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The four ‘mega-trends’ facing East Anglia’s farmers

PUBLISHED: 10:26 11 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:26 11 January 2018

Frontier 3D Thinking conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pictured is managing director Mark Aitchison. Picture: Chris Hill.

Frontier 3D Thinking conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Pictured is managing director Mark Aitchison. Picture: Chris Hill.

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The four “mega-trends” facing farmers in the next five years were outlined to Norfolk growers by the head of one of the UK’s biggest agricultural businesses.

Breaking the yield plateau for crops like wheat is a major challenge for the farming industry. Picture : ANTONY KELLYBreaking the yield plateau for crops like wheat is a major challenge for the farming industry. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

The 3D Thinking conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich was held by Frontier Agriculture, a crop production, agronomy and grain marketing business with a turnover of £1.6bn and 1,100 employees across the country.

Frontier’s managing director Mark Aitchison told delegates that the economic and policy pressures which will shape the industry in the coming years could be grouped into four mega-trends: Price volatility, lifting the yield plateau, biodiversity and succession.

On the subject of price volatility, while commodities have always been at the mercy of global supply and demand, he said grain demand is “inexhaustible” as the world’s population grows, so over-supply will end. He said better market interpretation, a more robust grain marketing plan and consistency of yield would become increasingly vital in this market.

On the challenge of breaking the yield plateau, Mr Aitchison said more action was needed – from government, industry and individual farmers – to help crops perform to their full genetic potential.

Wildflowers growing on a Norfolk field margin.  Picture: James BassWildflowers growing on a Norfolk field margin. Picture: James Bass

He said Frontier invests £24m in the business annually, including on crop trials and technology innovations. And while better crop breeding techniques are in the pipeline, farmers should already be working to ensure the best agronomics and nutrition on their land, and develop a soil and plant health strategy.

“One big concern is that government investment in research is at an all-time low,” he said. “We are investing more today than we have ever invested in our trials and technology programme to fill that gap and raise yields. Soil health, biostimulation and plant health are all things we are working on to improve the genetic potential of crops on the farm.”

The third mega-trend of biodiversity came sharply into focus last week, when environment secretary Michael Gove announced that EU subsidies based on land ownership would be replaced after 2024 by a system of payments using public money to reward wildlife-friendly farming practices.

“Greening and biodiversity will be a major plank of policy going forward, and they will be non-negotiable,” said Mr Aitchison. “If you are thinking this is not for you, you will forego a lot of income.”

Frontier black-grass trial. The plot on the left (infested with black-grass weeds) is winter wheat drilled in October, and on the right is spring wheat, sown after ploughing and winter fallow. Picture: David Robinson / FrontierFrontier black-grass trial. The plot on the left (infested with black-grass weeds) is winter wheat drilled in October, and on the right is spring wheat, sown after ploughing and winter fallow. Picture: David Robinson / Frontier

And he said the fourth challenge of succession – passing business expertise and resources to the next generation – remains an ongoing problem, with the average age of UK farmers estimated at 59.

THE “MOSQUITO PRINCIPLE”

Mr Aitchison also passed on some timely business advice for farmers which was given to him by his father – a Mosquito pilot with the RAF during the Second World War.

“When my father was 20 years old, he learned that indecision could be fatal,” he said. “So his advice was to be decisive in life. The officers taught him to only focus on his own airspace, whatever else was going on in the battle, to not get distracted, focus only on the thing you can change and be decisive.

“I call it the Mosquito Principle – focus on your own air space and be decisive. If you make a decision and get it wrong, you can always make another decision to put it right.

“As we look ahead to Brexit and a lot of change and uncertainty I can think of no better advice. If we have got four years to wait to see the rule changes in the industry kick in, don’t wait three-and-a-half years to do anything. Start now and your business can be Brexit-proof and future-proof.”

BLACK-GRASS BATTLE

Battles are being won in the war against black-grass – but farmers need a long-term strategy if they want to beat the yield-killing weed.

That was the view from Frontier’s head of innovation knowledge exchange David Robinson as he updated conference visitors on efforts to control one the arable industry’s perennial problems.

He said just one black-grass plant left uncontrolled in an oilseed rape crop could return 40,000 seeds within just two rotations.

While chemical control is still effective – and the timing and “stacking” of weedkillers can have a significant impact – he said new active ingredients are slow to emerge from the development process.

So Mr Robinson said the company’s trials programme has been looking at alternatives including annual cultivations, later seed-drilling dates, and rotational changes to ensure black-grass can emerge and be killed before the establishment of the commercial crop.

Eight years of trials at Staunton in the Vale near Nottingham showed that later drilling can have a dramatic impact on black-grass levels, he said, adding: “The war is ongoing, but with good strategy we are winning some battles along the way.”

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