OPINION: ‘Business as usual’ is over - but farms need a clearer vision for change

Emily Norton, head of the Savills Rural Research team. Picture: Richard Marsham

Emily Norton, head of the Savills Rural Research team. Picture: Richard Marsham - Credit: Richard Marsham

“Business as usual” is no longer an option for farms seeking to adapt to a changing world says EMILY NORTON, a former Norfolk dairy farmer who is now head of rural research at Savills.

In farming, “we’ve always done it this way” is perhaps the most dangerous thing you can say.

It is also nonsensical given the enormous changes in mechanization, breeding and chemistry that have transformed the productivity of agriculture over the last 50 years. And it also assumes that what we’re doing now is worth preserving. In this context, it’s worth noting that the voices calling for farming to change has shifted beyond the “usual suspect” environmental NGOs, to advanced geographic data visualisation companies, major supply chain buyers, scientific research institutions and even Defra itself. All – in their own way – are saying that “business as usual” is over.

All the noise around sustainability masks a lack of vision as to what we want our future agriculture to be. The answer could of course just be “sustainable”, but this does not provide a framework for managing all of the competing demands at farm level.

Nobody seems to have a clear answer as to whether higher farming standards should be rewarded from the market place, incentivised by government subsidy, or pushed up by regulation. Most would say all three, and with no unfair trade deals to boot. In all the pandemonium, farmers are rightly and justifiably confused about what they should be doing to get their businesses fit for purpose. Waiting for ELMS [the government’s environmental land management scheme due to replace EU subsidies after Brexit] is simply not enough.

READ MORE: How can farms ride out the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, climate change and coronavirus?

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There are however opportunities out there, although they will require risk and investment. A key one is diversifying our crop rotations. We estimate that around 90pc of the farm produce of Norfolk and Suffolk is sold to just 20 buyers, but changing consumer demands means increasing appetite for previously niche crops, including rye, flax and hemp. The list of crops that could be grown here is long – sometimes a lack of scale and processing capacity is the only market barrier. The challenge is to find some collaborators, ensure contracts share value to growers and investors, and make it happen.

The other option for “taking back control” at farm level is around regenerative agriculture, and I commend you all to watch Kiss the Ground on Netflix. It’s not just the benefits of using soil health to slash input costs, or the layering of livestock and arable enterprises (mixed farming, as it used to be known).

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For me it’s the way biodiversity is used to build resilience, enabling a rejection of both subsidy and a “one size fits all” methodology. Given the myriad complexity of our farms and landscapes, taking a soil and landscape-first approach seems a good and self-focused route to adopt. Owner-occupiers, landlords and tenants should align on this.

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