Sue Pritchard, director of the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, explains what her organisation is doing to influence the future of farming and rural policy, and how farmers can get involved.
Defra’s consultation is not the last word on the future of farming. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA)’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has opened its ‘call for ideas’ and started our UK-wide tour.
Before farmers around the UK rise up in collective exasperation saying, ‘We have JUST finished the Defra consultation!’, let me explain why the Commission’s call is critical.
I am writing this at home on my farm, on the warmest bank holiday Monday in 40 years, after the longest, most unrelenting winter in my memory. This year, for the first time, we ran out of hay, because last summer we could not make any.
Then just as we started lambing, the ‘beast from the east’ arrived. With help from family, friends and the farm team, we turned out the big animals, mucked out the sheds, put down fresh bedding, and had the ewes in, within six hours of the snow arriving.
We have survived this winter and what has, so far, passed for spring. Our resilience has been tested to breaking; if we cannot cut hay this year – well, I cannot bear to think about it.
My point is this: we had a plan, crafted from many years’ experience and expert advice. But that plan did not survive first contact with the enemy of the 2017/18 season.
We are in what Defra Secretary Michael Gove describes as an ‘unfrozen moment’ in history, when we have an unparalleled opportunity to shape the future of our food and farming sectors, our countryside communities and our environment.
But the future of farming and countryside communities lies not just with Defra, but with other Government departments, with businesses and with changing international conditions – not to mention the concerns of the devolved nations.
The realities of finding ways through all the choices can be daunting. And they are too important to leave to the horse-trading which goes on between departments and around the Cabinet table.
That is where we see our role with the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.
We are travelling the UK – going out to meet people where they live and work, to have simple and straightforward conversations about what matters, what is working and what needs to change, for a safe and sustainable food and farming system and resilient, flourishing rural communities.
Our intention is to bring together people who might not otherwise engage, to create connections and to understand why what happens in one policy silo can have far-reaching consequences in another. To find solutions, build a mandate for change and to champion these to policymakers.
If I have learned anything through this dark winter, it is this. For all our strategies and business planning, what makes things work is the ‘social capital’ which binds us together – the deep knowledge, the networks of relationships, the care and sense of community that grows the resilience we need to withstand unexpected shocks – from the cost of feed to climate change.
For a resilient and flourishing future for farming and the countryside, we must ask good questions in the company of others who have real skin in this game.
That is why we want you to look at our call. It is just three questions, with space to say what you may not have been able to say elsewhere. And look out for the tour. We are coming to a place near you.
We publish the draft outcomes of the inquiry in October and the final report in March 2019.