The new face of farming

The conventional image of a British farmer could be redefined within a decade, according to a report commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference. Opportunity Agriculture: The Next Decade concludes, slightly chillingly, that by 2024, there will be fewer hands-on landowners as outside investors operate their farms. Share-farming, which is gathering pace in New Zealand, will increase and farmers will have to collaborate on infrastructure especially water systems, to fulfil production targets.

‘It’s becoming socially acceptable to have someone else running your farm,’ explains Tom Rawson, who runs a group of dairy farms through his Yorkshire-based consultancy Evolution Farming. ‘The difficulty may be in finding talented people who are prepared to give up their jobs for this sort of financial risk.’ Report author Ian Ashbridge of Bidwells concurs: ‘Share farming requires a major change in attitude towards risk and reward and in sharing the whole value of the business- even equity. I see the real galvanizing effect coming from new investment, not existing set-ups.’ He continues: ‘We’re now seeing investors from outside farming creating opportunities for farmers.

These professional operators will challenge the accepted definition of farmer as the industry and, to a degree, society understands it.’ However, he adds: ‘I’m not saying that this is the end of the family farm-and I certainly don’t want the report to be interpreted like that- but that these are the farms that can benefit from a new approach.’

The report says that, as more people invest in land, attracted to Agricultural Property Relief from Inheritance Tax and rising values, the next 10 years will see a growing divergence between those who own land and those who farm it. Mr Ashbridge says it will offer new career opportunities in farming and will address problems with tenancies, which are generally too short-term and require too much capital investment.

Outgoing NFU president Peter Kendall says his departure coincides with a time of opportunity in agriculture. ‘Young people are beginning to believe in farming as a genuinely exciting career for the future,’ he tells Country Life. ‘And retailers are fighting each other over who is doing the most to back British food.’ Mr Kendall, whose eight-year tenure ends next month-his deputy president, Meurig Raymond, is widely tipped to take over-used his swansong to take a sideswipe at how Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been administered over the past decade. He said: ‘I hope my successor gets to work with a Government that promotes rather than disadvantages its own farmers and dares to be part of the debate in Europe, working to improve agriculture’s competitiveness instead of standing on the sidelines. And which designs a policy in line with, rather than out of tune with, the massive challenge of global food security. The Treasury does my head in. It’s as if food security hasn’t even landed on their desk.’

Recommended videos for you

He adds: ‘The least positive aspect of farming today is that Europe is getting further away from production and is making too many compromises with Green NGOs. Life is becoming ever more urban and we have to win over the public, but we also need to be bold. One good thing is that we are now talking about how to manage badgers, not if we need to manage them.’

Somerset farmer James Small asked Defra Secretary Owen Paterson when his county could expect to see ‘more proactive and more meaningful’ controls for bovine TB. Mr Paterson is awaiting a report on the pilot badger culls, in which he says several diseased animals were removed, but reiterated his determination to continue culling. ‘I am absolutely clear that we have to follow the examples of other countries. Ireland has been culling badgers and has seen a spectacular reduction in bovine TB. And their badgers are about 1kg (2.2lb) heavier than ours because they’re healthier. But we need to proceed in a scientific manner that is entirely within the law.’ Defra is investing some £1 million this year in cattle-vaccine trials, but even if they are successful, it’s likely to be a 10-year wait before the vaccine can be used.

Mr Paterson, who was dashing between flooding crisis meetings, defended his record on flood-risk investment. ‘A number of difficult funding decisions had to be made in 2010 [when the Coalition was elected], but there is a significant improvement now and I have secured a record amount.

It’s wrong that low-risk waterways have been neglected, but we now have seven pilot schemes, with landowners doing the dredging themselves.’

* Follow Country Life on Twitter

* Subscribe and save in our January sale