Farmers and Town and Country Planning

The interests of farmers and planners in each other were brought together on Friday 9 November 2012 at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire.  The conference was hosted by the National Farmers’ Union and the Royal Town Planning Institute with the aim of enhanced mutual understanding.

This ‘storify’ posting summarises the conference.

‘Planning for Farming’s Future, 9 November 2012’

I hope this brief summary will be helpful to farmers, their advisers and planners trying to understand each other’s perspective.


Dissertation Time

Term starts at Harper Adams and the final year REALM (Rural Enterprise and Land Management) students have just returned from their placement years.  It’s always good to see them back from placement: confident after their year’s experience, appetites for learning refreshed and the maturity that comes from direct professional experience.

One of the early tasks for the students is to select a topic for their dissertation and find a tutor who is willing to supervise their project.  This is a very important piece of work as it counts for 25% of the final year, and must result in a highly coherent 10,000 word thesis if it is to be acceptable to the examiners.  It’s also an opportunity for a student to work with industry if suitable projects come forward for a piece of suitable research.  An industrial partner can help with access to data, case studies and the formulation of a relevant research question as well as costs of travel, surveys or other incidentals, even a sponsorship or bursary in some cases.

A well defined project with a good student can produce a report of real value to the sponsor, and in appropriate cases it is possible to ensure that the report is treated as confidential.  However these do need to be set up really carefully to ensure that the student will be able to achieve the best outcome against the academic requirements.

Topics of interest to the students who have already approached me have included water in agriculture, renewables on farms and professional fees for surveying services.

I have suggested a number of topics for students to consider and these include:

  • The RICS Designated Professional Body scheme for insurance intermediaries under the Financial Services Act: practitioner awareness and application
  • Why students choose to study at HAUC
  • Online learning as a form of CPD amongst rural practice chartered surveyors
  • Land manager perceptions of ecosystem services/payments for ecosystem services (PES)/legal and tenure aspects of layered and bundled PES
  • Short term farm business tenancies and their impact on soil quality and condition
  • Organisational change and development as continual revolution. The role of corporate memory and continuity in organisational stability in rural land management.
  • Deployment of social media in rural land management, levels of engagement by practitioners.
  • The reflection of risk and confidence in valuation reporting.

These are start points of course, and will need to be developed very carefully.

I have summarised the requirements in this way:

What we need at the end of this project, next April or May, is a finely polished and highly coherent 10,000 word research report which:
  • Sets out the area of interest (what and why) clearly in an introduction
  • Acquaints the reader with Your Analysis of all the relevant literature, concluding with the particular issue you are going to research
  • Sets out a viable method with a convincing justification including all ethical issues which might be raised, in the context of research methods as a whole
  • Presents some interesting and novel results from your actual research
  • Discusses these in the context of what we knew already (back to the lit review)
  • Draws out some conclusions and recommendations, preferably of a practical as well as academic nature.
  • Reflects on your own experience in undertaking the project.

If any readers feel they can help with a student dissertation then please do get in touch.

Ode to DEFRA, happy retirement to Steve Latham and who was Ralph Robinson?

Steve Latham, Chris Cartwright and I became Senior Lecturers at Harper Adams in January 1990.  Steve in Marketing, Chris in Business Organisation and me in Land Management.  Together we were inducted into the ways of higher education – analysis, evaluation, synthesis.  Steve retires this week, fondly remembered I am sure by 21 years-worth of marketing students at the college.

Steve has been clearing out his office, an amazing collection of old books and videos.   One item, published by Putnam in 1927 in their Whitehall Series is The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries by Sir Francis Floud KCB, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry 1920-1927.  This gripping opus contains the following Departmental Rhyme, originally published by Punch on 20 April 1927 which might at least provide some wry amusement at the contrasts and similarities between the MAF of then (the second F for food came later) and the DEFRA of  today.

The Ministry of Ag and Fish

Does Everything that one could wish

To foster, guide and chaperon

Those industries it calls its own;

And it would be unkind to chaff

The members of its faithful staff

Who seek no rest and find no peace,

But labour always to increase,

By deeds of departmental derring

Corn, flesh and fowl and good red herring.


No slackness is allowed to smirch

Their splendid record of research,

No doubts molest their firm reliance

On methods blessed by modern science.

One expert, in his spacious lab,

Observes the habits of the crab;

Another takes his grain of wheat,

His whiting or his sugar beet

And tries by some ingenious test

What mode of living suits it best;

While others dedicate their lives

To proving how the ploughman thrives

Who mitigates his dull vocation

With intellectual recreation,

And spends an hour of leisure daily

Playing upon the ukelele.


The farmer strolling around his paddock,

The fisherman in quest of haddock,

Unite to sing with grateful glee

The praises of their Ministry.

Rude simple souls, they lack that store

Of expert scientific lore

On which alone success depends,

And this their kind Department sends.

For, if calamities befall

The men who till, the men who trawl –

If beasts contract the foot-and-mouth,

If blizzards blow from north or south,

If prices slump and credit fails,

If nets are rent by sportive whales,

The Staff is ready in a trice

To help them with its best advice,

On land or sea, in drought or storm,

Sent free of charge in pamphlet form.


And a last obscure question for readers who have stayed on this far.  Ralph Robinson was the pseudonym of an active farmer and contributor to Arthur Young’s Annals of Agriculture in the late 1700’s.  He was better known as King George III, Farmer George, and became the founder and patron of the Board or Society for the encouragement of Agriculture and Internal Improvement which was created on 23 August 1793, by Royal Charter.

Farm Blogging Survey: please help with survey design

I have been working on the design of a survey of farming blogs, and this blog is a request for your help with the design of that survey.  I am proposing to use a simple online survey based on a google form.  The answers are then automatically collated into a spreadsheet and it should be possible easily to share the collated results of the survey.

Key questions so far seem to be:

  • Identify a farmer/farming blog.  For each blog:
  • Who – user id
  • Who – person and location
  • Who – farm business owner or manager/worker or ‘other’: does the differentiation matter here?
  • What – blogging platform(s): blogger, FWi, FG, wordpress, twitter, youtube – am I missing any of the key sites?
  • What – farm: enterprises, size ….
  • Target audience (if known): other farmers, consumers, policy-makers, special interest groups, schools or other education, ….
  • Willingness of bloggers to respond to follow-up questions or interviews.

There’s a lot of stuff that can then be added by looking at the blogs themselves, for example:

  • Frequency of postings
  • Topics
  • Other stats – depending on blogging software, eg Twitter would allow easy capture of followers and followed, number of tweets etc.
  • Cross references to other sources (eg inclusion of weblinks)
  • Media: eg, Blogger + Twitter + YouTube (multiple media v single media) …
  • Focus, eg day to day farming diary, discussion with other farmers, explanation of farming activity, promotion of diversified farm enterprise, agricultural policy influence ….

So this blog is an invitation to ask you what you think the survey should be asking?  A previous blog on ‘Farmers who Blog’ generated considerable interest and I’m keen to build on this.

Finally thanks to the Harper Adams students who have expressed an interest in this area for their dissertations in 2012/12 – there’s still scope for a student who would like this challenge in 2011/12.  Just drop me a line if you are interested – contact details on the Harper Adams University College webpage.  The challenging part of a study like this is probably greatest in the background research – finding enough well-grounded published material for the literature review.  Once over that hurdle, a survey and its analysis should be straightforward leaving enough time for follow up work by a well-organised student.

Please do respond with your thoughts, whether you are a farming/farmer blogger here in the UK or elsewhere, a social-media pundit or an interested onlooker.

Calling all farmers who blog

This is an invitation:

  • An invitation to readers to see if we can make a comprehensive list of farmers who blog.  I have made a very modest start below, not yet counting microblogs on twitter for example – there seem to be more of these;
  • An invitation to a final year or postgraduate student at Harper Adams University College to research farmer blogs for the major research project/dissertation.

I am sure we could undertake a fascinating study of blogging amongst farmers.  For example, do farmers write for other farmers as another means of social interaction, is it a way for individual farmers to make the farming ‘voice’ heard by policy and law-makers, is the blog a direct link to consumers, is it all of these and more?  How often do farmers blog?  How much is this affected by seasonality?  What impact do farmer blogs have on their readership, and how big is the readership?  Is there a farmer blogger out there to rival the impact of former RSPB Director, Mark Avery?  What is the potential for farmer blogs as a medium for agricultural advice and development?  Can we/should we distinguish commercial farmers/managers/workers from hobbyists, foodies etc?

Please do provide feedback via the comments section, or to @charlescowap on twitter.  If we can compile a big list of farmer bloggers I’ll set up a separate page to list them all.

Meanwhile, here’s the fledgling list of farmer bloggers in the UK, plus a link to another blog which has tried to recruit farmer bloggers.

Farmers who blog

Matt Redman: Arable Farm Foreman, Bedfordshire:

Jon Birchall, Offley Hoo:

Jake Freestone: Farmer Jake:

Mudhound: land drainage contractor:

Owd Fred:

Neil Wilson, Low Barend Farm:

Farmers Guardian guest bloggers:

Farmers Weekly hosted blogs:

Farm Blogs from Around the World:



Dairy Farming

In 1983 I qualified as a chartered surveyor, and started working in Cheshire, mainly with dairy farmers.  At that time, a lot of farmers had signed up to development schemes under which they received government investment grants for new buildings, machinery and other farm improvements.

All this was turned on its head in 1984 when, overnight, Milk Quotas were imposed.  Farmers stopped spending on major investments and, by and large, battened down the hatches.  Until then, we had been working with dairy farms from 30 cows upwards.   Most cows were milked through herringbone milking parlours, housed over the winter in cubicle housing and fed about 6 tonnes of silage and 1.5 – 2 tonnes of cake a year.  Typical milk yields from a productive dairy herd were about 6,000 litres of milk pa.  A large herd was anything over 150 cows, and cows typically joined the herd at about 2.5 years old, leaving it about 4 to 5 years later.  Although an acre a cow was often mentioned, most cows actually enjoyed a slightly higher stocking rate than this, about 1.25 acres of grass each.  A few pioneers like Giles Tedstone were producing reasonable yields of milk entirely from grass, with no supplementary feeding.  They were however, generous with the Nitrogen to achieve these levels of production.

The other big legal event of 1984 for dairy farmers was the implementation, after 10 years on the statute book, of the Control of Pollution Regulations 1974.   Suddenly our work switched from advising farmers on new investments and herd expansion/improvement, to how to deal with slurry and silage effluent, in the wake of vigorous enforcement campaigns by the National Rivers Authority or its predecessors (Regional Water Boards?) (now the Environment Agency).  This was a body blow to many farmers.   Milk quota was allocated on historic levels of production, not the levels planned for under ambitious development schemes, and buildings had been erected for which there were now to be no cows.  And on top of all that, investment was now required in waste management schemes which would show no return other than the avoidance of prosecution and fines.

Driving around Cheshire now, it is easy to see the legacy of this period.  Buildings which were thought to be very smart at the time are now looking forlorn, and it is clear that many of the dairy farmers have struggled since then to keep up with the reinvestment requirements of their businesses.  A lot of the cows have simply gone.

But we have also seen the emergence of much larger dairy farms: 400 – 600 – 800 and more cows.  Robotic milking technology, and the return of the large rotary milking parlour – itself a piece of precision engineering undreamt of in 1983.

What are the implications here for the human side of the management of larger dairy herds?  Once upon a time the cowman did all the jobs, with the help of  an assistant and perhaps a relief-milker.  Are we now likely to see the emergence of greater specialisation in the management of the dairy herd, for example the milking team, the health team, the feeding/forage team, the waste team, the data analyst and so on?  We hope to be exploring these questions in the near future.

University funding and the future of upland farming

“Blogging”, “blogging” or just plain blogging?  This is my first venture into blogging so let’s try to keep it plain.  The general theme of my blog is going to be education and the rural economy.  What is the blog: the individual article, or the collection of articles?  Is there another collective noun?  Until I know better I will assume that Blog=Article as well as collective noun.  In my first blog I want to look at the future of higher education funding and the future of upland farming (yawn – still with me here?).  They have both been in the news this week because the government has responded to the Browne Review of higher education funding, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at the future of upland communities.  As a rural educator currently charged with developing work-based education, what’s going to happen?

The Browne Review and the government’s response: it will cost more than ever to go to university, up to £9,000 in fees alone.  Loans will be available to cover this, repayable once salary hits £21,000 at higher interest rates than previously, over a maximum period of 30 years.  Any outstanding debt is then written off.  There will be penalties for early repayment.  Universities won’t actually get any more money, because the funding burden shifts to the students themselves and direct government funding will be cut. 

Impact on agicultural higher education: Higher education for agriculture is very concentrated at two or three specialised university colleges.  A significant proportion of higher education for the rural land-based sector is offered in local colleges, accredited by a partner university.  The specialised colleges have a distinctive ethos.  It is likely they will continue to attract significant numbers of students, for social and environmental as much as academic reasons.  The colleges can be very pleasant places to be.  Economic analysis in this sector is far from straightforward.   Farmers are often classified amongst the lower social groups for statistical purposes.  Income levels can be very low, despite high asset values in the industry (this in itself is a significant economic challenge in the sector).  Self-employment, or progression within the family business, may be the future for young men and women brought up on farms.  Higher education may be less expensive to members of these groups because low incomes mean access to student support.  On the other hand, those studying closer to home may be doing so because they are a key worker on the home farm.  One trainer in the North East told me that the cost to the farm of such a youngster leaving to study was in the order of £50,000 to £60,000 a year (value of lost labour input, additional cost of replacement labour, cost of support while away etc).  The new fee proposals jsut increased that to £56,000 to £66,000 a year – about 12%.  So this picture is complex.

Future of upland farming: For years we have supported upland farming through various government schemes.  Increasingly we have asked the recipients of this largesse to provide us with a widening range of benefits: environmental management, landscape, leisure opportunities and so on.  But the outlook for such support is doubtful.  Most are agreed that it is important to keep farmers in the uplands because they provide a cost-effective way to manage extensive tracts of land.  We value its appearance and environmental value as a farmed landscape.  Food security has now re-emerged as a key issue, and the upland areas can make significant contributions here too.  However, much of the national infrastructure that supported technical development in hill and upland farming has quietly withered away over the last 20 or more years: specialist research stations, experimental husbandry farms, and a consequent dispersal of specialist hill farming expertise from the northern colleges.  At its simplest the outlook for public support is this: less if any at all; certainly not more.

Putting these two streams together we must face up to this question: if young men and women from the hills will no longer afford to go away to university, if other support for farming in the hill and upland areas is going to reduce, what can be done?  Are we willing to see abandonment of upland holdings?  Does this mean there will be economic opportunities, or will holdings be abandoned for good reason? Those who remain committed to, and passionate about, the future of upland farming will have to look to their own resources.  It is also clear that hard evidence will be needed to justify continued public investment.  The abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities also sees the loss of an independent rural voice to government.  So how can the people in the hills help themselves?

One idea we have been working on is the idea of locally-based self-help groups.  Without taking up too much space here with the evolution of this idea, our current thinking is to establish learning groups of leading farmers and others whose work brings them close to farmers.  It’s hard to avoid educational jargon at this point, but the general idea would be for the group to work together to:

  • Identify the technical challenges – coupled with the opportunities (for example the potential role for upland peat areas in carbon management)
  • To prepare together a development plan under which each member of the group will take the lead in exploring and sharing the latest information and data.  The group will sort out the formats for this guidance, and individual members will then draft it.  The group will then moderate the draft material.  This could be conventional technical notes or papers, but it could also be short videos or other useful presentation material.
  • Along the way, members of the group will learn about the importance of ‘advocacy’ and how to function effectively as rural advocates.
  • A group like this could also act as its own research unit, building up the evidence base needed to underpin its advocacy role.

The challenge now is to test this idea in the real world, and if it stands up to that to turn it into an educational reality.  Graduate Certificate in Upland Farming Development anybody?