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Lord Donald Curry interview: Industry must make changes to address future challenges

A renowned farmer and businessman and revered Government adviser, Lord Donald Curry knows all too well the challenges the industry will face in 2016 and beyond. He speaks to Olivia Midgley.


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Lord Donald Curry
Lord Donald Curry

As a trustee of the Princes’ Countryside Fund, how important is the organisation in times of crisis, such as the recent Cumbria floods?

 

The Princes Countryside Fund moved fairly quickly to donate £40,000 pounds to those who needed it. We work closely with the farming charities – Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, Addington Fund and Farming Community Network and they know we have funds available if they need them. We can provide emergency aid almost immediately.

 

We are also keen for others to donate. We often find we are a catalyst for other donors to contribute at a time of need. We are delighted to be able to help. Many farmers are just trying to come to terms with what has happened. It is difficult to estimate how much money they will need.

 

How well do you think the Government responds in times like these?

 

The Government was quick to say the funds were available for Somerset [after the floods of 2013/14] but that was not followed up by farmers. That was partly because the application process was so difficult. I hope the Government will learn lessons from Somerset and make sure if there is money available for farmland restoration, it is reasonably accessible and they don’t complicate things by covering it in bureaucracy. We also need to make sure we are not using charity funds where government money can be used.

 

Would you say the industry is in the midst of a cashflow crisis?

 

I, along with many others, are concerned about the potential cashflow crisis. Looking ahead to 2016, it is not clear how serious it is going to be.

 

Low commodity prices and the impact of weather on certain parts of the country and a significant number of farm businesses under economic pressure mean we are going to see something of a cashflow crisis this winter and in the early part of next year.

 

I am quite concerned about that. We have had meetings with banks and Government about Basic Payment Scheme payments, because any farmers who face delays to payments will be under a lot of pressure.

 

The milk sector is still facing issues, sheep farmers have not had a great year, getting significantly less for their lambs and cereal prices are very low. It is very unusual for all commodity prices to be at a low level across the board.

 

We find from working with charities they are a very good indicator of the status of farm businesses and they can inform us quicker than anyone else. This is from going on the number of inquiries they get.

 

Can you see any change in 2016?

 

We have to accept commodity price volatility is something we face and it is not a new factor, but it is inevitable as global markets have opened up. We will be impacted by whether or when there is a surplus of product on the market and our prices will move accordingly. We have never had such an open market.

 

The resilience of farming businesses to withstand that is something we need to look at. I am pleased the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee is looking at volatility and the impact of farm businesses.

 

But we also need really good business skills so if we are looking at risk management and price volatility as the norm, farmers need to be able to have the business skills to accommodate that.

 

This will enable them to look at mitigating some of these things such as futures markets or forward contracts. PCF has been looking into the issue and there is some research going on at Exeter University about the key features that sustain the farming business.

 

What are the educational projects you are involved with?

 

There are two big things which we are working on.

 

One is the development of the countryside classroom which is educating schoolchildren and raising our game to reach more children than we have done in the past. We are, at best, reaching 10 per cent and we would like to reach them all.

 

Thirty organisations have signed up to the scheme which includes a website and teaching materials to make it easier for teachers.

 

It is about building a better knowledge and appreciation of the countryside among children. This then might lead to career choices. Long-term, it is impacting knowledge and awareness.

 

The second thing we are doing is working on attracting people into agriculture as a career and improving skills and professionalism. As an industry we are lagging behind as we are not seen as a first, second or even third career choice. The National Land Based College attempts to bring all of those involved in teaching and training together so we have accredited standards across all the land-based sector.

 

We want people to embrace all the new technology and have highly motivated farming and food industry that is able to compete. The college is in the formation stage at the moment and we are developing standards. It is industry led with Landex which is developing it and we are also working with the NFU and AHDB. It will be rolled out across all colleges next year and will act as a central hub for existing colleges.

 

Do you think uncertainty in policy both at UK and EU level is putting off young scientists going in to agricultural research?

 

In the last 20 to 30 years we have definitely lost some capacity. During the 1990s we had a number of institutions close and a lot of young scientists went off to do other things, so we have effectively got a generation gap that we need to fill. We need to show the sector has huge opportunities. I am concerned about it and I think we need to tell the story better and explain all these great opportunities we have in the sector.

 

For people who want to develop an agricultural career, for example, look at climate change and the opportunities there. I think the real challenge is producing more from less and we have to develop new technologies and techniques.

 

How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions in livestock and so on. These are big challenges, and they are interesting ones. We need to excite our young scientists to be able to provide solutions for the future.

 

We do have a good research base here in the UK. The challenge is translating research to farmers and we have not been very good at that in the past. We definitely need to plug the gaps.

 

Speaking as a farmer and chairman of the Better Regulation Executive, do you think the Government has done enough to cut red tape in the farming industry?

 

It is almost inevitable that if we stay as part of the European Union we will face a level of red tape and bureaucracy associated with that. When you have lived through a period of food scares and people are concerned about the safety of the food they eat and the water they drink, you can’t say we don’t need regulation.

 

People want to be confident about the food we produce. There is a need for regulation, but it needs to be applied in a proportionate way. My role is to try and make it easier for businesses. Reducing inspections is a big thing, as is reducing bureaucracy around form filling and so on.

 

Defra has been working hard on this despite what farmers may think. Defra has committed to having a single inspection that covers off all the legislation requirements. I think we are in a much better place in terms of reducing regulation, but there is still more to be done. Sometimes it takes as long to reduce it as you have to change existing regulation.

 

What do you think the feeling is in Europe?

 

I think the new European Agricultural Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is well aware and is more sympathetic and he has said he is going to look at existing schemes and greening, with regard to reducing regulation. It is just a shame he was not in place when the current CAP was negotiated.

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