Friday, 13 February 2015

Future of upland farming takes centre stage

Nearly 100 delegates turned out on a frosty February morning to attend the first joint EBLEX and NFU Uplands Conference which took place near Okehampton, Devon.

Titled ‘Optimising your farm in the uplands’, the conference was one of two designed specifically to address issues pertinent to upland livestock producers, the second of which took place in Skipton, North Yorkshire. The Okehampton event attracted livestock producers from all over the South West to hear presentations from fellow farmers and expert speakers covering subjects as varied as diversification, succession planning, grassland management and CAP reform.

The conference was chaired by NFU uplands spokesperson Robin Milton, who in his welcome admitted to delegates that while he wants to take an optimistic view, he has concerns about the future of upland farming given the current challenges. “We keep being told the future is bright, but we don’t know how far away the star is,” he said.

The agenda opened with a session on maximising farm business opportunities. Rupert Cox, business adviser and CEO of the Royal Bath and West Society, Joel Woolf, of legal firm Foot Anstey, and HSBC agriculture and food advisor the Rt. Hon. Michael Jack, gave their views on the pros and cons of diversification versus focusing on the core farming business. From the fairly traditional (B&B, fishing lake, caravans) to the rather more unusual (eco igloos, green burials, duvet production), there are many diversification options, but the message from the speakers was that it’s essential to choose the right option for each individual farming business and have a carefully-planned strategy.

Following a brief session on policy, where delegates were given an update from the NFU’s Alex Stevens on the current CAP Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and an overview of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme from Natural England’s Richard Andrews, the agenda moved on to farming and the next generation.

The conference heard very frank accounts from Exmoor farmer Oliver Edwards and Mendips farmer James Small about how they’ve dealt with succession planning within their own businesses and families. Their honesty and openness in relation to such a tricky subject was certainly appreciated by the assembled audience. They were followed by a second presentation from solicitor Joel Woolfe, who didn’t mince his words when it came to the importance of starting succession planning early and ensuring arrangements are put on a firm legal footing.

After a break for lunch, there was a change of gear and the technical side of farming took centre stage. Dr Mariecia Fraser, from IBERS, was the first to present, giving an overview of recent and upcoming research for upland farming. Alongside research investigating the impact on sheep performance of mixed grazing and the effect of different breed types on habitats, she highlighted an interesting project looking at sowing daffodils into existing upland pastures with the aim of harvesting galanthamine, a plant-derived pharmaceutical product approved as a treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Moving on from research to knowledge transfer, independent consultant Charlie Morgan was next to speak, with advice on how to optimise the potential of upland grasslands. Charlie’s presentation contained plenty of thought-provoking questions designed to get the delegates to think about the current situation on their farm and where they want to get to in terms of their grassland management.
The day concluded with a question and answer session, where EBLEX assistant regional manager Joseph Keating interviewed Dartmoor farmer Lloyd Mortimer and Matt Green, from Exmoor, and found out their views on the future of grassland farming.

With such a broad range of speakers and topics, there’s no doubt that everyone who attended got something useful out of the day. And in a broader sense, the event hopefully helped some in the audience feel more positive about the future of their upland farming businesses.

Robin Milton, from the NFU uplands group, summed up it up neatly on Twitter in fewer than 140 characters, saying:

“Inspiring and open speakers today. There is a future for upland farming after all.”

Presentations from both the South West and North East Uplands Conferences can be found on the EBLEX website.