Autumnal Update

As ever at this time of year, time has run away with me and suddenly you reliase it’s October and you haven’t updated your blog in months! So here’s a quick update:

The summer was so hot and dry that we despaired about ever getting rain, but it did turn up eventually, albeit too little too late for a few salad crops that were held back depsite watering by hand (it’s never the same). However everything else survived; and some crops such as courgettes and squash did very well, loving the heat and dry (we managed to water them just enough to get going). The kale and leeks in the other field could have done with a bit more rain; but the enviromesh netting did shade them a bit, and keep any due under the net for the plants to use, stopping what water was around from evaporating too quickly.

All the crops look great now; there was a bit of mildew on the chard and also Red Russian kales in early September; but a few good days of rain have helped the plants grow through it.

We’re now clearing out the beans and cucumbers from the tunnels; and next week the tomatoes will go, in order to make room for all the winter salad leaves that are ready to plant out.

We attended a Wiltshire Council Market Towns Forum on Thursday 4th in Bradford on Avon’s St Margaret’s Hall; and had an interesting discussion about how best to help local producers and local markets. My argument was of course around access to land, and how council planning departments could work with farmers and growers to make it easier for us to live on or close to the land we work. Councillors seemed very interested, and came up with a few ideas too, such as adding my suggested register for those people looking for agriculturally tied properties, to the current options on the Homes For Wiltshire affordable housing website.

Meanwhile there is much work also going on with the Organic Growers Alliance, as we are planning a new website among other things; and helping to run sessions at the ORC’s Organic Congress in November: book your tickets now!

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Fruit & Veg Alliance: Westminster 9th July

Last Monday I trooped off to Parliament to join the launch of the Fruit & Veg Alliance. With everything else going on in Westminster this week, you may not have heard about the successful launch of the Fruit & Veg Alliance on Monday. This alliance is made up of a number of farming and food organisations, including the Organic Growers Alliance, with the aim of boosting fruit and veg production by 25 billion more portions, to be in line with the amount needed to hit the ‘seven a day’ target. In order to hit this target, more support and recognition is needed from government, hence the invitations to ministers and MPs.

Helen Whately MP was hosting and chairing the event and introduced the Minister, who briefly summed up the the current position in relation to the agricultural white paper and Brexit. He was at pains to stress that although the future is uncertain, that by the end of 2018 there should be agreement on the withdrawal bill and the likely ‘new economic partnership’ post 2021. Farmers will have access to seasonal migrant labour as usual until 2020, and the Agriculture and Horticulture bill is in its early draft stage with a planned launch in September.

Mr Eustace also suggested that larger businesses would not necessarily come together marketing support from the government, but would for technical support; and that this sort of support would be open to all scales of businesses. There will also be some kind of seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme again. There was also a lengthy discussion on how to attract UK workers and new entrants to growing: the lack of courses was cited as the main reason for the lack of qualified workers, and the courses have dried up due to lack of demand over the years. It was generally agreed that this was in part due to lack of opportunities and career progression, and lack of kudos in the industry, so the sector needs to be more attractive to our brightest talent.

There was then a good discussion on how to make fruit and veg more affordable, as this is perhaps one of the main reasons why the average consumption of fruit and veg is only 1.6 portions per day per adult, rather than the recommended 7 per day. Some thought that fruit and veg were actually already very cheap; it was the potential waste factor if people don’t know what to do with them that could make them seem expensive. Other thoughts included finding different ways to get food to people, such as via schools if children grow food themselves; taking part in a council-supported subsidised scheme such as Tamar Grow Local; and getting the public more appreciative and involved in food growing, which would lead to less waste, such as CSA organisations. Supermarkets are currently the main way in which most people have access to fruit and veg; and Andrew Burgess pointed out that because supermarkets took the stigma out of buying ‘own brand’ fruit and veg years ago, this has been perhaps too successful in that there are currently hardly any brands in produce. Perhaps more brands would help this and be more recognisable, induce customer loyalty and so on?

Laura Sandys was keen to explore how to get the ‘health’ element drawn out and woven together more tightly with food production, and getting the health department working more closely with DEFRA, pointing out that while there was lots of excellent material about the environment in the spring consultation paper, people are as important as the environment, and we also need to work on protecting human health and making that sustainable. Claire Donovan suggested that gene editing should be advanced in order to drive advances in crop production, which the minister agreed with, and said that education in schools should be more supported, and school meals need to be looked at again. Helen Whately suggested that a financial reward could be offered to farmers and growers for the education element when children and adults are encouraged to come onto farms; and that farm visits could be subsidised. The ‘public goods’ mentioned in the Health & Harmony consultation paper could also include education.

Most around the table agreed that big corporations had their roles to play too, and that MacDonald’s 5-a-day push several years ago had a major impact on fruit and veg consumption, so credit should be given for efforts made.

Kirstene Hair wondered why tasting tables at supermarkets were never fruit and veg, and that perhaps some pressure could be placed to encourage this with innovative ways of using fruit and veg at home; although several producers pointed out that those tasting tables tend to cost around £5,000 which is money fruit and veg growers tend not to have.

There was also a lively discussion about food being a public good; and how food in hospitals should be healthy food to encourage good health. Several alliance members asked if a representative from the health department could be present at the Fruit & Veg Alliance’s first roundtable meeting with DEFRA, planned for September, and Maggie Charnley from DEFRA said she would work on this.

After a packed evening it was time to draw the discussions to a close, and Helen Whately thanked everyone for taken part, and was thanked in turn. The launch was a success, and all the members looked forward to coming up with many solutions to the discussed challenges.

 

Present: George Eustace (Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) Emily Nash (of the Minister’s office), Neil Parish (MP), Helen Whately (MP), Kirstene Hair (MP), Laura Sandys (Chair of Food Foundation), Courtney Scott (Food Foundation), Amber Wheeler (Peas Please), Rebecca Laughton (Landworkers’ Alliance), Maresa Bossa (Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK), Jack Ward (British Growers Association BGA), Ben Raskin (Soil Association), Clare Donovan (Gs Fresh) , Andrew Burgess (Produce World), Kate Collyns (Organic Growers Alliance OGA), Maggie Charnley (DEFRA), Nick Marston (British Summer Fruits)

DEFRA Consultation Meeting April 10th 2018

This may be a little late, but sunny weather among other things have put this write-up on the back burner: seriously DEFRA, a consultation with farmers which takes place over spring?!? For those who haven’t heard of it yet, DEFRA has been consulting with myriad interested groups as well as individuals over what should happen post-Brexit: it published the Health & Harmony paper at the end of February, and has invited feedback on its ideas by 8th May.

As part of the consultation process, DEFRA has also been taking part in events and workshops around the country, and mostly on behalf of the OGA I was invited to an event run by Sustain and DEFRA at the Mary Ward House London on Tuesday the 10th April 2018. The aim was to “discuss some of the key Government proposals for building a thriving agricultural sector outside of the EU”.

Vicki Hird from Sustain kicked us off in the morning by welcoming everyone (it was a good turnout, approx 70+ people from all kinds of organisations) and pointing out how many organisations Sustain represents, as the voice for food and farming. She also welcomed the opportunity for discussion and chance to be really bold with a new food and farming system, concentrating on sustainability in all its guises, and celebrated the paper’s concentration on public goods and the environment. She also pointed out how linked health was with all the points covered in the paper, although it is not always explicity referred to in the document itself (despite being in the title). She also warmly thanked Michael Gove for taking the time to come to the meeting.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affair, then gave an unscripted speech in which he encouraged as many people as possible to get involved with the consultation: he explained that in the case of banning the tusk/ivory trade, that came about because of the engagement and passion exhibited by so many participants, which made it easier for DEFRA to engage other government departments, to connect the threads and get something momentous done. He urged us all to “take this opportunity to make it clear what you want,” and (somewhat ironically given his infamous Brexit quote about experts) explained that “expertise and authority counts” but that all views were welcome. He also covered and seemed to support all the ‘right’ things in terms of sustainability, reducing reliance on inputs and chemicals, looking holistically at health and food choices, supporting high quality food production… but as a speech rather than bill and as it’s just a consultation paper nothing is concrete yet…

Finally DEFRA’s deputy director for the RDPE Andrew Robinson gave an overview of the Health & Harmony paper, DEFRA’s current thinking about the issues and explained how the following sessions would work. His presentation emphasised the top priorities: broad purpose, integrated policy, adequate budget for the job, baseline regulation and public engagement. Following March 2019 when the UK formally leaves the EU, there will be an implementation period, expected to last around two years, then “at some point” (!) the new agriculture policy begins and CAP is ended.

After the introductory speeches the participants headed to a breakout session to discuss one of the following areas, with time for another session in the afternoon:

1.     Reducing Direct Payments To discuss the best approach for reducing direct payments to farmers: considering progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments.
2.     Environmental Land Management scheme To discuss what a new environmental land management scheme should look like and how to make it a success. Including multi-annual agreements, user-friendly focus, innovative mechanisms, capital grants & funding for collaborative projects.
3.     Farming Excellence, Profitability and Resilience To discuss how to ensure farmers have access the right tools to improve productivity and manage risk and volatility; covering skills & knowledge; investing in new technologies with a focus on resource efficiency & sustainable growth; skilled workforce – investing in talent & an attractive & exciting career path; and agri-tech research
4.     Animal Health/ welfare This workshop aims to explore the ways we can encourage farmers and land managers as animal keepers throughout the industry to further improve animal health and tackle endemic disease.
5.     Uplands/Rural To discuss how the Government can support the uplands and other remote areas to improve growth and prosperity across rural communities

I chose to go the Farming Excellence session first: DEFRA officials were facillitating the discussions, but many partipants seemed to have very similar views and addressed their points to the DEFRA employees passionately as if to convince them there and then of the need to overhaul the system and get departments working together – for example the planning department to make ot easier for landworkers to build on their land, in order to encourage and maintain new entrants, as well as help with family farms and attracting workers. There were plenty of interesting discussions about problems with the supply chain and how the competition commission and supermarket ombudsman should also have more powers; and how tinkering with plans such as trying to get farmers to share resources and skills isn’t really addressing fundamental problems with the food system.

After an interesting networking lunch, I took part in the reducing cap payments session, and again it was felt by most in the room that these kinds of questions aren’t really the right ones we should be asking. Small scale growers were well represented in the room, and we all pointed out that horticulture is often not even included in stat gathering or discussions at DEFRA about agriculture and food production; and that holdings under 5ha are currently ineligible for cap payments anyway. It was revealed by the DEFRA facilitators that there isn’t any modelling looking at the affects of progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments – this lack of modelling was a bit of a shock (a David Davis Brexit moment). It was felt that DEFRA should be looking at how models of the ideas posited would affect recipients, especially those marginal farms who are currently so dependent on cap payment and quick withdrawal with no other support or alternative system already in place could lead to the farms going out of business as well as bankruptcy, depression and suicide of farmers. Without the modelling information, it was felt to be difficult to arbitrarily pick an type of withdrawal curve profile, other than gradual withdrawal would probably be more sensible. Although it was also pointed out that with a limited budget, it might be difficult to put the new system in place before a reduction on cap payments has freed up some money to spend on it (although again, modelling and projection should be able to ameliorate this as in a finacial year, if you know you will be saving £xx, you can plan to spend £xx on another system).

Overall many participants were left with the desperate urge to fill in the online consultation asap and encourage everyone they knew to do the same, in case these very important issues raised are overlooked or drop down the priority list.