Future uncertain but could be very rosy, farmers say

Nether Hall Farm had to adjust to remain a viable business

Farmers dealing with extreme weather, rising costs and labor shortages said they faced an “uncertain” future as changes to subsidies are introduced.

The post-Brexit farm payments scheme will finance environmental work and sustainable food production.

One farmer said money and guidance were needed, while another said the future could be ‘bright’ but not easy.

The government said the new scheme would help farmers “produce food profitably and sustainably”.

EU subsidies used to pay farmers for the amount of land they farmed, but now there’s a new emphasis on caring for the environment.

New Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) will pay public money to farmers for actions such as managing crop pests without chemicals and working towards net zero.

The measures have been widely welcomed by agricultural and environmental groups.

John Alpe: Sheep Farmer (New Laund Farm, Whitewell Clitheroe)

John Alpe said it was an “uncertain” time for the industry

Sheep farmer John Alpe told BBC North West Tonight that he has already taken advantage of some environmental schemes.

However, Mr Alpe, who owns New Laund Farm at Whitewell in the Ribble Valley, said uncertainty about funding has led him to scale back the size of his flock.

He said one of his main challenges was rising feed costs.

He said he uses between 80 and 100 tonnes a year and the price has risen to between £150 and £200 a tonne.

At the same time, the price paid for lamb has decreased.

He said “there wasn’t a real understanding of how much it’s going to be and what we have to do,” so he planned to “sit quietly and just not spend a lot of money beyond what we have to do.”

Whatever happens, though, he said he was certain of one thing.

“We won’t have more, that’s for sure. There will be fewer.”

Ed Towers

Mr Towers has called for more investment in improvements

Ed Towers, a dairy farmer based at Brades Farm Dairy in Farleton, Lancaster, said 10% of his business depends on government subsidies.

He said he, like many farmers, welcomed a more environmentally friendly focus, but said the new scheme lacks detail, making planning for the future difficult.

“I would like to see more investment opportunities to make the improvements they want,” he said.

“If you want us to have all electric tractors… we have to have the money and the drive to do it.”

He said volatility in milk prices forced him to investigate a niche market, with his farm becoming the first in the UK to produce milk specifically designed to create latte art.

He said it offered some protection from milk price fluctuations, but he was also looking to make other changes to improve the company’s environmental credentials, which drove up costs.

He said half of the farm’s carbon footprint was “methane that comes out of cows and so we didn’t want to be part of the climate change problem, we wanted to be part of the solution.”

A diet including a garlic and citrus supplement cut methane emissions by 30%, but it’s expensive and has led Mr Towers to sell carbon credits to offset the cost.

Some arable farmers like Lucy and Edd Houghton, of Lymm, Cheshire, have changed what they are planting to combat rising fuel and fertilizer costs.

Their farm produces 300 tonnes of malting barley a year for a single brewery, which has given them some financial security, but Ms Houghton said the price for other crops has fluctuated.

“We are getting very good prices for our grain, thanks to the war in Ukraine,” he said.

“At the moment, however, the costs of fertilizers have tripled and the cost of fuel is also putting a strain on the company.”

In 2020 they spent £20,000 on fertilisers, but this year it has risen to nearly £90,000.

That means they changed some of the crops on their 700-acre farm and planted oats, which need less fertilizer, while also finding other income streams, like spraying the crops for 80 local farmers and providing hay bales for weddings and private functions.

Maggie Kelly

Ms Kelly said they had ‘worked their socks off’ and ‘made no money’

Beef rancher Maggie Kelly has also made changes.

His family now have one of the largest Hereford herds in England at Nether Hall Farm in the Lune Valley, despite originally being of a completely different breed.

He said the rising cost of feed forced a switch to “a more efficient cow,” as they were shedding their socks and “not making any money.”

“We had a large herd of Limousins, and there were so many inputs… that we wanted a breed that we could handle on grass.”

The National Farmers’ Union said it was continuing to work with the government to improve its new subsidy schemes so farmers have all the details they need.

“If Elms is to be successful, we have always said it must be simple, provide certainty and fairly reward farmers for participating,” the spokesperson said.

Sheep at New Laund Farm in Whitewell, Ribble Valley

Mr Alpe said he had to reduce the number of sheep on his farm due to rising costs

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said agriculture and nature “can and should go hand in hand”.

“This is essential to sustain resilient food production,” said a representative.

“Through our new Elms, we are paying farmers to take positive actions for the farm, for food production and for the environment.”

They added that the government had ‘provided full details of the schemes which have something to offer for every type of farmer and give them the flexibility to choose what works best for them and their land’.

“They will support farmers to produce food profitably and sustainably, including £600m in equipment grants to help them become more productive.”

Despite the challenges ahead, many farmers remain hopeful about the future, Alpe said.

He said he believed his farm would still be profitable when it came time for his son to take over as farmers were “resilient” by nature.

Kelly added that the industry could still thrive if the government made British agriculture a priority.

“Farmers are always stepping up and feeding the population, so I think the future is going to be really bright,” he said.

“I don’t think it will be easy, but I think it will be fine.”

You can watch more of this story on BBC North West Tonight at 6.30pm GMT on Friday 17th March.

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