Changes in the Farming Industry
In his talk to members of the Rotary Club of South Foreland at a recent meeting, Club President and local farmer Mike Taylor, posed the question:
‘Should farmers be food producers or park keepers?’ (slide 1)
Mike is an arable farmer who has run his business for most of his life: his son Doug has now taken over but Mike still helps out.
Mike spoke of the great changes facing agriculture as we are becoming much more aware of the damage caused to the environment. He explained the purpose of ploughing and the reason for the move away from it in recent times. After a brief history of subsidies and how they are being phased out, he explained the carbon cycle before covering the new ways of farming being developed to work in harmony with the environment.
Modern man has been around for over 200,000 years and we have been farming for 10,000 years. (Slide 2) Ploughing in a rudimentary form began 4,000 years ago with little change until industrialisation when ploughing techniques improved: continued development resulted in the efficient implements of recent times. (slides 3,4 and 5)
The purpose of ploughing was to control weeds by burying them, which was vital before herbicides were available for killing weeds. While ploughing served farming well for many years by giving a massive dose of oxygen to the soil which enables microbes to break down organic matter and to release nitrogen for the new crop, the downside was that carbon dioxide was released and the soil left exposed to erosion before the new crop became established.
When Mike was at college the accepted practice was to plough before sowing a crop, but as herbicides became more effective and cheaper the practice to cultivate just to loosen the soil then killing the weeds with herbicide before drilling directly without ploughing became established. This method is faster and cheaper but less skilled than ploughing. In 2015 the business first bought a seed drill for direct drilling into uncultivated soil. (Slides 6 and 7)
The most important thing is that the soil should be in good condition. If rain compacts the soil it will need to be aerated. A cover crop can be sown after harvest to avoid compaction, as the rain falls off plants into the soil with no problem. The cover crop also acts as a cultivator, with some long rooted and some surface rooted plants helping to keep the soil healthy.
Soil is a living organism, and the aim is to preserve rather than damage it. Healthy soil should be 45% weathered rock, clay, or sand, 5% organic matter, 25% water and 25% air: it should contain a healthy number of bacteria and micro-organisms as well as worms and arthropods (invertebrate organisms).
The carbon cycle involves plants taking C02 from the air and through the process of photosynthesis carbon is transferred to the roots and stored below ground. Carbon also enters the soil from decaying plant matter. Plants also transpire C02 into the atmosphere. As the biggest holder of carbon is the soil, just growing plants will retain carbon so the aim of modern agriculture is to increase sequestering (storing or setting apart) of carbon in the soil rather than emitting it into the atmosphere. This is part of the planning to combat climate change. (Slide 8)
Another factor to consider in food production is population growth. Traditional ploughing with its depletion of organic material and emission of C02 might have continued if the population remained low. Agricultural land increased in the 19th Century as woods were cut down and marshland drained but is now decreasing while the population has greatly increased, resulting in the need for more food. Intensive farming tried to meet that need but problems have built up with Climate Change affecting many parts of the world with low rainfall and lower yields. (Slides 9 and 10)
The continued burning of the world’s store of fossil fuels which began with the Industrial Revolution, started the accumulation of greenhouse gases, particularly C02, in the atmosphere and has resulted in global warming and the extremes of climate which we are already experiencing. Reducing our use of fossil fuels will help but maintaining carbon in the soil rather than emitting it is a crucial part of agricultural development.
In order to gain some understanding of current government policy and plans for the future of farming, it might be useful to look at the history of subsidies, which, put simply, are payments used to control and support food production.
Governments have always interfered with farming, the Tudors being the first to control imports and exports of grain. This continued until the repeal of the Corn Laws in the middle of the 19th Century when cheap food became available from the Empire and America. By the First World War Britain imported 80% of its wheat but by the end of the Second World War home production had been increased.
The 1947 Agricultural Act introduced deficiency payments: that is when the government sets a minimum price and when the market price drops below this it makes up the difference. The country did not want to go short of food again if there was another war, so a number of grants were introduced to increase agricultural productivity, such as removing hedges or ploughing up grassland.
By 1972 we had joined the Common Market where the Common Agricultural Policy was designed to increase productivity and make Europe self-sufficient in foodstuffs, with import levies to stop cheap imports, export restitution to sell off any surpluses, and intervention to control the price of products.
This worked well for many years until production increased so much that some products were being exported cheaply to dispose of grain mountains and milk lakes. Because the World Trade Organisation was unhappy with this milk quotas came in to regulate milk production and ‘set aside’ was introduced. Farmers had to take 10% of their land out of production and received direct payments, the amount depending on whether a crop was in surplus or deficit. At this time the UK was 78% self-sufficient in temperate foods.
In 1993 the Integrated control system was introduced. All land was mapped and farmers were paid a different amount for each commodity they grew. Cross Compliance was brought in to control the way farming was conducted, with codes of practice for air, soil and water and many regulations about what could be done and when. Farmers who did not comply lost their payments.
By the early 2000s the World Trade Organisation was becoming concerned that the European subsidies paid at different rates per commodity were distorting world trade. The EU therefore decided to give farmers a flat rate payment per hectare based on their previous claims. This was unfair because farmers in productive areas with high yields had historically claimed more and so received higher payments than farmers in lower yielding areas.
By 2012 the UK decided to change to a flat rate system with all farmers receiving the same payment per hectare. The problem with this was that although the subsidy was intended to aid food production it meant that farmers were paid for just possessing their land.
The biggest change in agriculture since the Second World War has been as a result Brexit. Having left the European Union government policy is to phase out direct subsidies between 2020 and 2027, a proportion each year. In its place the same amount of money will be used to ‘pay public money for public good’. This is called the ‘Sustainable Farming Incentive’. There is no payment for food production but only for environmental good.
Mike and Doug have joined the pilot scheme for this policy which will last for five years: they can drop out of the scheme at any time if they don’t like it. They will be paid £32 an acre to take 10% of their land out of production and introduce environmental features instead. The big risk and likelihood is that it will cost more than they are paid. They will receive a further £24 per acre if they adopt a non-cultivation type of cropping to enhance the health of the soil, as already described and in operation. Time will tell whether this is a worthwhile project. The better the quality of land the less likelihood there is that it will pay.
This new style of farming is now called ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ and has the aim of increasing soil fertility using organic fertiliser and material, cover crops and possibly livestock. It will encourage biodiversity, water retention and the sequestering/storage of carbon rather than emitting it into the atmosphere. The downside of this style of farming is that yields can be lower, particularly in poor conditions, problems with drilling, plants growing more slowly, soil slower to dry out in the spring. and a smaller working window for spring sowing.
We are entering a time of great changes as we aim to achieve net 0 carbon by 2040. Other aspects of the new approach are to rewild 30% of land and to develop trade deals with countries from all round the world.
Coming back to the debate between food production and managing the environment, should we be land sharing with nature and reducing production, or should we be land sparing where farmers leave land for wildlife? What we do know is that our self-sufficiency in temperate foods has now dropped to 60%.
Adapting nature to get the best crops from healthy soil and working with the environment might sum up the new approach, but with the cost of living crisis being driven by the rising price of energy for heating and food or eating then the farming industry will be at the forefront of change, particularly if yields and availability of some foods continue to fall worldwide. Of necessity we may need to increase food production at home.
'What We Do' Main Pages: