With farmers set to enter a new agricultural scheme after Brexit, now is the time to start proving the environmental work they do provides value for money, says Martin Lines, chairman of the Nature Friendly Farming Network.
After yet another extension of the UK’s departure from the European Union, farmers still don’t have any concrete answers to what the future holds.
Brexit presents huge uncertainty, but now is the time for us to rethink how we manage the landscape to restore nature and guarantee long-term food and farming security.
British farmers are set to adapt to a new agriculture payment system, new environment legislation and a possible new regulation authority.
On top of this, we are dealing with a changing climate whether we are part of the EU or not.
In the face of these changes, we must adapt farming businesses now so we can continue to produce food and future-proof.
We will not be receiving taxpayers’ money in the future just for farming. The proposed new system will mean farmers must offer the public and the Government goods they are happy to finance.
A fair, strong and transparent market place is essential to reward farmers for delivering these goods.
Many farmers will continue to get the best returns from the goods they produce and sell in the marketplace. But others could receive significant rewards for delivering environmental benefits instead of focusing on the produce they can sell.
We know there are parts of the UK farmed landscape which are very productive for food production, and other areas less so.
These less productive parts of the landscape present us with an opportunity to deliver the public goods the Government is asking for, such as carbon capture, water management and wildlife improvements.
As an arable farmer, I have areas on my farm which would be better at delivering public goods. These are the areas we cannot get modern machines into or which have lots of overlaps.
I have restored hedgerows, established grass strips and created wildflower areas. Over time, we’ve seen a significant increase in wildlife, both flora and fauna.
We need a system which the public is happy to support, which means farmers must become ambassadors of the countryside and communicate the vast benefits we can deliver.
The diversity of the British countryside is an asset which is not only vital to wildlife, but is also of great value to the general public.
However, if we can’t demonstrate value, we will lose taxpayers’ money and their purchasing power.
A new scheme will need to balance being environmentally effective, deliverable and auditable by Government with being practical for farmers and land managers.
Flexibility should be built into the design of all new schemes, so farmers can alter management practices if required. I feel this is a major flaw in the current schemes.
Farmers must be involved in the development of agri-environment options, because our knowledge and experience is crucial.
Future agriculture policy also needs to be wider than just financial support for the delivery of public goods.
It should incorporate rural policy, food policy and support for farmers to be competitive and resilient.
These policies may help to provide new sources of income as we move away from direct payments.
All farmers are going to have to farm with less inputs, such as pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics and water.
So new research will be essential to understand how we achieve agronomic, environmental and social benefits, while retaining valued aspects of traditional farming.
With the window open for farmers to apply for stewardship schemes, now is a good time to demonstrate to the public and the treasury the value we bring.
Stewardship schemes have suffered from many difficulties in the past few years and I’m a farmer who is still owned money.
But I still believe the benefits of being in the schemes outweigh the negatives.
Wildlife thrives and farming systems are more efficient.
Farming with nature increases the bottom line in the long-term, stabilises costs and future-proofs businesses from climate change threats.
Martin can be found tweeting at @LinesMartin