Gaining Advantage Together

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By Amy Cowdell

Mar 5th, 2020

Public money for public good? Farmers need broader support to deliver the demands of the Agriculture Bill

This week I’m in conversation with farmer Andrew Ward, discussing the trials and tribulations of modern-day farming, and in particular the Agriculture Bill introduced in January. Andrew is a farmer at Leadenham in Lincolnshire, and set up the charity Forage Aid in 2013.

After unexpected snowfalls in that year it was reported that 80,000 sheep were buried alive in Cumbria and Wales. Andrew, knowing that the 60 bales of hay he had left in the yard could mean the difference between life and death for these animals – and the livelihoods of their farmers – contacted the NFU and arranged to get his hay as near to the stricken farms as possible.

Following much publicity, including a 20-minute slot on BBC’s The One Show, Andrew found himself coordinating around 80 lorry-loads of donations and helping around 50 farmers. From there, Forage Aid was born. The charity provides forage and bedding to farmers whose livestock has been affected by extreme weather – which, given the recent floods affecting many parts of the UK, could not be more topical.

Flood management is explicitly mentioned in the Agriculture Bill, a landmark piece of legislation published in January. In last month’s article I explained that the effect of the Bill is to provide farmers and land managers with public money for ‘public goods’, which includes measures to reduce flooding.

As Andrew points out, farmers’ core role is to produce food for our shelves – which is in itself a core public good anyway? Environmental measures such as wildflower margins – which he has extensively incorporated on his own farm – can be hugely positive, but need to be considered in their broader context. “Rewilding is an interesting one,” Andrew says. “It’s important to remember that the beautiful countryside we have in areas like the Derbyshire Pennines isn’t as ‘natural’ as people think. The Uplands look like they do because they have been managed by farmers and livestock for generations. And livestock on grass is actually a really effective carbon capture mechanism, which then produces meat which feeds people in a very, very healthy way. So we need to look at these things holistically.”

Likewise, measures to reduce flooding need to be considered in a broader context. For Andrew, the Environment Agency must take greater responsibility for prioritising river maintenance, particularly as climate change brings longer periods of rain and drought, and increasing development of roads and housing means that less open soil is available to act as a sponge.

“Our river systems now are so silted up that if you imagine a pint beer glass that is empty it will hold a pint of water. If you fill that pint glass half full with sand, it only holds half a pint of water and the river is no different,” he says, in a vivid illustration of the importance of river maintenance.

The Agriculture Bill may well be a landmark piece of legislation, but farmers do not operate in isolation. To achieve the public goods set out in the Bill, we need broad discussion and cooperation between farmers, government bodies and the general public.