his family has been farming at Woodbastwick since the early 1800s, it is no surprise that he is passionate in his advocacy.

“We are particularly blessed in northern Europe because of the range of climate and the crops we’re still able to grow. We’re going to need much specialised people to run those businesses.

“One of the great successes, post the second world war, was the 1948 Agriculture Holdings Act, which encouraged small farmers and family businesses to prosper.

“Sadly the trend, particularly post 1976, when the Agriculture Holding Acts gave tenants succession for three generations, was a hugely damaging piece of legislation.

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Mr Cator, of Broad Farm, Salhouse, near Norwich, suggested that it has led landowners to take more and more land in hand. “In terms of attention into detail and productivity, I don’t necessarily that was the right way to do it.”

At the same time, there are many farmers and farm businesses, which have expanded their operations and some don’t own a single acre.

As the RASE’s chairman, Mr Cator recognises that the “countryside is a complex mosaic.” But, here the charity, which recognises the importance of science in farming, can lead by encouraging the best practice. No surprise, it supports translation of good science into practice.

“I’m a great believer, when you have all these individual farming businesses, possibly 180,000 in the countryside, if you give them a lead and a direction, which is what we have to try and do.

“We have to work together. I’m a great believer in collaboration because I’m not sure that the farming industry has all the answers – it would be arrogant in the extreme to think it did.

“If we listen and we work with others, then it is amazing how much smarter we could become. The farming industry is going to be a very valuable, not only in terms of environmental stewardship. It helps to bind and is the glue of many rural communities.

“We have to make sure that we have got strategies to ensure people have safe wholesome food on their plate,” he added.

The challenge remains. “Wheat yields have been pretty static for the past 10 or 15 years. We are still hovering about 4t an acre. All the plant breeders tell us that the potential of for those crops is much much higher.

“Why is it then, that we are not able to produce that consistent basis on the farm? Look at the yield monitor on a modern combine harvester – and look at the range between six or seven tonnes an acre to two tonnes an acre in one width across the field.

“We can use smart technology – and we’re getting towards that – by using satellite application to place the nutrients where they’re needed. What I’m saying is that we’ve got to keep pushing the boundaries in terms of innovation and technology. It makes it extremely exciting – and for young people to come and use some of the emerging technologies to start pushing the boundaries.

“You need a very skilled workforce – very skilled with a huge range of knowledge. I admire these technicians who drive these highly complicated machines.”

He also applauded the coalition government for bringing back apprentices through university technical colleges. “It is a much better way forward than trying to squeeze everybody through the same hole and getting a degree in a subject that they’re not interested in. Let’s teach these young people a skill for life.

“Land management and farming and caring for our landscapes is going to be a very major challenge for the future,” added Mr Cator.