More than 250 arable growers and specialists joined agricultural support business Agrii at the Lincolnshire showground for the Northern Farming conference to explore how to cope with price volatility, greening legislation, black-grass management and other challenges facing British farming.
Maintaining profitability in volatile markets, dealing with new legislations, weatherproofing farms and building public understanding of farming were key topics discussed by a panel of experts at the event.
Given the number of challenges facing UK growers, the panel - made up of NFU vice president, Guy Smith, BBC Countryfile presenter Adam Henson, Bishop Burton College principal Jeanette Dawson, Agrii chief executive David Downie and Andersons partner Graham Redman - found no one simple solution would suffice.
Instead, on the advice of agricultural competitiveness specialist, Mr Redman, the panel - chaired by Forage Aid founder Andrew Ward - said farmers should look to build the biggest possible sum of margin gains.
Mr Redman said: “There is a huge gap between the best performing farming businesses and most of the rest. But the best are invariably slightly better at many things, rather than much better at any one.
“Our task in improving profitability has to be to find as many areas in which we can make tiny improvements. All the more so, because a small improvement in one area does not just add to improvements in others, it often multiplies them instead.
“Taking this approach will put us in the best position to steadily improve the efficiency and profitability of the core farming enterprises which will become increasingly important as a progressive reduction in subsidy support seems inevitable.”
Mr Smith urged growers to start working on their Basic Payment Scheme applications as early as possible, given the complexity and problems of the new arrangements. He also said farmers should do everything they could to weatherproof their production systems in the face of growing climatic volatility.
“In parallel to our NFU work making the case in Westminster and Brussels, everyone must take every chance to explain what we do positively to non-farming friends, neighbours and countryside visitors,” he said.
As someone who has done more than most to champion British farming and explain it to the public in recent years, Mr Henson underlined the importance of communication with every bit of his usual infectious enthusiasm and plain-speaking.
He said: “To attract people, we need to excite them. And in doing this, there is no place for the miserable farmer image of old - despite the challenges we face.
“We must not be ashamed when we are successful either. Nor of the shiny new bits of technology we employ to do our job.
“The public wants to know about the highs and lows of what we do, so we should drop the barriers and tell them in an upbeat and forward-looking way - taking as much advantage as we can of the media’s hunger for good, local farming stories.
“Rather than just trying to do everything ourselves, our business strategy is to surround ourselves with people and organisations who can help and support us in partnerships. We work with them to improve performance and manage risk.
“At the same time, we have created a strong brand for farming and live it in everything we do and say.
“As well as giving ourselves an increasingly important edge in the school of public opinion, doing this on an industry-wide scale will make a major contribution to recruiting and retaining the calibre of staff essential for, what I believe will be, a hugely exciting and increasingly technology-driven farming future.”
Investing in an enthusiastic and well-informed new generation of farmers, managers and staff was also essential, said Mrs Dawson.
Adamant the industry must continue to work harder, she emphasised the importance of learning partnerships with businesses across the food industry.
Having taken on the running of Riseholme College, Lincolnshire, in 2012, she said Bishop Burton was determined to replicate its successful transformation of local land-based education over the past 12 years.
She said: “Along with our industry partners and the new campus, which will open later this year, we intend to make Riseholme a hub for developing knowledge and skills, particularly in precision agriculture.
“The agricultural county of Lincolnshire deserves to be treated as the precious jewel it is. And we must start with the young people which are its future.
“As we have shown at Bishop Burton, the right approach can make the whole business of farming really attractive to youngsters, creating a vital ladder of opportunity for them and for the farming businesses which will depend on them.”
Prof Dick Godwin, Harper Adams University
“Our living depends on a thin layer of soil covering the 3 per cent of the world’s surface on which we grow our food.
“We must do everything we can to reduce and repair the damage we inflict upon this with modern machinery.”
Colin Lloyd, Agrii head of agronomy
“We are not likely to see any new black-grass chemistry for at least 10 years. But our Stow Longa work shows we can radically affect weed populations and wheat yields by how we cultivate, when we drill and what we grow.
“It is also underlining the vital contribution soil structure has to play in black-grass management.”
David Downie, Agrii chief executive
“Key to our primary purpose of adding value and creating prosperity for farmers and growers is helping them to manage all the many components of their businesses to become more efficient, to increase yields while reducing costs, to better target inputs and manage risk, and to build greater resilience.”
Marek Nowakowski, wildlife farming consultant
“Habitat quality and variety are the keys to farm wildlife improvement. We know how best to improve wildlife by growing the right habitats.
“But just like other crops they need managing. So let us get on and do it before the politicians impose more greening on us.”