Jeremy Moody, Secretary and National Adviser to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, spoke at Harper Adams University on Thursday 15th October on ‘Agriculture: Five Great Challenges’.
Opening with the observation that necessity is the mother of invention Jeremy commented that farming only adapts when it has to do so.
Jeremy identified his five great challenges as:
- Volatility. Farming’s response so far has been to spread unit costs by taking on more land. Attempts have been made to spread risks as well, but farming risks are increasingly connected. Cost leadership is the answer, but ‘costs are like daisies’ – you cut them down and they grow up again. Some farmers have responded effectively by moving further down the supply chain, for example the potato grower who now supplies chips to take aways.
- Output/acre ~ value/acre: We are generally growing low value commodity crops and with this we are seeing an inexorable shift to domination by combinable crops, wheat in particular. The number of potato growers is predicted to drop from 2,000 to 1,000 over 10 years. On the other hand, high value output enterprises are starting to appear. For example vineyards in the south of England, and orchards.
- Resources: capital has been readily available at very modest cost, but the rising challenge will be the repayment of the capital itself rather than the servicing charges. There are 60,000 farms which keep only one person in work. Employed labour is concentrated in the pig, poultry, horticulture and dairy sectors and many of these employees come from abroad. There are gaps in the age structure of farmers and it will be a continuing challenge to recruit and retain skilled labour. Foreign workers are no longer confined to handwork in the fields but are steadily moving up the value chain – without its input we would not be able to sustain much of the higher value cropping leaving farmers with little choice but to revert to monocultural wheat. Soil health and the resilience of natural capital is also a key part of the resource challenge. We need to be able to put the right values on the health of soil. This also draws in the value of water, and abstraction rights for irrigation in particular.
- Science and productivity: There has not been much growth in productivity since the 1980’s yet we know that precision farming can increase yields. There needs to be spare capacity in management in order to make time to consider the possibilities and implement new approaches. Our increasing reliance on data raises questions about its ownership, for example at the end of tenancies, from one farmer to another, from contractor to farmer. Actually making effective use of all the data and technology now at the farmer’s disposal is also a large part of this challenge. Modern machines have enormous technical capacity, but in practice little of what is available might actually be used.
- Progression: Flexibility must be the watchword in considering progression. New entrants need not be young. Sideways entrants from other sectors can bring just as much and more. The wonderful smallholding opportunity for the 25 year old can be prison for the same 40 year old. The industry is dominated by family businesses, 90% of farm employers and 30% can trace their farming origins to before 1900. Increasingly we may see 90 year olds leaving farms to 70 year olds.
We cannot be the world’s cheapest producers, it is therefore essential that we focus on high input and high output farming with a long term view to ensuring the health of the basic resources on which farming and much else depends.
What do you think of Jeremy’s Five Challenges for Farming? Here’s the video if you would like to see more:
This video was filmed at Harper Adams University on 15 October 2015 in front of a live audience of students and staff in the Weston Lecture Theatre