Farming opinion: Why we must redefine farming to prepare for post-Brexit world

It's time to re-evaluate where we find ourselves, and ultimately to redefine farming itself in the U

It's time to re-evaluate where we find ourselves, and ultimately to redefine farming itself in the UK. It is our Waiting for Godot moment, says Ben Underwood. - Credit: Archant

Change is a constant in this complex world, except that we continue to eat more than a billion meals a week in the UK alone.

Ben Underwood, east regional director of the Country Land and Business Association.

Ben Underwood, east regional director of the Country Land and Business Association. - Credit: Su Anderson

Whether it is change in the political weather through Brexit, and now a snap general election, the implications of climate change and environmental imperatives, or the dynamism of the evolving economy and the market place, all present us both challenge and chance.

Farming has its own unique circumstances, as you would expect of the major land use on a crowded island. Farmers are ageing, public opinion challenges us, and we largely operate as individual players. And profitability varies as much as reliable farm output, with external factors playing occasional havoc.

My sense is it is well nigh time to re-evaluate where we find ourselves, and ultimately to redefine farming itself in the UK. It is our ‘Waiting for Godot’ moment. ‘Redefining Farming’ will be the theme of the second CLA Rural Business Conference, to take place in London at the QE11 Centre on November 28.

It is both timely and the right thing to do. We all know in our bones that the next few years could bring profound change. The question is whether our ambition is to shape it, or to get what we are given?

I myself am in the former camp. Let’s consider some of the human factors that come into play. Cooperation? Could your farming system benefit from the scale afforded by collaboration in its truest sense with others – your neighbours even?

Is the tenant farming model sufficiently robust or could it evolve from a landlord and tenant relationship to one more of partnership, with shared risk and reward? And what stops us getting more involved in the supply chain?

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Price taking is not much fun, after all, and UK agriculture languishes at the base of productivity tables. These crucial questions hang over us all and are the inspiration for the conference.

Of particular interest to business minded people is the return on capital invested. But there is human, social and natural capital involved here also. Communities depend on a dynamic response, while smart arguments for generating future funding schemes are essential.

We could be on the cusp of major change in public policy. Post-Brexit promises the chance of at least a bespoke domestic response to withdrawal from the CAP. Devolution demands that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will all deserve their own policies within a UK framework, to which we must be open and sensitive. I bet you the new Food, Farming and Environmental Policy will be different, but will it be better is the question we all ask?

Some would say it could not be worse. In the coming months the CLA will examine this theme with all hands to the deck. A programme of forward thinking research will drill into the challenge for the UK’s diverse farming systems and circumstances.

Technological advance in kit, applied technique, genetics and husbandry are all factors. We will report on finding new ways of working, better business practise, and of course better markets. The trade deals we will live under could redefine our world. And the customer has as much to say in this future as the farmer – after all the countryside matters to everyone. Tim Breitmeyer, the CLA’s Deputy President, will lead the conference.

At the crux of it is the very question of how land will be used in the future, recognising that we need a revolution both in agricultural productivity and environmental returns.

Hold onto your hats!