More than 130 delegates attended the conference, including MPs, the media, retailers and environmental organisations. Farmers from across the country joined NFU President Minette Batters to highlight the vital role farming plays in protecting and enhancing the environment.
The report details the role farming has played through the generations in shaping Britain’s iconic countryside. It also highlights the need for a better data-based approach to underpin effective future agricultural and environmental policy-making and to ensure that environmental successes can be recognised, as well as to understand where more work is needed.
WATCH: The conference opened with a video highlighting what farmers across the country are doing to maintain and enhance the environment
Launching the report, NFU President Minette Batters said:
“Over recent months I have recognised the need for the NFU to increase awareness of and celebrate the good work our members do to protect, maintain and enhance the environment alongside producing food.
“The desire among our members for us to tell their story forms the basis of today’s event. By using our members’ experiences, observations and evidence, we will ensure they become the driving force in providing the solution for meeting the environmental challenges of our countryside.
“This report provides an honest and balanced appraisal of changes to the farmed environment, with farmer case studies at its heart. I hope it presents farmers with the opportunity to be aspirational - to set out what they would like to see happen and what they need to do to continue improving the farmed environment and their businesses.
"The report highlights the need for better data to benchmark environmental performance in a meaningful way. Without accurate or comprehensive data we will be permanently reliant on anecdotal or cherry-picked evidence which does not show the full picture.
"For example, during last year’s Big Farmland Bird Count, 121 different species of birds were recorded on farm – far more than are found on the government’s official farmland bird index. And there was another success story with barn owls, which have increased by 17% above the average of the previous four years."
In the report, the NFU outlines several of its key asks from government:
- Better data on wider biodiversity delivery, like insects, and more data about the quality of our soils and emissions to air such as ammonia. Access to good data is a recurring theme.
- Future environmental policies with food production at the heart because farmers are in the best position to manage land for future environmental benefit.
- A future environmental land management scheme needs to be voluntary, open to all farmers, simple to apply for and administer, and offer a fair reward.
- Improvements to the delivery of current agri-environment schemes in the short to medium term to make them workable and attractive
- Support for farm infrastructure projects, new technologies and innovative tools to help improve productivity while reducing environmental footprint.
- Science, research and innovation to help increase resource efficiency and further reduce environmental impact.
This event marks the start of a new programme of NFU activity highlighting the intricate relationship between food production and the environment.
Mrs Batters said:
“It has been great to see such enthusiasm from key industry stakeholders. It is important that our work and its messages remain fresh and engaging. In the coming months we will be externally commissioning subject-specific investigations on our environmental themes – landscape and access, biodiversity, soil, water, and air - and will utilise a full range of media to tell farmers’ environment stories.
“In addition, we are continuing our long standing work with Campaign for the Farmed Environment (CFE), a volunteer industry steering group, and hope its rebrand in the new year reflects the need to celebrate and champion what farmers do to manage wildlife and the countryside.
“For me, the project is about ownership, pride and control for our members. We are all united by our environment, our food and our future and it is vital that we acknowledge and appreciate the huge amount of work farmers are doing, and will continue to do, towards safeguarding all three.”
See some of the Twitter headlines from the conference:
In their own words - hear more from the farmers featured in the report:
Landscape - Thomas Binns, livestock farmer, North West
“It was never a conscious decision to go into farming to produce a landscape. My desire and drive to have a business was to produce food. But the two things have become increasingly interwoven. We produce food and we’re producing this iconic landscape as well to the benefit of everyone – for me as a farmer and for the public at large.
“In my case it was quite an easy step forward into combining environmental aspects of the farm that we have and the production capacity. It was a natural progression to enter into environment schemes because they fitted hand in glove with our business aspirations for the farm.
“Farmers have a genuine desire to try and make sure they leave the landscape and environment in a better condition for the next generation than it was in when they took it over. That’s always been my aspiration, even though I’m a tenant farmer. My time on my farm will be limited, and I won’t have the farm to physically pass on, but I want to make sure things are maintained and enhanced, and left in good condition for whoever follows me.”
Biodiversity - Saya Harvey, arable farmer, East Midlands
“We farm in conjunction with wildlife and the environment because biodiversity is important for many of the natural processes that are so fundamental to farming. We have been in an agri-environment scheme since 1994 and, as different habitats have developed, we have seen an increase in bird species, invertebrate fauna and small mammals on the farm.
“The farm business is the number one priority for us because without an income there can be no biodiversity strategy. We farm the middle of the field to maximise yields and to generate that income. We have always followed the principles of integrated farm management to increase efficiency and to minimise any harmful effects on the environment.
“These measures include zero tillage cropping where appropriate, variable rate fertiliser application, and the use of economic thresholds for chemical application.”
Soil - Poul Hovesen, arable farm manager, East Anglia
“Healthy soils are the bedrock of my farm business. Healthy soils produce a healthy crop and healthy food. You have to invest in your soil if you are going to have a sustainable business and this means putting back what the crop takes out in terms of nutrients and organic matter, and only operating when conditions are right to avoid compaction and soil erosion.
“It’s important that you don’t allow your soil to get into a poor condition. We operate an integrated system that prioritises cultivation straight after harvest to minimise the use of pesticides and to ensure crop residues are returned to the soil to help build organic matter.”
Water - Martin Emmett, nursery grower, South East
“We’ve tried to take a holistic approach to water management, starting with the capture of rainfall from the glasshouse roofs right through to monitoring the supplies that run through our water capture system. We also collect the water that we’ve used and recirculate and reuse it. We’re doing what we can to take full responsibility for our water – both its quality and the quantity we have available. This is about business resilience but it’s also about trying to maintain a high standard of environmental management.
“We purchased this site 18 years ago as a greenfield site. We wanted to start off with a masterplan that gave full long term security to the business and part of that was the security of our water supply. We’re actually in one of the areas of the country that benefits from a good water supply but the area is over licensed in terms of abstraction and we know also that some of the water from this area is being exported to a neighbouring area. So to give ourselves the assurance of long term security we decided that we wanted to integrate a reservoir project into the site.”
Air - Joel Beckett, dairy farmer, West Midlands
“I think all farmers are keen to do whatever they can on their farms to minimise their environmental impact while maintaining productive farm businesses. As a dairy farm, one of the things we thought we could look at is how we handle the slurry the cows produce in a way that benefits the business and also the wider environment.
“We’ve installed a 44 kilowatt anaerobic digestion system. We decided to do it because it would make the best use of the slurry which we already had and it would also create all the electricity that we needed for the farm and the business, and a surplus as well.
“Now we’ve got our own source of sustainably produced electricity, we’re using less energy produced by conventional sources. The solid digestate that remains after the gas had been removed is valuable as well as fertiliser because it’s got a higher availability of nitrogen within it than the slurry had previously. We spread it periodically on the fields and it’s more useful to the crop when we apply it.”