This week, some of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) team were in Westminster, attending the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming‘s annual Farmers in Parliament event.
And this year it was, of course, taking on the subject that has been preoccupying our headlines for months: Brexit.
Whether you’re for or against it, there’s no doubt that triggering Article 50 and starting the process of leaving Europe will completely change all aspects of society, not least how we farm and produce food here in the UK.
There have been concerns voiced that perhaps Defra could be doing more to consult the wide patchwork of farm types that make up the industry here in the UK , along with the expert charities and NGOs who have become specialists on the environmental, health and social impacts of intensive and factory farming methods, as well as the usual suspects such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), whom we know cover many issues, but do not speak for everyone.
The APPG is working to get Brexit reactions and policy recommendations from these voices who might otherwise run the risk of going unheard at this critical time and is offering Ministers, MPs and Defra an opportunity to hear from them.
This is ultimately what the Farmers in Parliament event was about: putting the people who know their land, what is working, what isn’t working and their hopes for their future in front of the people who can do something about it as we start to get ready to create a whole new raft of policies to govern our food and farming as we detach ourselves from Europe.
The APPG has also worked to produce an opinion paper entitled Farming Post Brexit, which does a good job of starting the conversation in Westminster, and lays out some policy recommendations for a healthy way forward that could deliver an inclusive food and farming infrastucture here in the UK.
Recent speeches and interviews with Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom, have proven lighter on detail than probably most people would like, but in the interests of fairness, almost no UK Government department is clear yet on what Brexit will mean for them and the parts of society they preside over.
Hopefully soon we will get past ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and a little more into the detail of what that actually means for us all.
It was certainly heartening to see Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defra as he took his time going around the room, speaking in some depth with every single stallholder, charity and farm representative. In fact I’m quite sure he was in danger of being late for his next appointment!
Interestingly, a number of MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland made the time to attend the event, even though they didn’t have any constituency farmers exhibiting and each one I spoke to said a variation of the same thing: “I’m worried about what will happen to the farmers in my area, and I’m worried our higher environmental standards could slip backwards post Brexit.”
The farmers and organisations who attended the APPG event had a fair range of points to make to the MPs in attendance which among others, covered the following issues, ideas and innovations:
- Farm Practice: Pasture raised livestock: cutting down on input costs (fertiliser, pesticides) and vet bills, thereby also restoring soil fertility, raising livestock humanely, and producing healthy meat. Micro-dairies: introducing diversity on to the farm (and into the rotation, thereby adding fertility, etc); shortening the supply chain and selling directly to the customer/local shops and cafes so that a herd of 17/18 can provide a living for two or three farmers
- Access to Market: Reducing the length of the food supply chain so that more money goes into the pocket of the farmer. Co-branding: this allows farmers to share the time spent on direct sales at farmers’ markets, etc; bee-keepers sharing equipment and selling under the one brand, directly to the customer.
- Cross-subsidy: Adding processing enterprises on to the farm to add value to the produce, EG charcuterie, cheese-making, bread-making. Currently the farmer only receives 8-10% of the value-added. Diversifying into other income generating enterprises such as a business park.
- Sharing the Risks of Farming: Community-supported agriculture where the customer becomes a part of the enterprise and shares the risks as well as the benefits of local food. A number of models are being developed in the UK. They can be producer-led, community-led, producer-community partnerships, or community owned farms.
- Access to Farmland/New Entrants: Share farming, land partnerships for new entrants to start farming. Some are run as incubator projects whereby the new entrant moves on to set up their own enterprise after two-three years on the farm
Event host and APPG Co-Chair Jeremy Lefroy made an interesting point, saying the following: “The UK now has the opportunity to take an agenda setting approach to its food and farming legislation and governance. It can adopt policies that would make us more self-reliant: enhance biodiversity, mitigate climate change, support small and family farmers, and encourage much-needed new entrants. We must make the most of this chance to craft a better framework and be wary of simply reinventing what we know.”
It’s a hopeful take on our possible shared future, one that I hope is given every chance to become reality.
I do know that I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on Defra’s proposals so far and if you plan to try and get involved in any consultations further down the line. You can find the ORFC at our Facebook page and our Twitter channel, and of course I imagine the conversation will be a lively one at #ORFC17!
In the meantime, if you want to read more about the APPG event and briefing paper, then you can find them online here and you can get involved in the twitter discussion using the hashtag #Farmersinparliament
Katharine Mansell, ORFC Marketing and Communications Coordinator, 22 October 2016