Archive 2013

Bumper crop of delegates at fourth Northern Farming Conference

This year’s Northern Farming Conference at Hexham Auction Mart attracted a sell-out audience of more than 330 delegates - an increase of 30 percent on last year.

With the theme of this year's conference being risk and resilience, the impressive line-up of speakers was led by newly appointed farming minister George Eustice MP. He started the morning session by pointing out that having spent 10 years working "in the field" on his family farm helps him do his job.

George EusticeHe said that Defra was looking at ways to help farmers improve resilience such as a new insurance scheme based on models in the US and Canada. He said his department would also consider the idea of a special reserve fund for farmers, which has been proposed by the CLA.

Mr Eustice also called for new entrants into farming, saying they are "the lifeblood of the industry."

He said: "We need to look at share options and share farming, which have been around, but not used enough. Also we need to look at increasing tenancies, both in land available and agreements being longer. Legislation could put farmers off leasing land so we are looking at ways to incentivise owners to extend tenancies".

Allan BuckwellProfessor Allan Buckwell laid down a challenge to farmers to embrace the increased focus of environmental management or "greening" aspect as part of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

He said: "The most fertile soils are those that recover the best. We have been working ours hard for many years and so it is only right that we should invest in environmental schemes to improve the quality of our soil and water supplies."

"Farming is an extraordinarily complex process of producing food and managing the environment and the CAP exists to help manage the volatility and variability of the food market but also to fund the upkeep of our country’s landscapes, for which there is no market."

Jonathan Allright, head of the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, told the delegates that this is a good time to restructure finance.  He said: "We have become too used to low base rates; these will rise and fixed rates are already on the move so now is a good time to mitigate the risk."

With farm prices currently at a high, he advised caution when buying: "Look at the five year average and work out if you can afford interest payments in the lean years. Most of all, make sure you surround yourself with good advisors."

Colin McGregorColin McGregor, an arable farmer and contractor working over the Scottish Borders and north of England, looked at the state of this sector. He said that introducing new measures and technology can help to reduce risks: "Accurate steering systems led to a saving of £10 per acre and contract farming is all about output. To do the job we do we have to have the kit; with that we have the capacity to get the job done". 

He also emphasized the importance of modern communications: "We can make instant decisions and social networks have brought farmers from around the world together. One of the big problems for many farmers is the lack of 3G in rural communities."

More controversially, and using a photograph of Coldstream Bridge in August 1948, when a third of the annual rainfall fell in six days, he said: "There has always been climate change, it's nothing new and farming is all down to the weather."

Guy PoskittGuy Poskitt, Farmers Weekly Farmer of The Year 2012, told delegates that the main reasons for his success as one of the largest carrot producers in the UK is identifying his market and seeing how his customers have changed. He said: "Customers want quality and availability first - locality is not the main priority." 

Mr Poskitt has managed the risks to his business by expanding his operation throughout the country, from the north of Scotland to south of England as well as in Yorkshire and Lancashire. 

He explained: "The differing climates extend the growing season for us but this can also bring additional challenges. In Yorkshire there is the chance of drought and in Lancashire the opposite, but properly managed they can both work well.  Farming 200 miles from home can also has problems - if you can't find the right people you are in trouble."

The afternoon session of the Northern Farming Conference 2013 at Hexham Auction Mart kicked off with a talk from Lancashire dairy farmer Ian Pye

Two years ago Mr Pye received a Nuffield Scholarship to look at milk markets around the world to ascertain how dairy farmers could secure a future in volatile markets and it was in the USA where he learnt how using financial tools could benefit the dairy industry. He said: "I realised that dairy farmers who use hedge funds know their exact costs every day, every week and every year which is great for expansion. Manufacturers and dairies need to take a lead on this and unions and government need to understand so they can stop interfering. The US market has proved that dairies that use price risk management can secure their long term stability."

Simon BainbridgeNorthumberland livestock farmer Simon Bainbridge shared his experience of taking part in the pioneering Monitor Farm project - a network of livestock, pig, dairy and arable farms sharing knowledge to improve productivity and farm business profitability. He said the biggest success for him had been the use of red clover grass in feeding his livestock. "In my opinion red clover is the king of all forages," he said. "It has yielded 16 tonnes per hectare for me, providing the opportunity to used grazed grass all year round."

He also shared his concerns about the future availability of livestock fodder with increasing amounts of animal feed being used for alternative purposes such as fuelling anaerobic digestion plants.

Livestock Auctioneers’ Association Secretary Chris Dodds, who grew up on a farm near Hexham, said his 122 members were looking to counter year-on-year reductions in the national herd and flock levels by building new agricultural, food and rural business centres that offered additional services above and beyond the traditional ring-based selling environment.

He said that farmers should also look to new markets to grow their sales: "Everyone is focussed on supermarkets but farmers should look closer to home. With two million Muslims and six million non-Muslim Halal meat consumers, this market has a massive potential. We must also remember the buoyant export market and there are major opportunities for growth in countries such as China and Russia."

Robert SullivanRobert Sullivan of the Strutt & Parker farming department was the penultimate speaker who looked at the future following two poor years.  He said: "2012 and 2013 had a big impact on farming in the north east. However, there are positives with market demand increasing for all grains as well as both red and white meat, and a decrease in the cost of fertiliser. On the negative side yield is plateauing, new agrochemicals have fallen to a trickle and there are many we can no longer use."

He added: "There is a need for farmers to understand the precise economics of running a farm. Not enough people know the actual cost of ploughing a field, the cost of running a tractor and paying someone to drive it. Don't do something in the short term which you wouldn't do in the long term. Make the right decision rather than the easy decision, take the risk out of your business and constantly re-assess where you are going."

Donald MacPhersonThe conference ended with Donald MacPherson of Well Hung and Tender, who made an entertaining and insightful speech. Talking of some of the mistakes he made, he said that being a Nuffield Scholar had given him the confidence not to be afraid of failure.

He ended the conference by saying: "Managing risk is all about being adaptable. A flat rate of subsidy is like the dole system - both slow down enterprise. A grant system is surely preferable. We must help those who want help."

The Northern Farming Conference is a joint venture between the CLA, Strutt & Parker, Bond Dickinson, Armstrong Watson, Catchment Sensitive Farming, Hexham & Northern Marts and Gibson & Co Solicitors, supported by the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (AMC).

Presentation Downloads

You can now download each of the presentations given at the Northern Farming Conference 2013 in PDF format using the links below. Please be aware that permission must be sought from the owners if any information contained within the presentations is to be used for other purposes.