Oxford Farming Conference: can politicians influence the future of farming?

Four themes emerged from this year’s Oxford Farming Conference, some of them are perennial themes now seen in the new context of Brexit rather than new ideas.

20 March 2017

It is tempting to think that the bland speeches generally provided by the politicians at the Oxford Farming Conference provide little guidance as to the future of British Agriculture. Andrea Leadsom's repeated reliance on a future public consultation as the answer to many questions from the floor in January reinforces that negative view.

Perhaps there is something to be gained from looking a little more closely at those speeches but in any case, the purpose of the Conference is in part to reflect big themes that exist whatever the politicians say. Four themes emerged from this year, some of them are perennial themes now seen in the new context of Brexit rather than new ideas.

Science

A session focusing on the improvement of soils reminds us that behind many of the successful stories that Oxford delivers there is hard science and that engaging with technology in the agricultural sphere does not need to end up in the current impasse over GMOs. If British Agriculture is to succeed it needs investment in research and greater focus on the transfer of that research to the practical farmer.

People

Foreign workers for seasonal or more permanent work are now an essential feature of British farming. Fears that broad immigration controls will prohibit new migrant labour may have been slightly allayed by a softer message on this subject from the Secretary of State. But there is a wider concern here that successful companies need to look after their people. This was reflected in a number of talks – from Konrad Brits on coffee trading to Guy Watson on organic veg boxes. In the era of "Generation Y", with its concern for wider rewards and value recognition, that means that agriculture needs to offer more than a fair wage for a hard day's work if it is to attract younger new entrants.

Trade

Those young entrants will need to be adept at business as well as good at farming. We have all recently received a crash course in the world of tariffs and trade deals. The conclusion of that lesson is that while the politicians must struggle to provide as level a playing field as possible, the farming community needs to help itself too. Levels of direct support for farming are going to fall and efficiency and innovation will be essential for farming businesses seeking to thrive.

Subsidy

Where does all this leave us in terms of a UK Agriculture policy? Many organisations have delivered views on what the focus of that policy should be, and of course there are going to be variations between the policies to be delivered for the three devolved authorities quite apart from England.

The frequent conclusion is that support will be provided for what are now considered "Pillar II" policies such as protecting the environment and rural communities. It is difficult to argue with this in the context of other demands on the public purse, but it was noticeable from both Andrea Leadsom and George Eustice that "productivity" seemed to feature as a theme, reflecting perhaps what we already know about the apparent inefficiency of the British worker in general compared to his European counterparts.

Translated into the rural world, this sits uneasily with what we remember about milk lakes and the like, but perhaps what is meant is that public money will be available for investment in the business of farming which improves the efficiency and innovation referred to above.

The vast amount of information gathered in the last 13 years about field areas and hedgerows will become a happy hunting ground for the environmental historians of the future while the RPA staff will be retrained in the analysis of funding applications and grant contracts. Justifying the payment of public money to farmers may need to be done at the level of individual claims as well as being a matter of wider policy. Above all it is clear that while there may be a transition period to avoid immediate upheaval in 2019/20, future payments will not be area based.

Taking control

We are still a long way from understanding what the UK's agriculture policy will be in 2020. After the tumultuous events of 2016 it is possible that consultation and negotiation will soon lead to a clearer view of that policy but in the meantime the focus of all those in business – farming or otherwise – will be on taking control of their own destinies and relying as little as possible on the politicians, whether their Oxford Farming Conference speeches are bland, rabble rousing or indeed far-sighted and balanced.

Key contact

Alastair Morrison

Alastair Morrison Partner

  • Real Estate
  • Food and Farming
  • Food and Farming Finance

Subscribe to news and insight

Food and Farming

Our industry-leading food and agricultural lawyers provide practical and commercial advice to businesses throughout the food supply chain; advising on all aspects of food and agricultural law.
View expertise