DEFRA needs to listen more, to be flexible and accommodating in its policies

Torbay Weekly

Last week on inspecting my calendar, I was delighted to find that for the first time in close to two years, I now have more in-person meetings than I do virtual.

Of course, I am grateful that technology enabled us to keep things moving but the absence of physical presence in the room has certainly slowed things down.

A case in point was my meeting last week with the National Farmers' Union and a large collection of South Devon Farmers that was held in person.

Despite having held numerous online meetings over the last two years, last week’s meeting was by far the most informative, useful and directional.

This may well be down to the fact that farming is facing, arguably, its greatest transition since the Second World War.

Outside of the EU, the UK has elected to move away from the Basic Payment Scheme - subsidies based on acreage - to a new Environmental Land Management Scheme - public money for public good.

This transition is a monumental task and creates significant challenges for both farmers and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

While my meeting last week did not exactly present a rosy picture of happiness and contentment, it did help to identify many of the challenges faced by the agricultural community and show what needs to be done.

As ever, there is a need for common sense.

DEFRA said only two years ago that they would work hand-in-glove with the agricultural community and that the new scheme would be based on common sense, underpinned by a department that wished to help the farming community rather than catch it out.

Sadly, the divide between those who work in Whitehall and those who work the ground is cavernous.

DEFRA needs to address this gulf quickly if it is to improve its policies and initiatives.

Fortunately, it could make the following steps quickly.

First, start hiring advisers straight out of the agricultural universities and colleges.

Many of these students go on to be farmers and land managers.

Their insight and knowledge is often more extensive than that of the career civil servant.

In doing so, we can have policies that are created by those who have an established background and understanding of agrology.

Second, every region of the UK should have several DEFRA representatives who are available to engage with the likes of the NFU, the CLA and local farming groups.

Our agricultural community needs a two-way communication channel between stakeholders and policymakers.

A blanket, one-size-fits-all approach from DEFRA to farming in the UK would be a disaster.

In recent weeks, we have heard a great deal about ‘re-wilding’.

It is fantastic that some farms have elected to roll back their intensive farming operations and allow mother nature to take hold of the land again.

But we should also recognise that we still need to produce in the UK and that food security matters.

Instead, there must be a range of options that are available for farmers to pick and choose from.

From organic to regenerative, to rewilding. It is, after all, worth remembering that our beautiful countryside, especially in South Devon, has not come about by accident but by the careful stewardship of our farmers whose lives and livelihoods depend on looking after their land.

Having listened to local farmers last week, I certainly recognise the need for DEFRA to listen more, to be flexible and accommodating in its policies.

It must ensure that what works within ELM is strengthened and what doesn’t is stripped out.

Our agricultural communities are the backbone of our rural areas.

Finding the right balance to ensure farmers are still producing, nature can recover and good at-gate farm food prices is not a fantasy but a necessary objective if our farmers are to thrive in the future.