Meeting with CRAG: Westminster 6th February

The Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG), which advises the Conservative party on policy affecting rural issues, invited a range of new entrants to farming to come to their bimonthly meeting in Westminster on 6th February, in order to take part in a discussion on making it easier for farmers, foresters and smallholders to get planning permission to live on their land. This was coordinated by the LWA, and there were so many new entrants keen to come and share their experiences in this area that the group had to meet in a bigger room in the RICS building up the road from the Houses of Parliament, to accommodate the 10-15 CRAG committee members alongside these 50+ guests.

The main speaker was Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land, who gave a comprehensive picture of the problems faced by many when it comes to gaining planning permission: he argued that the current system is not fit for purpose, and many planning officers are almost automatically refusing planning simply to try and weed out applicants that are not really committed to making a living from the land. This leads to a huge amount of stress, expense and delay for those involved, especially as many do go on to succesfully gain permission on appeal.

The meeting then heard a presentation from Zoe Wangler from the Ecological Land Co-Operative. Zoe outlined the work achieved by the ELC since it was founded in 2009 as a not-for-profit social enterprise with the objective of providing opportunities for new entrants into farming. The ELC currently has 300 members and a coregroup of Directors who are elected by the membership. The primary model pursued by the ELC is creating a share issue to purchase agricultural land on which it then obtains planning permission for a small number of residential smallholdings. These are then offered to committed and experienced new entrants on an affordable 150-year agricultural business tenancy. The ELC also provides grants to support new tenants. The first ELC site was established at Greenham Reach in Mid Devon in 2012. The three holdings on the site were sold for £76,000 each with a £15,600 deposit and monthly repayments of £288 over 25-years. These three holdings averaged a gross profit of £3,800 per hectare in 2016/17. All three households have an ecological footprint 46% of the UK average.

One of the biggest challenges to the ELC model is that the planning system views them as counter-cultural: the small size of the holdings are not perceived as ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ farms. The first site at Greenham Reach took 67 weeks to secure planning permission – following a public inquiry that cost the LPA £18,000 in legal fees. The second site at Wealden in Sussex has already taken 45 weeks and is not likely to be decided until September 2018.

After this talk the chair opened up the discussion to questions or comments from the room; as well as several personal stories illustrating the problems, the general feeling in the room was that there is a desperate need to enable landworkers to live on the land, covering essential need (such as looking after livestock, delicate plants, security of equipment and charcoal burning), as well as pragmatic economic need since these livelihoods are usually marginal at best so paying rent or a mortgage on a property off site is often prohibitively expensive, especially when travel costs are factored in. The point was also made that planning officers often taken an ‘average’ agricultural salary of around £18,000-£20,000 pa directly from land produce as the benchmark of whether plannig permisson should be granted – ie whether the business plan is good enough – despite the fact that most current farmers earning that much or above will only be getting a fraction of that from the land itself, and the rest from diversified activites and subsidies – so new entrants looking to gain permission are at a disadvantage straight away and held to much higher standards than those currently enjoying living on their land.

Most in the room work on relatively small pieces of land and the discussion was especially focussed on the smaller scale; but as one CRAG member pointed out, the discussion should include all agricultural and forestry workers and business owners, and while agreeing with many of the points raised, advised against an ‘us-and-them’ mentality when it comes to large and small scale – which was generally accepted.

The farming minister the Rt. Hon George Eustice MP arrived after the main discussion due to an overruning late vote at the House of Commons, and spoke mainly about the direction of travel for agricultural policy post-Brexit, due to be published this spring. Central to this is a movement from direct area-based payments to payments being made in return for delivery of tangible public goods, such as wildlife conservation, water quality and soil care. Pillar I will be abolished and all agricultural payments will be focussed on encouraging agri-environmental benefits through Pillar 2.

He suggested that subsidies per se will end, with support being available for those converting to more environmentally friendly farming methods. ‘Support’ will take the form of help with investment in expenditure such as equipment; research and development; looking at the supply chain of food; and generally ‘coming together in an integrated way’. He also mentioned financial help for farmers’ risks via the introduction of an insurance scheme. Mr Eustice said that there would be a transition period of five years; and meanwhile DEFRA would be looking at transitioning by putting a cap on larger single farm payments.

Following his talk, questions and comments were again invited from the floor and a constructive discussion ensued. One speaker asked whether those farmers who were organic and/or farming in an ecological manner already would benefit from such a new scheme; Mr Eustice indicated that he had had discussions with people in the organic industry about this issue, to find out whether automatic qualification for support, or a bespoke scheme would be better; and said that the feeling was generally that a bespoke system would be best – probably following the current model for higher stewardship payments for organic land.

He was asked whether it will be possible for holdings of less than 5ha to claim payments in the future, and the idea of providing a flat rate payment for each holding of less than 5ha was proposed to overcome the concerns about bureaucratic expense. His response was that with the current system due to change radically in the next few years, there is no point in tinkering with it before then. He did not consider the flat rate payment idea politically expedient, as following Brexit it will be necessary to justify thoroughly all money spent on agriculture, hence the necessity to tie payments to the delivery of public benefit.

Another discussion revolved around the streamlining of regulation, which Mr Eustice viewed as a positive thing. It was suggested that in a planning context, the streamlining of policy for agricultural workers’ dwellings has led to a policy vacuum which is being unhelpfully filled by officials reverting to old policy. Far from smoothing the way for farmers and growers to develop their businesses unencumbered by bureaucracy, the lack of adequate targetted policy is leading to confusion, refusal of permissions and lengthy and stressful appeals. Unfortunately this comment missed the mark, and he responded with a long story about how one regulation leads to another and then another when it comes to tree planting, concluding that regulation should be minimised wherever possible.

Many of the questions relating to planning were responded to with answers more related to agricultural policy, and members of the CRAG Committee were helpful in drawing Mr Eustice’s attention to the planning focus of the meeting. He did appear to take on board by the end of the meeting that here were a group of energetic, committed young people, eager to pursue land-based occupations, who are feeling frustrated and inhibited by the planning system.

Many of the CRAG committee appeared impressed by the passion and dedication of those in the room, and hopefully some preconceptions were dispelled on all sides. One CRAG members suggested that there must be a surplus of agricuturally tied dwellings available on the market now as agricultural worker numbers have fallen so drastically over the last few decades; but I pointed out that in my personal experience of approaching agents in the Wiltshire area, asking about any agriculturally tied dwellings available, most agents didn’t even know what that meant; and the ones that did said they very rarely get any properties on their books (and none to date a year later…) – any inquries they do get relating to a tie is to get advice on how they can break it and get the full market value on the property. I put forward the idea that had come up in a previous research meeting (via planning consultant DanThePlan) of requiring county councils to keep a register of all those interested in agriculturally tied properties, to show the high demand and need (such a register is already required by law to be kept by councils for all those interested in self-building). This register could then also be used as a tool to ensure that any new agricultural ties given by planning officers on new dwellings would be harder to break than currently is the case, giving planning departments more confidence in issuing new permissions – and so hopefully making obtaining permission more likely.

The CRAG policy writer, Andrew Davis, committed in the meeting to refer to the issue of residential planning permission for farm smallholders in his policy advice paper, which goes to Cabinet at the end of this month. He also said he thinks the issue needs a policy paper of its own. There were plenty of positive noises, and the indication that the group will come back to this issue later in the year and consult more widely; we can but hope that they (and indeed all the political parties) take on this issue and some progress is made.

With thanks to Rebecca Laughton & Ed Hamer


Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

20170105_161439This year I couldn’t make both days, so I just went along on the Thursday last week to the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the Town Hall.  As always it’s a hard job trying to choose between attending some sessions that are on at the same time, but I plumped for those that seemed to have some practical elements as well as offering a wider perspective on food and farming policy.

Building Resilience: Addressing Challenges in the Food & Farming System
Chair: Helen Browning (Soil Association)
Speakers: Christopher Price (CLA), Tim Benton (Leeds University & Chatham House), Graeme Willis (CPRE)

I thought I’d kick off the day with an overview and look at what ‘resilience’ means, a word that is being used as the new buzz word, like ‘sustainable’ was a few years ago, but which can have various different meanings. Tim Benton defined it as how well a system can recover from difficulties; and also pointed out that we need to work out whether we want to come back to the same point after a crisis or shock, or to change the way of doing things – for example, coping with the Dustbowl situation in the USA in the 1800s led to a change of farming system. He also looked at sharing risk, so that for example farmers with contracts with supermarkets can have a vertical risk share, where risks (eg climate change impacts, pests and disease, crop failures etc) are spread throughout the production chain, and don’t only rest with the farmer; and how crop insurance is also seriously being looked at to spread risk, rather than subsidies per se. Lastly he pointed out that managing risks comes at a cost, which up until now has mostly been borne by the farmers; but in an ever-risky world (as well as climate change, the uncertainties caused by a globalised future with potential shock from Brexit and an unpredictable Trump presidency), and with fewer and fewer producers as more farmers leave the industry and fewer join, those risk costs will need to be spread.

Christopher Price advocated that farmers continue to do their own risk-management as much as possible to ensure their resilience, eg not relying on subsidies which may or may not continue, saving money in ISAs when a good year, taking advantage of tax strategies such as averaging available to farmers where tax bills are more evenly spread no matter whether a good year or bad, and also touched on the idea of bringing in a USA-style insurance system rather than subsidy, or that subsidy money being used to help farmers become more resilient via consultancy etc. I later asked the question whether he’d agree with the idea that this Governmental support should be available to all producers, rather than larger scale producers on 12 acres or more as is the case now for subsidy money, and he agreed that subsidies should be changed, and support should be available to any good business with a viable plan.

Real Food From Real Farmers
Chair: Jamie Pike
Speakers: Dagan James (Boughton Water Buffalo), Jonathan Chapman (holistic grazing farm), Organic Lea representative

Dagan James highlighted the importance of direct marketing, and getting people on to your farm to get them to really understand what you do, using your production as narrative, and how it’s different from other less sustainable farms. He advocated making relationships with chefs and businesses who are a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, who really get the difference in provenance and flavour of food. Dagan also points out that you need a new skill set for direct marketing: as well as the actual farming and producing, you need to be customer-focussed and retail-minded. He and Jonathan both emphasised that (perhaps contrary to what some producers might think) direct marketing means that you can only sell premium products, and that you can’t get away with trying to palm off substandard food, as it directly damages your reputation. A last-minute speaker replacement, Hannah (I think that was her name!) from Organic Lea specialises in salads for restaurants, and the business turns over £45,000 from 1.5 acres of intensive salad production (they also grow and sell other veg such as tomatoes, celeriac etc, but salad is the speciality for restaurants). She highlighted the importance of consistent quality and supply, and being able to adapt quickly to demand. During questions, the issue arose of restaurants claiming to stock ‘local’ produce and support small producers, in order to increase their customer base, while not sticking to their purported ethics. Several options came out, not least calling out the restaurants about it (even if you don’t supply them), asking where they get their produce from, and either inviting bare-faced lies, or pointing out that their labelling is misleading; plus Riverford’s Guy Watson from the audience suggested that as consumers it’s always our duty to find out exactly where ‘local’ means and who the suppliers are. The FSA could also be brought in as a last resort if the labels are illegally misleading, eg stating produce is organic when not.

Hear From Fellow Farmers: Tech & Tools for a Resilient Farm
Chair: Abby Rose (Farmarama Radio)
Speakers: Louise MacDonald (New MacDonald Farm), Nick Green (Incredible Farm), Will Davenport (Davenport Vineyards), Stephen Briggs (Abacus Agriculture Consultants)

The overall sense in this sessions was ‘new-fashioned farming’: using innovation and tools while listening to the land to get good results. Nick Green showed us his micro-milking battery-powered device he bought online from the USA, for his one cow; Louise (nice to see a local neighbour from New MacDonald Farm appearing!) highlighted the benefits of signing up as a producer to a Food Assembly (and the Open Food Network was later mentioned too); Will Davenport explained how phone apps have helped him keep track and great records around his vineyard (with codes on each plant that can be recognised by his phone, and all the necessary info about it downloaded to his hand); and Stephen Briggs suggested some useful websites, apps and other sources of info. He uses the free Rain Alarm app daily; as well as the various BASF weed and disease ID apps. He also recommends podcasts for info and learning as well as entertainment, such as Farmerama, Radio 4’s Farming Today, TED talks, ITeachAg and Twitter. Other suggestions from the floor also included WAVE accounting software.

20170105_124025The Breadline: Exploring the Politics of Food Pricing
Chair: Humphrey Lloyd (Edible Futures)
Speakers: George Dunn (TFA), Naomi Millner (Bristol University), Lynne Davis (Street Goat)

Humphrey offered a background and overview on the politics of pricing food, noting that there was a food shortage in the 1800s which led to people hijacking grain carts – but rather than taknig the food home from themselves or thir communities, the hijackers would set up market stalls and sell the grain for what they considered to be a fair price. Food pricing has therefore been a political issue ever since, especially following the Corn Laws designed to protect wealthy landowners and producers, and their eventual repeal; 200 years ago poorer people were spending 60-80% of their income on bread alone, with perhaps 5% on meat or dairy. While it is definitely progress that people in general can afford to spend more on food and also on other things such as houses, it’s not just increased incomes which has led this, but the continued reduction in food prices, so that the proportion of income spent on food is now more like 9-12% in total. The question is whether this is the true cots of that food, and whether people are paying for cheap food production in other ways (taxes/subsidies, water bills, health and environmental problems and so on).

George Dunn has a background in economics, and gave a comprehensive dismissal of the illusion of a free market when it comes to food pricing. According to the father of economics Adam Smith, a free market must comprise of: buyers who individually don’t have the power to influence prices (not the case with supermarkets’ and other big corporations’ powers); have homegenous production ie the same product (definitely not the case with food, look at the trouble we have trying to explain how industrial agriculture differs from smaller scale sustainable production, or processed food from fresh ingredients, or country of origin and working conditions of food production workers); producers must have free entry to and exit from the market place (how many new entrants do we know struggling to get customers, especially in public procurement or supermarket stockists, and how easy is it for suppliers to leave?); and consumers must have ‘perfect knowledge’ of the marketplace in order to make rational decisions (very clearly not the case, as consumers are surprised when they realise what tiny margins producers earn compared to retailers, or are misled over ‘local’ food claims, or fall for disingenuous marketing strategies such as the Rosedean Farm labels, or scandals such as horsemeat-gate come along). Therefore there isn’t a ‘free market’ when it comes to food; which begs the question whether it needs some State or top-down tinkering, a radical change (from the bottom-up perhaps?), or some other structural solution.

The panel also discussed how cheap food has become an ideological issue in our age; fitting in with the prevailing idea that more stuff will solve things. We are beginning to realise that with the stuff comes other problems however: more waste, more health problems, environmental problems, and sometimes less nutrition as empty calories are consumed and used to fill us up rather than feed us properly. Cheap food also keeps the status quo (an echo of Marx’s ‘bread and circuses’ for the proletariat claim), and that it actually causes hunger: food poverty is not a problem of production (or food prices would be sky-high in a free market supply-and-demand economy), but of distribution.

Lynne Davis (see pic) also made the practical point that as food sellers, we need to bear in mind the impression of cheapness versus the perception of expense: showing us two photos of a cosy rustic-looking farm shop, and a bright budget supermarket’s aisles. The price of the veg was actually the same, or lower at the farm shop; but she pointed out that businesses have spent a great deal of money making their shops and ranges look cheap, in order for consumers to feel they were getting a great bargain; whereas the lovely-looking rustic farm shop with its wooden barrels, chalkboards and earthy feel gave the impression of being exclusive and therefore pricey: perhaps fine for an indulgent treat, but not for everyday shopping (a similar story has happened to the word ‘organic’ over the years). Maybe until culturally we all start realising that market stalls, farm shops and direct sales are often the best value, as producers we should pick up a few tricks from the supermarkets, such as bargain bins, basic packaging and price comparision stickers?




2017: The Future of Growing?

IMG_20160225_130213As someone who took advantage of the two-year horticultural apprenticeship run by the Soil Association a number of years ago, I’m perhaps more aware than some of the need for more growers and farmers in the agriculture industry. The average age of farmers is around 59 (more like mid-60s for organic farmers and growers), and this average age trend is still rising, with horticulture showing one of the highest age averages. Coupled with this, the continued shutting up shop of small farms and market gardens has meant a shrinking job pool and fewer opportunities for new entrants to the industry, when right now, looking ahead to 2017 and the Brexit to follow, self-sufficiency should be top of the agenda (not to mention cutting carbon emissions by growing and farming locally and more sustainably).

So over the last 10 years it’s great that programmes such as the Soil Association’s Future Growers’ scheme has trained over 80 new growers and farmers; plus there seem to be more and more business-focussed programmes springing up looking to help people get started in farming and growing businesses: from the FreshStart Academies countrywide and Kindling Trust business courses near Manchester to Roots to Work in the London area. However I have noticed that over the last 18 months, actual job opportunities have all but disappeared: all I can see at the moment are a cluster of ‘trainee’ positions. This used to be an interchangeable term with ‘apprenticeships’ in my mind: new entrants (like myself) with little experience would get a basic training wage, with the idea that they would learn on the job and start earning more after, say, six months or a year, and also get a couple of years’ really good experience on the job. However, the positions that I see advertised are slightly different, in that hardly any of them actually offer a wage as such: just a stipend of perhaps £50 pocket money a week, together with on-farm accommodation (and usually free food too), usually just lasting the main growing season of March-October.

These trainee positions are of course a valuable way in the industry for someone with little or no experience, who is happy with the WWOOF-type lifestyle rather than actual wages, and is keen to learn what they can over a six-month season of growing veg; and I would never want to stop those kind of opportunities existing. I have been offering a trainee assistant grower’s position myself over the last two seasons as I’ve expanded the business, originally lasting April-October (although this year my assistant has stayed on over the winter too), but in return for wages rather than accommodation and pocket money; and I have tried to offer a range of jobs and tasks to offer some useful experience. Now I feel more able to offer a more responsible role starting in 2017 (click here for details), and am looking for someone who already has some skills; the next step in the career path. Some excellent applicants already prove how many people are out there looking for this kind of opportunity.

So while I have no beef with farms and businesses offering semi-volunteer roles and trainee positions, what does concern me however is that these positions seem to be pretty much the only kind of opening available into the industry at the moment. As a business-owner myself, I of course know how tight margins are and how difficult it is to make a living wage for yourself, let alone creating a waged position for someone else – especially as taking on workers is always a gamble in terms of how skilled they actually are and how much they can contribute towards to the business. However I strongly believe that paying a worker a real wage (albeit still lamentably low compared to some industries) is incredibly important too, and a much more sustainable way of running a business; and the difference a good worker can make to your business does pretty much pay for itself in the end. More than anything though, I worry that there are simply no opportunities for the semi-trained and trained growers at the moment: what are these trainees supposed to do after their six months? Go to another farm the following spring and do the same there, and continue in this way for a few years? Not only are they not earning a wage, but they are not experiencing all aspects of running a business in winter, so still ill-prepared for starting their own place or taking a fully skilled head grower role (should such a job ever be advertised!).

It can’t be healthy state of affairs when the only route into an industry is effectively to buy your way in – ie buy some land, buy all the equipment you need, then spend a few years putting your business together and learning the hard way – or by doing six-month stints at farms for very little money, an option only really open to those without ties such as family, rent or mortgages to pay. Again, I’d emphasise that this is a desperately needed way in and gratefully snapped up for many people of the hundreds keen to get into the industry; and many do as I did as an apprentice and make the most of their opportunity and contacts to take their career in agriculture a step further. But if these are the only ways in, how can we not feel embarassed for our industry, shake of the nagging feeling that we are all playing at farming, and then be taken seriously?