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


Organic Producer Conference 2016

Phil shows the benefits of the costings tool

Another week, another conference: however the Organic Research Centre’s Organic Producer Conference is usually the most directly useful and practical conference for farmers and growrs, so definitely worth attending. After helping put up the Organic Growers’ Alliance stall in the lobby of the Novotel, Bristol on Wednesday morning, and catching up with lots of old friends, it was time for the plenary session, looking at common ground. The organic tradition can sometimes seem (or used to seem at least) rather inward-looking and defensive (probably partly due to derision and hostility from more chemically-reliant farming traditions); but the emphasis here was working together with all strands of the sustainable farming movement. The panel offered their visions for the future of farming and food, and heard throughts from Christine Gosling, an organic dairy farmer at Berkeley Farm; Phil Jarvis from the Game & Wildllife’ Trust’s Allerton Project; organic farmer Jonty Brunyee from the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association; and organic smallholder Jyoti Fernades from the Landworkers’ Alliance; chaired by Lawrence Woodward, ORC policy advisor. There weren’t necessarily any conclusions reached, but definitely some common goals, and it was a good starting point for the conference.

After lunch I went to the Business Tools and Support for New Entrants session; where Phil Sumption from the ORC introduced a new and free-to-use horticultural costings tool that the ORC have been working on, and which could prove very useful for keeping track of which crops are making money. Tony Little from the Sustainable Farming Consultancy then looked at support mechanisms for conversion to organic, especially financial support; in England converting to organic horiculture could see conversion grants of £400/ha for the first two years, then £200/ha for the next three (Wales has more generous offers). However currently the info from DEFRA is that these payments are based on a minumum claim of £5,000 over five years – which when you do the maths, works out at a minimum acreage of 8.8acres for horticulture (and a higher minimum for grazing/arable), so not suitable for smaller growers (hence the work the Landworkers Alliance is doing to highlight the disparity and unfairness of rewarding larger farms based on size alone, no matter how productive). Ruth West added that the A-Team challenge may be able to offer support to some small enterprises. Lastly Laura Creen, fellow ex-Future Grower and grower at School Farm CSA had sent in a video presentation since she was ill on the day and unable to attend. She told us the story of the farms she’s worked on; and also recommended Quick Book Online for easy accounting, as well as calling in concilliations services to help talk through issue with colleagues and business members.

After a tea break, I chose Tackling the Challenges of Organic Fruit & Viticulture: kicked off with a talk by Martin Soble of Carey Organic on the things he’d do differently when starting a top fruit orchard. As well as choosing varieties carefully for pest and disease resistance (especially scab), Martin also recommends choosing early and late varieties, to make the most of the extended season commercially. Also choosing varieties that have a consistent and even size is invaluable; and he also recommends growing well-known varieties such as Bramley for the best saleability options. He also suggests that rootstock charts be taken with a pinch of salt: some ‘dwarfing’ stocks can be very vigorous, so always best to go and have a look at some examples in the field if possible. He would prune harder, and earlier, with three of four big cuts a year, and thinning more. Next up was Will Davenport from Davenport Vineyards, who explained the problems of growing grapes organically. Weeds seemed to be the main challenge, requiring cultivations around the vines, and mowing the strips between rows in summer, introducing sheep in winter to keep grass down, which didn’t seem to damamge established vines. Ploughing under pans is needed every so often next to the vines to alleviate compaction, and Will is looking into the possibility of using trefoil help manage the weeds. He also recommended producing a dry white wine blend, since many new English vineyards are looking into sparkling white wines, which are very difficult to get right at an affordable price. Lucius Tamm from FiBL then gave us an update on the CO-FREE project, working with many partners across Europe to look at methods of reducing copper use in fruit production. He suggested that there is no silver bullet as a copper alternative; but that several management tactics can help reduce the use of copper.

This should have been the end of the day, but I had organised a fringe session on skilled workers, apprentices & volunteers, looking at the pros and cons of different types of labour, and how each type might suit various holdings and workers/volunteers. This was a great and varied discussion, much of which will feed into the planned report Future Farmers II: A guide to running a farm-based agroecological traineeship, due to be published in March as a joint collaboration with the OGA, Groundspring, Sustain, the CSA Network and other partners.

Parasitic wasp larvae emerge from a cabbage white caterpillar

The following day started bright and early with a session on protected cropping in organic systems. Rob Meijer from Wageningen UR previewed the results of the Biogreenhouse COST Action, sharing knowledge and best practice on protected cropping. Free booklets on various topics, such as food sprays for predatory mites using pollen, will be available for download from the website in April. Lucia Foresi from Coventry University also presented her piece on environmental imapcts of greenhouse horticulture, part of the COST project. Pete Dollimore from glasshouse specialist growers Hankham Organics then gave us a very useful presentation on encouraging pest predators into your protected cropping spaces; from planting yarrow to encourage an aphid in that only feeds on yarrow, and therefore attracting general aphid predators (such as ladybirds, whose large larvae can eat 50 aphid/day) to then move onto other aphid and pests; to leaving coriander to flower next to brassicas to encourage hoverflies for aphid and parasitic wasps which feed off cabbage white caterpillars. Pete plants low-growing poached egg plants to attract such predators among the cabbages too, and has seen a marked improvment; he also recommends growing calendula, borage, herbs and golden rod inside protected cropping spaces.

Roger shows Eliot Coleman’s immaculate weedless tunnel

After a tea break, I chaired the session on Customer Satisfaction: Ensuring Consistent Supply and Quality of Organic Food, which is key to any businesses success. Alan Schofield (Growing With Nature and chair of the OGA) took us through his successional cropping plan, highlighting the importance of consistent supply and good quality produce, and building in risk-management to your plans, sowing and planting a few extra of each crop, just in case. From the 1st of February, he sows Pixie cabbage, rocket, chard, spinach, spring onions, leaf beet and lettuce weekly for that month; then fortnightly in March and April onwards until late summer, along with carrots, beetroot, kohl rabi and fennel. Roger Hitchings (RMH Consulting) gave a presentation showing the importance of soil for quality and predictable/consistent crops, and how soil can be improved and managed well to get the best from your land. Adam York from Glebelands Market Garden then gave a talk on grading and presentation, and pointed out that poorly harested or kept veg brings the names of organic food down for all of us – so if you see some bad produce or poor displays, point them out, and make sure your own displays are up to scratch! He offered several tips for keeping harvesting times down and cooling produce in order to maintain quality and shelf-life, including the nice low-tech version of cold wet towels over produce when picking in the summer. An engaging discussion followed, with the room full of growers sharing tips and stories; then sadly the session time was over and we had to head for a quick lunch before the closing plenary.

This closing session looked at how change can happen globally, so much of the talks and discussion was more about policy than immediate practical stuff we can implement at home; however it is important to keep this bigger picture in mind – not least becuase the next time you write to your MP or vote in an election or referendum, these kind of sessions helps explain what it is you’re voting for.


10th Organic Producers’ Conference 27-28 January 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 10.14.07Don’t miss the Organic Research Centre’s producer conference in Bristol next week; tickets still available for the Thursday! A whole strand of sessions have been organised by the OGA on vegetable and fruit production, plus plenty of sessions on soils, new entrants, profitability and other farming issues. I am organising a fringe session on labour on Wednesday evening, looking at the issues around using volunteer labour rather than skilled workers or trainees and apprentices – come and add your thoughts to the debate!