In early September, academics at Leeds University Business School hosted a farming event that brought together academics from the social and natural sciences, alongside farmers, agricultural businesses, charities and local and national government. The focus of the event was to look at the critical issue of how farmers and other stakeholders are adapting to new policy changes- such as the rollout of the new environmental land management schemes (ELMs) – particularly the sustainable farming incentive.
The event was influenced by Dr Peter Gittins and Dr Deema Refai’s research into the challenges and constraints imposed on farmers, in particular increasing legislative and societal pressures for the agricultural sector to reach net zero. Participants also got to virtually tour the National Pig Centre at the university, which plays a vital role in advancing pig farming in the UK. It conducts research with indoor and outdoor pig herds, enabling important comparisons across production systems.
The centre focuses on nutrition, housing, offering customised diets and innovative insights into pig welfare. The centre’s studies improve animal welfare, productivity, and profitability, benefiting the pig farming industry and society as a whole by enhancing sow reproduction, piglet survival, feed efficiency, health, and social behaviour.
On the second day of the event, Dr Ruth Wade from the School of Biology took attendees on an outdoor tour of the University of Leeds farm, where they got to examine the cropping trials currently being undertaken. Dr Wade also outlined the principles of ‘regenerative agriculture’.
Food, farming, and countryside: entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges
The event had a strong practice and policy interest. Academic researchers included those investigating rural entrepreneurship, alongside natural science researchers in various areas, such as meat science and biology. The farmers in attendance spoke about the practical issues facing them in how they run their businesses during a time of policy transformation. Representatives from agricultural businesses and charities shared the issues facing their farming members alongside providing perspectives beyond the initial farm gate and offering insight into the wider market and supply chain issues.
Policy perspectives were discussed at varying levels, with representation from the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), Leeds City Council, and the Environment Agency.
The university research farm was an ideal location. We opened with a summary of our key objectives:
- To facilitate a hybrid networking environment at the university farm to bring together actors working on research relating to ‘food, farming, and countryside’
- To disseminate research with an academic, practitioner, and policy-focused audience
- To learn about future opportunities, build ongoing collaborative relationships, and develop our knowledge in critical issues facing food, farming, and countryside
Constraints and challenges facing UK farmers
Professor Gerard McElwee, professor of rural entrepreneurship at York St John University, led an interactive session discussing the critical contemporary issues facing UK farmers. Issues were raised around sustainability and environmental concerns, economic and financial challenges for UK farmers, policy and regulatory issues, and – perhaps most importantly – the impact this is all having on social and human wellbeing.
It was clear that environmental worries – which dominate all areas of our lives – are at the forefront of UK farming concerns. Climate change, net-zero initiatives, food security, land use and biodiversity, sustainable supply chains, carbon calculation, carbon market uncertainties and land reform all dominate the decision-making process for modern-day farming – in the UK and around the world. Added to this are the financial considerations around viability and profitability, with questions being asked about practical elements such as the role of supermarkets in supporting farmers, the impact of the loss of basic payments scheme (BPS), and the barriers to accessing capital grants.
With representation at the event from local and national government, particularly Defra, it was important to discuss the impact the confused policy landscape is having on working farmers – noting that many new initiatives do not fit the diverse nature of farming – along with the delays to policy and planning implementation. An additional uncertainty is around what impact a change of government might have on the ELMs.
Media coverage and representation of these issues is also hugely significant and has a knock-on effect on social and human wellbeing, with particular concerns around farmers’ isolation and mental health.
British Deer Society
Dr Alaistair Ward from the School of Biology, who is honorary scientific advisor of the British Deer Society, gave a fascinating presentation on the role of wild deer in a farmed landscape. He drew on a recent project that analysed the natural capital and carbon impact that deer offer, demonstrating the need for effective deer management. This is especially important given UK policy initiatives to increase tree plantings and enhance biodiversity in alignment with their plans to decarbonise all sectors by 2050.
It was also noted that effective wild deer management offers entrepreneurial opportunities for landowners, such as policy incentives under the Countryside Stewardship scheme, alongside other economic benefits linked to wildlife viewings, deer stalking, venison production and adding value to skins.
Understanding the importance of native breeds
Christopher Price from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust delivered a presentation on the role of native breeds to society. Native breeds provide a range of economic, social, and environmental contributions, including providing food and fibre, being low input animals for marginal areas, having great grazing and browsing impact, and forming a significant part of cultural identity.
He also spoke about how rare breed numbers are monitored and how breeds can be lost and threatened, such as the Lincolnshire Curly Coat. Outbreaks such as Foot and Mouth disease could potentially wipe out certain rare breeds, in addition to the impact an incident would have on the farming community.
New market opportunities
Attendees also heard from Dr Awal Fuesini at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, about options for exploring new market opportunities. The focus of his talk was on serving the Halal market, providing insight into details such as the high number of sheep and low numbers of beef that undergo halal slaughter.
Dr Fuesini also spoke about Islamic festivals and potential opportunities for farmers to cater to these, either via niche forms of direct selling (farm diversification strategies) or potentially larger markets. For example, catering to this market can see farmers receiving returns on lambs for between £250 and £300 – considerably different from average market prices.
Carbon mapping and sustainability
It’s long been the case that ‘you get what you measure’, and this point was stressed by Becky Wilson from Farm Carbon Toolkit, who explained the importance for farmers to begin thinking about carbon mapping their business. Measuring greenhouse gas emissions will be an important element of the journey to net zero – farmers own knowledge of this will be fundamental. There are many actions farmers can take to reduce carbon, from farming with fewer inputs (i.e., reducing red diesel), to engaging in on-farm actions that can promote carbon sequestration, such as hedgerow and tree planting.
Carbon mapping can also be useful in helping farmers develop their strategic thinking capabilities, serving as a useful means to help them future-proof their businesses. This talk was followed by Roe Baker who spoke about the role of carbon mapping in the Rural Cumbrian context, sharing her insights from ongoing work being conducted by Cumbria Action for Sustainability.
We also heard from Holly Jones at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, who delivered a talk on how the society promotes agriculture and rural practices across Yorkshire. This society aims to advance and encourage agricultural research and the protection and sustainability of the environment. It also aims to promote greater understanding and empathy with farming and the countryside amongst the general public and particularly children, which includes its annual agricultural show.
Exploring challenges in UK agriculture
Dr Gittins delivered a session on his findings from the Impact and Engagement Support Fund project investigating the critical constraints facing hill and upland farmers in England, as they adapt to the new ELMs and pressures to reach net zero. We took this as an opportunity to share some preliminary findings (later to be published), sharing a series of anonymised interview quotes that highlight the practical and lived experiences of farmers during the post-Brexit agricultural transition period.
In response and following this session, Engagement Team representatives from Defra provided insight into how the department is engaging with farmers during the transition phase. An important issue for many farmers is around agricultural policy and how the removal of BPS and might impact them. There are concerns around how easy it will be for farmers to understand the details of new schemes, and how these will fit with their individual farm enterprises. And of course, there are still issues with the current sustainable farming incentive.
Transitioning to ELMs
These issues may present a barrier to farmers adopting the new schemes, despite the huge potential offered by the ELMs in terms of delivering environmental sustainability. It’s therefore important to address these barriers.
First, economic incentives need to be appealing for farmers to join; otherwise, they will pursue other strategic options (i.e., expanding livestock, improving efficiency gains, diversification outside of the sector). These options may have the opposite effect on the UK government’s environmental ambitions, such as achieving net zero by 2050.
Second, schemes must be inclusive for the wide variety of farming styles, sizes and systems, including environmentally conscious farmers, entrepreneurial farmers, traditionalist farmers, and hobbyist farmers. There is great heterogeneity amongst UK farmers.
Third, information around scheme details must be accessible for your average farmer, with minimal bureaucratic barriers, bearing in mind that four in ten farmers are over the age of 65.
What is ‘sustainable’?
Sustainability consists of three pillars: economic, social, and environmental factors. While the sustainable farming incentive has strong potential to promote robust environmental contributions, and Defra has recently increased payment rates for hill farmers (economic factors), more could be done to improve social sustainability.
Dr Gittins closed with the following comments:
“Traditionalist farmers, who make up a substantial proportion of the rural landscape, often may not operate the most environmentally sustainable or profitable farm businesses, but they bring about significant social benefits. I believe these social contributions hold inherent value.
“Trade-offs can also arise when competing aims are considered. Farming activities that are environmentally beneficial may have social drawbacks. For instance, tree planting has substantial environmental advantages in terms of reducing carbon emissions. However, when fields are taken out of production for this purpose, we lose the livestock that holds local and cultural significance, and there is a risk of labour leaving the hills forever.
“With BPS payments, which can make up as much as 90% of an upland farmer’s annual income, already facing a 50% reduction by 2024 and being completely discontinued by 2028, we face the genuine risk of excluding and potentially losing traditionalist farmers. Along with them, we risk losing these crucial social contributions.
“We should strive to preserve these contributions, perhaps through ELMs payment schemes. Defra defines ‘beauty, heritage, tradition, and engagement’ as public goods, but these values are not adequately reflected in the current SFI as it stands. Traditionalist farming practices, such as hefted flocks, working dogs, operating classic and vintage machinery, engagement in local village fetes and heritage practices, are integral to the ‘rural idyll’.
“Efforts to increase productivity and transition to more environmentally friendly farming methods, could unintentionally erase these practices. It is essential that we sustain and perhaps incentivise these socially valuable practices to maintain the beauty, heritage, cultural significance, and traditions that society deeply values.”
Impact and Engagement Support Fund
This event was kindly funded by Leeds University Business School via the Impact and Engagement Support Fund. This project aligns with the wider body of research being conducted within the Centre for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, investigating enterprise in challenging contexts, namely Constrained Rural Entrepreneurship.
Thank you to speakers and attendees in making this event a success. A special shout out to the Farming Community Network who have provided excellent ongoing support throughout this project.