Monday, January 29, 2018

Oxford: Gove tries to please everyone

FARMWORLD  Practical Farm Ideas  Issue 26-4  Feb - May 2018 

More from FarmWorld will  be posted in due course

Oxford: Gove tries to please everyone

The two January conferences in Oxford run concurrently and Michael Gove was the first environment secretary to make the short dash between the events. Oxford 2018 was an important stage for the start of a new farming era, and Gove provided his audiences with forward looking policies which will take over from increasingly discredited present EU policy. At the OFC he provided big farmers, big agri, and their advisors with some comfort when he extended the transition period for subsidies to 2024 (Liz Truss had extended the 2019 exit date to 2022), and then telling those ‘real farmers’ at the ORFC meeting at the Town Hall that he will not only be introducing new environmental directives but will also be driving a change in food production systems. “It is about the health of our families, our nation and the costs placed on our National Health Service”.

Gove is a master wordsmith. You can see him revelling in the shape and sound of his delivery, and it makes the task of any reporter that much easier when the words hang together like his do.
Of course the key question is if it makes sense as well, and the people in both conferences largely seemed in agreement that it did. They have come to realise that Defra after Brexit will be very different. In fact, the CAP in EU27 will be very different after Brexit - something forecast by some EU agri officials just a few days after the critical vote. The money won’t be there like it has been. 

A glance at the subheads of his speech has the reader wanting more:
The age of acceleration - what does it mean?  am I missing out?
A state without the means of change is without the means of conservation - Gove says if farming can’t make change then it is never going to improve the lot of the birds and bees.

The Secretary floated the idea of a Department of Wellbeing linking Heath and Defra, and told his audience that Health and Defra were talking more than ever to find and exploit common ground.
“Ours is the first generation where more people succumb to non-communicable conditions than infectious diseases. The rising dangers are obesity, diabetes, coronary failure, cancer and deteriorating mental health, and diet plays a part in all these conditions.”

He was critical of the CAP in both conferences, claiming that the present system drives up land prices “creating a barrier to entry for innovative new farmers and entrenching lower productivity”.
He wants to make the system much easier, with schemes “simplified to the extent that any farmer can complete an application in a working day. Starting at the computer after breakfast the whole process has to be able to be finished by six o’clock, when it will be time for a well-deserved pint.”

He was very critical of the present farm inspection system currently with RPA, Natural England, The Animal and Plant Agency, Environment Agency and the local authority all requiring information with much overlapping and little if any co-ordination. The inflexibility and fear of penalty means inspection of precise field dimensions, location of trees and so on “in a near-pointless exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking”.

On trade he said “we are confident in building a new economic partnership with the EU that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods across each other’s borders. We have a deficit in agri and horticultural produce with the EU27. Irish beef farmers, French butter and cheese producers, Dutch market gardeners and Spanish salad growers all have an interest just as, if not more acute, than Welsh sheep farmers or Ulster dairy farmers in securing tariff-free access between the UK and the EU.”

Under the heading ‘Paying for what we value’ Gove said “Take the vital question of soil health. Min or no-till approaches, which require less expenditure on inputs and keep more carbon in the soil, are both economically more efficient and environmentally progressive.” and went on to say that the CAP’s focus has led to “decades of damage” in the form of soil erosion which costs the UK economy around £1.2bn a year. Out of the CAP we have the chance to reverse “this unhappy trend”.
Gove’s writing abilities - he was a journalist in Aberdeen prior to parliament - came to the fore in each section of his speeches: “I am moved by the beauty of our natural landscapes, feel a sense of awe and wonder at the richness and abundance of creation, value wild life as a good in its own right, admire those who work with nature and on our land, respect the skill and passion of farmers, growers, shepherds, stockmen, vets and agronomists who provide us with high quality food and drink, and I want to see them prosper.” He has the happy knack of creating a quotable quote in virtually every paragraph.
The press view of Michael Gove, over a video link to the press room. The OFC listened politely but unsure how to repsond. Afterwards he went to speak to the REAL people and his comments were greeted with whooping.

At the OFC
The political and economic climate remains predominant at the OFC, and while Michael Gove gave plenty of information, Ted McKinney, the top man from the USDA managed to reveal far less. We learned of his Irish and Scottish roots, love of Britain and his support of the special relationship. He got tetchy when chlorine washed chicken was mentioned, saying the practice hasn’t been used for more than a decade. Where McKinney failed on facts, Prof Dieter Helm from Oxford, made up for them in abundance. Helm, who has been advising Defra, gave an excellent fact filled presentation which put some of the farming facts in context. Flanked by NFU posters which reiterated the oft-repeated message
“Farming meets 61% of the nation’s food needs and forms the bedrock of the UK food and drink sector which contributes £112bn1 to the nation’s economy and provides 3.8 million jobs.  Farming makes a significant economic contribution as well as caring for our iconic British countryside and putting safe, affordable British food on tables across the country.”
The Oxford professor spelt out the realities of UK farming outside the EU, but concluded there are lots of reasons for being extremely cheerful about the future of farming.
The Prof says there are two things of real importance to farming. 1. the understanding and translation into policy that we can’t go on depleting the farming environment. 2. Brexit means the end of the CAP and farming covers 70 - 80% of the UK land. Benefitting the natural environment means changing the course of direction, and the proposal of a joint policy for farming and environment into one will, Dieter Helm believes, be very beneficial. Natural Capital has become the most important driver of policy, and the idea is clear to farmers because it is what their work is all about, for it’s what nature gave us for free and what farmers use for production. The depletion of the assets of water, land, soils, air jeopardises the future.
On trade Dieter explained that agriculture is very small in relation to the rest of the economy. UK agriculture output is £9bn, which is approximately 0.7% of GDP. The CAP subsidies are £3bn. In addition the sector has other advantages and implicit subsidies: the special inheritance tax deal; the red diesel deal; a special business rates arrangement; it doesn’t pay for the pollution created in the way other sectors are forced to do, and it does not pay for the consequences of the wider environment. 100 years ago agriculture was where economies were at but today they are extremely small at least here in Britain, and the net contribution, after subsidy, is miniscule. Helm recognises the scale of the food and drinks industry, but points out that the two are separate. Many countries have a big food sector with little or no domestic production (eg Swiss chocolate, Italian coffee? ed).  Helm says this is a fact, not a criticism, but one which is relevant to any discussions and decisions taken in Whitehall. 

Negotiations with the EU27
Unlike popular belief, the EU and USA are part of a very protectionist trading framework, and the market which really counts for Britain is the EU. Without that market the trade negotiations are the most important part of the negotiations with the EU27. 
The ending of Pillar 1 payments, Dieter says, is inevitably going to happen. But nobody so far is talking about the capitalised losses - such as a decline in the value of farm land - which Helm believes is sure to happen “it’s basic economics”. This will put farms that have borrowed heavily against their asset values in some risk. He told the conference he was recently interested in buying a farm on Exmoor, the asking price being around £5k /acre for poor rough grazing which has a very low earning capacity. He believed the value is inflated by subsidy, and if it were removed the value would drop considerably.
He says the present system of farming subsidy provides public money for private goods which conflicts with the usual system where it is public goods that are supported. Helm agrees that Pillar 2 payments provide for public good, but not in an efficient way. People other than farmers should be able to bid for environmental projects on farmland.
Pollution: in other sectors if you cause pollution you are required to pay the cost. In farming, he said, there’s a different notion which says that farming has to be paid not to pollute or damage the environment. Hence stewardship schemes that help reduce the reduction of birds, insects and wildlife. 

The future of farming.  This is an area where there are lots of reasons for being extremely cheerful. It is the turning point where we have the end of the disastrous CAP in sight. CAP has not served the environment well, or farmers.  Land values will normalise to reflect yield.

Practical farming
The conference moved away from farming politics in three sessions on Jan 4. The first was an innovative farm extension service that has been running in East Africa; the second and ingenious way of identifying points on the globe using a code of just three words which sounds impossible but has the backing of $millions; doing the Hands-Free-Hectare, the well publicised development which they have been working on at Harper Adams University.


This is the world’s largest knowledge-sharing network for small-scale farmers, lets farmers connect with one another around the world to solve problems, share ideas and spread innovation. Farmers can share crucial livestock and crop knowledge, request creative low-cost farming methods, or ask questions relating to any type of agricultural input or output — without having to leave their farms and without needing internet. Utilising the latest machine learning technology, WeFarm’s service works both online and over SMS. Knowledge shared on WeFarm can help farmers to produce higher quality product, increase yields, gain insight into marketing pricing, tackle the effects of climate change, source the best seeds, fertiliser and loans, diversify agricultural interests, and much more. The free service allows farmers in East Africa to share info via their mobile phone SMS connection - no need for broadband. The example was given of a farmer finding grubs destroying a maize crop.

More than 100,000 farmers now use the service across Kenya, Uganda and Peru, with more signing up daily. Investment is led by LocalGlobe, founded by former Index Ventures partners Robin and Saul Klein, and the scheme bolsters the fast-growing UK agtech sector.
Said Kenny Ewan, CEO says “Our mutual belief in the value of peer-to-peer knowledge and shared commitment to creating sustainable initiatives for farmers through the latest technologies – are sure to produce great results.Approximately 500 million small-scale farmers around the world provide over 70% of the world’s food. However, up to 90% have no access to the internet and they are often isolated and lack access to even basic agricultural information and new ideas. With the world’s population projected to grow from 7 to 9 billion by 2050 and climate change an entrenched reality, increased pressures on the global food supply chain will only persist. Farmers and businesses without access to problem-solving technologies and data are at risk of being left behind. By sending a free SMS, farmers can receive accurate answers to any agricultural queries. The service uses machine learning technology to connect incoming questions to those users on the system who have the most relevant knowledge. Topics discussed on the network range from how to stop baby chicks from dying to where to find a market to sell onions.

Considering it’s ‘off-grid’ nature, end users have used the service a huge amount; sharing more than 15 million pieces of information. In 2015 WeFarm was part of the Wayra UK accelerator in London, which supported the business in its growth trajectory.


This is a location service which pinpoints any global location using a code of three words. Farmer’s son Chris Sheldrick, the company CEO, explained that he and the W3W team have created a virtual grid of 3m by 3m squares across the whole world, with each having a distinct three word code which can be recognised and identified by a mobile phone app. The trios of words are assigned to the 57 trillion or so 3x3m squares around the globe. The small size of each square means people can be directed to the front of a building rather than a vague post code, and this occurs in every country. The front of a building will have one What3Word code and there’s another for the side or rear. The words are in English but random, which means that mistakes entering them will not result in a nearby place but are obvious. Once entered into the phone app directions are produced in the same was as a Sat Nav. Except the destination is far more specific. Farmers can use it to locate a gateway or specific shed and instruct deliveries or visitors to the three word coordinate.

Testing it on the location of our farm near Llanboidy (  produced a map showing only the lane and the streams, no buildings, house, hedges or other features. Pinpointing the house or shed needs knowledge of the yard area.

However the person using the three word code tooth.polished.recorders  would be taken to a point somewhere very close to the house or yard. It’s a million times better than the post code.
Sheldrick adds: “We see our service being most useful where current methods of describing location (e.g. postcodes or ZIP codes) don’t do the job well enough or don’t do the job at all — but of course it has applications as a preferred alternative even where the existing solutions do a decent job, but perhaps less precise/customised than w3w.”

Chris’s farming background underlined the problems of finding places and directing contractors to fields which can be some way from the home farm. Remembering three words is considerably easier than using GPS coordinates.

The service has wide applications for taxis, deliveries, emergencies and just pinpointing a meeting place in Hyde Park for example. In farming it has the potential to identify field gateways, sheds, wet patches in fields, areas of weeds such as blackgrass, the location of a sick cow in a field… and many others which can be thought up.

Lunching at OFC
Both Google’s Open Location Code and TomTom’s MapCode offer novel grid solutions which do much the same thing as What3Words, but perhaps in a less refined way. Post codes are by no means the only grids available, thought they are the most commonly used as they are in daily use and easy to remember. The main requirement is that they work reliably and with a variety of different systems. W3W is limited to iOS9.0 or later on iPhone, iPad or iPod and also with Android. The service is free for certain users but for others there is a charge.

Hands Free Hectare  

Harper Adams engineering lecturer Kit Franklin introduced the conference audience to his baby and explained that the guidance methods are based on drone technology. The budget for their first crop harvested in 2017 was £200k, and the equipment on the tractor was around £10k.  Kit asked why it is that an annual subscription to a guidance system can cost £14k.
The second crop has been planted and they are hoping for straighter drills, improved yields which compare more closely with those published by AHDB in their lists.
“When we drilled our spring barley earlier this year, the tractor was a bit wavy and so were the drill lines. We’ve had six months to develop the system and we’ve seen improvements which will improve field coverage and ultimately yield. The tractor was still a bit wayward when turning back into the field, but once it’s on the line it was really straight with pass to pass cover greatly improved.”

Oxford REAL builds its fan base

Conference Manager Nessie Reid said: “We are delighted to announce the ORFC 2018 programme – packed with practical farming know how and debate ranging from Brexit to systems change, to wildlife friendly farming.

The plenary showed delegates the extent of this 6 stage conference. Colin Tudge explained how in the last 20 years farming has come to realise the limitations of science.  Helen Browning, head of the Soil Association, also was a speaker. 
“Industrial agriculture is one of the largest contributors to biodiversity loss and climate change. There has never been a more important time in the history of humanity to implement farming systems that not only provide us with fresh, clean food, but which also support soil health, our water and the biosphere. I believe the ORFC is a collective beacon of optimism for envisioning and working towards a bright food and farming future.”

With over 700 farmers and people from across the industry registered for the two days, organisers coped well with the numbers and though Oxford Town Hall appeared busy, it was a pleasant and friendly crush.

Most farmers said they had done some pre-planning so they knew where they were going. The multi-stage programme was well organised, allowing people to follow their most interesting topics through the day. The variety of topics is best shown by the programme from 4pm on Day 1: Main Hall - Whatever is happening to the world’s insects?  Assembly Room: Post Brexit farm support, how should it be governed. Old Library: What we eat and how we eat today; Council Chamber: What animals want: learning and delivering welfare science; Long Room: Sticking at it; St Aldates Room: Farming, renewables and diversity - can it be a win-win? Christopher RoomDelivering diversity at farm scale. Multiply this programme by the 7 main sessions over the two days and you can judge the impossibility of giving a meaningful review.

The ending plenary looked at the event in the round. Founder Colin Tudge said that before the first one he was told it was not realistic. At the time all serious farming research was done by academics, and farmers’ experimentations were dismissed as uncorroborated and lacking evidence. Today the same detractors are competing for funds from Farmer Innovation groups.

Tudge is sceptical about the Gove promises on environment and reform of policies, and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times told the ORFC “nothing in the Gove programme couldn’t be done with the UK remaining in the EU”.

Allowing these two pilgrims to sing 'God speed the farmer' was a brilliant break from the agenda

The conference mood remained at high pitch as they heard a superb rendition of God speed the Farmer and, at the end, the hall was coached to ’Sing John Bull’. Nothing like some community singing!

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