Generation Farm looks at the big challenges facing farming

Thursday’s Generation Farm Conference in Daventry, organised by Farm Business in association with NSF Agriculture and supporting sponsors, heard from expert speakers on the challenges facing UK and world agriculture, with their thoughts on what needs doing and some fascinating presentations from practical farmers who are putting new ideas into practice.

Chair Tom Bradshaw highlighted the yield plateau in combinable crops and the gap between trial yields and those in everyday farming. “The fact that the gap is getting bigger means that we are not keeping pace with the trial yields,” he said. “We are all striving to be sustainable. I question whether having a 45 tonne tractor and trailer going up and down the field is sustainable.”

Farming needed to persuade the wider public it was doing the right thing. “While we are receiving subsidies we are going to be continually judged on what we do,” he said. “I think that’s right.”

Soil fertility presented agriculture with a challenge. “There’s no doubt that changes in soil fertility are real,” he said.

He also questioned whether tenancies enabled farmers to think long term. “I question whether the current model for land tenure is correct going forward,” he said. “It’s very difficult to give the same level of attention to land that you’re only farming for the short term.”

James Bolesworth, director, CRM AgriCommodities looked at ‘Succeeding in volatile grain markets’ and explained that agricultural commodities are not the only ones facing volatility. “Everybody’s had a hard time,” he said. “Agriculture’s fared better than most.”

Ed Salt, managing director of Delamere Dairy described ‘Expanding markets overseas with brands’, going through his company’s successful forays into markets around the world. “The future of farming is fantastic, simply because of the opportunities around the world,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to sell something that people want.”

Professor Richard Godwin of Harper Adams University, considering ‘The future of precision farming’, said “the critical thing is making sure we can capture the enthusiasm of youth.

“There is a fantastic set of jobs out there for people who want to come into this area of technology,” he said.

Jake Freestone, farm manager at Overbury Farms, speaking on ‘Mixed farming for sustainability’ considered the advantages of zero tillage. “It’s practiced all over the world, but not in the UK to any great extent,” he said. He was also a fan of cover crops. “We’re trying to keep the soil covered as much as we can,” he said.

“Perhaps the three crop rule is going to be a saving grace for UK agriculture,” he said. “Maybe it should be six or seven.”

John Giles, divisional director Promar International, talked about ‘A career in agri-food consulting, the changes, opportunities and skills for the future.’ “I have a firm belief that good people will develop good careers,” he said.

The morning session ended with the CF Fertilisers debate led by Clive Deeley, advice team manager leading a debate on ‘better soil management’ with Andrew Ward MBE, Tony Miller and Sean Sparling, followed by the presentation by NSF Agriculture of six awards for sustainability,

Economist Sean Rickard, talked on ‘Agriculture – time for a supply-side revolution.’ “We’re going to become a data intensive industry,” he said. “You’re going to have more in common with a trading room in the City of London. In this industry we are on the cusp of a revolution. Forget the old image of smocks and straw in your mouth. Your industry is a high tech industry.

Simon Davies, agricultural development manager of NSF Agriculture, considered ‘The critical importance of water management in a sustainable farming future.’

Martin Barker, managing director Midland Pig Producers, talked on the ‘Green Cycle principles’ he applies to his work. “We need to get bigger,” he said. “We need to get more efficient. We need to do it without subsidies

Delegates heard the story of Marcin Ujejski, maternity manager Bakers of Haselbury Plucknett and how he went ‘From first job in farming to developing a career in dairy.’

David Miller, farm manager Wheatsheaf Farming looked at ‘How soil health has driven radical change in farming practice’, describing soil health as “the capacity of the soil to function without intervention.” “That intervention to me means mechanical or chemical,” he said.

David Neale, Agrii consultant and specialist crops advisor looked at ‘Understanding genetic benefits and functional grain opportunities for a sustainable future’. “We’ve got to get more from less,” he said. “We must connect better with R&D and genetic knowledge.

Professor Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University ended the day with ‘Managing soils for sustainable farming.’ “The big challenge is that we only have a finite amount of land,” she said.

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