'Profit should not be taboo' when discussing environmental payments for farmers, says consultant
Profit should not be a taboo subject when discussing conservation, said a Norfolk farm adviser - especially when trying to encourage more farmers to join stewardship schemes which could benefit wildlife on a landscape scale.
Abby Maynard, an environmental consultant within the agricultural business consultancy at Brown and Co in Norwich, said government schemes such as Countryside Stewardship (CS) offered competitive payments for installing features such as flower-rich margins and wild bird seed mixes.
This could bring a reliable income stream for farms when unpredictable arable margins are squeezed.
But she said farmers don't often take the time to calculate the potential profits from these options – and the financial incentives are rarely explored in conservation discussions.
“One thing that really frustrates me is that if you go to conservation talks, profit seems to be a taboo subject,” she said. “I was at a meeting recently where one chap stood up and said: 'I have heard all the reasons why I should go into CS, but will it make me any money?' The murmur that went round that room was unbelievable.
“I really don't think profit should be taboo in conservation discussions. It should be part of the reason for doing this, and in some cases it is the only reason people go into it.
“The more attractive you make the payments, you will get more uptake and therefore more space for wildlife.
“Everyone has different motives. You will go onto some farms and they will ask: 'What is the best approach for wildlife?' Another will say they want it to make X pounds per year, and that is fine too.
“If these schemes are being managed properly, they should deliver for both the farmer and the wildlife.”
But, after it emerged last month that almost 4,000 farmers had still not received their 2017 payments from the Entry Level and Higher level Stewardship (ELS and HLS) schemes which preceded CS, she said the administration of the current scheme remained a major concern.
“The one aspect that lets stewardship down is the government administration which is putting people off,” she said. “Farmers and landowners would be much bolder in putting forward schemes if they could bank on the timings of payments.”
One farmer who has weighed up the economics of the environment is Mark Gill of Coston Hall Farm, a mixed farming enterprise between Dereham and Wymondham.
He runs the arable operation for Coston Hall and several neighbouring farming businesses – totalling 1,100 acres under the forage harvester, and 1,700 acres under the combine – while his brother John runs the farm's 320-strong dairy herd, using a New Zealand-style grazing system.
Mr Gill also manages three separate CS agreements which started in January 2018, including one for Coston Hall, where 15ha of land has been taken out of production for environmental features.
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He said although the new CS scheme was “financially not quite what it was under HLS”, it was more flexible and allowed the farm to manage its grazing land in the most efficient way, while creating a network of floristically-enhanced field margins and wild bird mix plots for nature – with, crucially, a viable economic return.
“We are really pleased with how it is progressing because we have been able to fit in everything we do as a business,” he said. “At Coston Hall we keep the grassland out of the scheme because it restricts the amount of N (nitrogen) we were allowed to apply to the grass. That flexibility is important, and we could not have done that with HLS.
“For the new scheme we put in the arable land and our SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), which is fenland with wild orchids, but we can still carry on with the grazing in a way that makes it viable from a farming point of view.
“We kept some elements from our HLS goals, but we added more to it. We have gone more on the wild bird mixes because there is a better net return.
“These CS schemes give an opportunity for people to integrate conservation with their business and get some reliable profit for it as well. For us to carry on as farmers, it needs to be worth it.
“Farming is the one industry where you pay for all your inputs and then you have no control over what you get out. At least with CS schemes it gives us a bit more certainty as a farming business.”
COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP: HOW THE FINANCES STACK UP
Brown and Co has calculated that the annual average stewardship income across its client base for the 2018 application year was £819 for each hectare taken out of production.
The calculation included management costs – including cultivation and drilling, seeds, and any necessary fertiliser – based on the NAAC (National Association of Agricultural Contractors) average contracting charges guide for 2018.
These were the margins for some individual options:
• AB8 (Flower Rich Margin or Plot) – cost £80.29 per hectare, per annum – income £539 per ha – gross margin £458.71
• AB9 (Winter Bird Food) – cost £232.60 per hectare, per annum – income £640 per ha – gross margin £407.40
• AB12 (Supplementary Feeding) – cost c£180 per tonne, per annum – income £632 per tonne – gross margin £452.00
• SW3 (In Field Grass Strip) – cost £30.00 per hectare, per annum – income £557.00 per ha – gross margin £527.00
Environmental consultant Abby Maynard said: “While these gross margins will not be representative for every farm and may seem small in comparison to the total income generated through traditional arable crops, many farmers do not take the time to calculate their income per hectare, minus fixed and variable costs which would be required for a true comparison. There are also payments available which do not require land to be taken out of production.
“Looking to the future it will be more important than ever for farmers to reject the 'do what we have always done' attitude and make more informed cropping decisions – with or without stewardship forming part of that cropping.”