Well, spring is finally sprung and Yorkshire’s fields are greening up nicely, with an army of tractors buzzing about tending the crops to get them off to the best possible start.
As an arable farmer myself this is always an exciting time of year. The season ahead seems full of promise and my natural optimism is riding high.
On my farm near Knaresborough things are coming on well – both our commercial cereal and environmental ‘crops’. Over the last ten years I have developed a range of wildlife-friendly environmental features across the farm – things like grassy margins that my resident barn owls hunt in, areas sown with plants that provide food for farmland birds and beetle banks that provide habitats for insects. I have also been involved with the Campaign for the Farmed Environment which encourages and logs voluntary environmental management by farmers.
This is something I’m proud of, and after a decade everything is well established. We are now really starting to see the benefits for the animals, birds and insects that share the land with us. But here’s the rub - as a tenant farmer, with rent to pay, every aspect of my farm has to pay its way. With farmgate prices increasingly unpredictable and the food production costs on the increase, money is tight.
I am therefore very concerned about the impact of impending changes to the way environmental management is funded in England. The measures I have introduced cost money. Not only is there the initial cost of seed, materials, and so on but where the measure involves taking land out of production, there is a knock-on cost. Introducing these measures means that I can grow less wheat or barley and that affects income.
For the last decade farmers have been able to apply for funding to help cover these costs. In my case these ‘agri-environment’ payments have made it possible for me to achieve what I have on my farm. And I am not alone. It’s estimated that 75 per cent of farmland in England is managed as part of an agri-environment scheme.
This approach is now set to change – partly in response to falling budgets across the EU but also because farmers will soon have to meet more environmental requirements as part of the Common Agricultural Policy.
As a result agri-environment schemes are set to become more targeted, and access will be limited to those managing specific landscapes prioritised by government agencies.
This is a fundamental change and will mean in my case that I’m very unlikely to be able to renew my agri-environment agreement. Some of what I have developed will continue, but as the new CAP regime will mean taking land out of production anyway, some of what I have achieved over the last decade will sadly no longer stack up.
It is incredibly frustrating as I have got increasingly ‘into’ this aspect of my farm. What is such a shame is that instead of working with the vast majority of farmers to deliver something widely valued by society, we will soon see many left in the position where there are certain things they will have to do – whether that works for their farm or not – but there will be nothing in place to encourage a more holistic approach. I still believe farmers will continue to do what they can voluntarily, but only time will tell how Yorkshire’s countryside will look next spring.
l Richard Tesseyman farms at Staveley near Knaresborough and is a member of the NFU.