With the hill farming sector facing the biggest shake-up of its operating ‘landscape’ for a generation, the NFU and EBLEX are joining forces to stage the region’s first Northern Uplands Conference next month.
The half-day event, sponsored by HSBC, is being organised against the backdrop of shrinking budgets for both pillars of the Common Agricultural Policy, affecting direct payments and agri-environment programmes. This will leave the region’s hill farmers with some stark choices to make in the coming months.
NFU regional uplands adviser Laurie Norris said: “Despite the Government’s recognition of the importance of the hill farming sector to the country’s unique stratified livestock industry and the wider rural economy, the impact of changes to agri-environment programmes in particular looks set to hit the industry hard.
“It is in response to this that the Uplands Conference was conceived to focus on the challenge ahead and provide an opportunity to debate possible strategies for optimising farming in the hills while still delivering on the environment.”
Given that the policies of successive CAP reviews have actively encouraged hill farmers to embrace environmental management, many have significantly reduced their productive capacity, introducing low-input grassland management and reducing stock numbers.
As a result, those now seeking to increase their productivity in the face of falling incomes will need to plan carefully.
Increasing grassland productivity will be a major challenge for most, so this will be the focus of the conference, with a range of specialist speakers outlining possible strategies.
There will also be a section devoted to business planning to help farmers ensure their plans are robust and financially viable.
Ms Norris added: “While other sectors, such as the dairy industry, have been compelled to embrace new technologies and techniques to help drive down costs, the livestock sector and particularly upland livestock businesses have been slower see the potential benefits.
“This is something we want to encourage and we hope to follow this conference with further events exploring other key areas such as genetics and breeding.”
Clive Brown, head of regional development at EBLEX, a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which represents beef and lamb levy payers in England, said: “We are happy to work with the NFU to deliver this conference focusing on upland farming.
“We recognise the increasing challenges of farming in the uplands and our aim is to help farmers optimise the performance of their business.
“The main technical focus is managing grassland performance and utilisation whilst maximising environmental benefits in the uplands.”
The conference will be chaired by the NFU national uplands spokesman Robin Milton, who added: “There has been a lot of uncertainty facing hill farmers over the past 18 months with a number of contributing factors such as the weather, rising costs and disease leading to hill farmers getting less for their produce while facing increasing production costs.
“It is absolutely vital these farmers are treated fairly and rewarded for their hard work if they are to keep on delivering for future generations. I don’t think there is one right answer.
“Individual farmers have to make individual decisions. You really have to only take on what fits your farming business.
“Be critical of yourself but do what you’re comfortable with. Look objectively and make informed choices based on agri-environment schemes and such like.”
On the agenda will be:
* Identifying business opportunities - Mervyn Lewis from Askham Bryan College will be discussing how farmers can begin the process of identifying new opportunities within their business. By pinpointing what is already profitable and what has the potential to be, as well as focusing on areas where the business can be more efficient, individual businesses can start to develop a strategy that is right for them.
* Plan development - Gordon Whitford, Northern Regional Agricultural Manager with HSBC, will look at how farmers can take identified business goals and develop a robust business plan to take them forward.
* Succession Planning - With such a high proportion of tenant farmers across the region, Peter Molyneux from accountants Armstrong Watson will look at the importance and benefits of succession planning for a successful long term farm development strategy.
* CAP and Countryside Stewardship - Crucial to a successful plan will be a good understanding of the new regulatory and support framework being ushered in by the latest round of CAP reform. James Copeland, NFU regional environment and land use adviser, will provide an update on the latest position.
* Grassland management: latest research and development -To kick off the technical section of the conference, Dr Mariecia Frazer from Aberystwyth University’s IBERS Grassland Development Centre will review past and future research into upland grassland management, examining how farmers can optimise their grazing and consider the role that legumes can play.
* Grasslands in the uplands - Following on, Liz Genever from EBLEX will outline some of the successful strategies and techniques being used across upland areas by farmers working with EBLEX to improve their returns.
* Grassland improvement and agri-environment schemes - Adrian Vass from Natural England will outline an innovative initiative in Teesdale which has seen a group of farmers working with Natural England to improve their grassland within the confines of their agri-environment agreements. The farmers had been facing significant problems with grassland productivity, with extremely poor pastures offering little grass and a high proportion of rushes. This unique project has sought to bring farmers together to look at ways of improving grassland productivity on the ground and inform Natural England’s policy development.
* Case studies - The Conference will also feature a series of farmer case studies. David Airey from Keighley, James Howard from Holmfirth and John Bell from Teesdale are already embarking on business development strategies and will provide insight into their approaches and progress so far.
The free conference will take place on February 5, at the Coniston Hotel, Coniston Cold, Skipton BD23 4EA. It will begin at 1.30pm and finish around 7pm. Supper will be included.
To register to attend, contact the EBLEX events office on 01904 771211 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.