NFUTenants24: Read David Exwood’s Conference speech in full

16 April 2024

Tenants and land
NFU Deputy President David Exwood speaking at the Tenants' Conference

Opening the NFU’s Tenant Farmers’ Conference, NFU Deputy President David Exwood outlines the challenges and questions facing tenants, the NFU’s offer for tenants, and what is needed to enable the sector to survive and thrive.

Good morning everyone. I am delighted to have the opportunity to host this first in-person tenants’ conference since 2019, here at Stoneleigh. Welcome those in the room and those joining online – we have over 200!

Tenants are under pressure. We are all under pressure right across the industry in England and Wales this spring of course, but particularly tenants. The weather, price volatility and policy change have combined to make a perfect storm that leaves them particularly vulnerable.

The cumulative loss of BPS over the last four years that now amounts to tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds for every farmer right across England and the slow transition to SFI has created real cash flow issues.

Many will be struggling to pay the rent right now.

And then, there are the immediate problems with adverse weather and serious flooding on top that affects everyone. It’s tough. 

‘Don’t take food or tenant farmers for granted’

Don’t take food or tenant farmers for granted. We need both if we’re going to feed the nation.”

NFU Deputy President David Exwood

2024 is proving to be a busy year politically too. With a general election coming soon, we’re working with all political parties to ensure our manifesto asks are clearly understood and taking every opportunity to get MPs and prospective candidates out on farm, so they understand the challenges and great work being done by farmers across the country.

Our role in producing food mustn’t be taken for granted especially at a time of such international crisis. As our global insecurity rises our national food security should rise with it too.

Don’t take food or tenant farmers for granted. We need both if we’re going to feed the nation.

We all know there are a huge number of issues – I’m committed to improving the current SFI offer and increasing the options available for uplands farmers and of course making it work better for tenants. We’re pleased with the 25% cap on some SFI options announced recently – the scheme will continue to evolve further, I’m sure.

We’re committed to working with government to make their farming schemes actually work for us – the Farming Recovery Fund is a very real example today – funding promised needs to get to impacted farmers in a timely manner.

At a time like this we must think about the mental pressure on farmers too. We’re used to dealing with pressure of course, but the wettest winter on record has pushed people to the limit.

Most farms in the UK are small family businesses trying to do the right thing, often in very isolated circumstances. It can be incredibly lonely. We have to think about the consequences in everything we do.

NFU Tenant priorities

So, what are the NFU’s tenant priorities?

60% of NFU members are tenants in one form or another – that’s 27,000 members.

All three office holders are tenant farmers. We have tenant farmers on all our national commodity boards, and not just a few. Over 70%, that’s 54 out of 77 members of newly elected commodity board members are tenants in some way.

They are at the heart of NFU decision making – they will be representing you.

The NFU represents more tenant farmers than any other organisation and the NFU is committed to working with tenant members going forward.

This is our first conference since Kate Rock delivered her review in May 2022 – it was a well-received piece of work with over 70 recommendations and has set the agenda for the tenanted sector ever since.

The primary concern was the ability of tenants to access the ELM scheme, and to a large extent that has been achieved.

There was no option on that though.

Tenants should never be marginalised by a government scheme and that should be the guiding principle going forward.

The Farm Tenancy Forum was set up last summer and you are all going to hear about that today from the Minister and Julian Sayers who co-chairs the forum under which I sit too.

Tenants should never be marginalised by a government scheme and that should be the guiding principle going forward.”

NFU Deputy President David Exwood

Changing the culture

Already the forum has implemented a number of the recommendations from the Rock Review including the Agricultural Landlord and Tenant Code of Practice announced last week.

The Code of Practice will help foster fairness, addressing poor conduct but also highlighting good practice.

This provides a good basis for ongoing relationships but needs to be adhered to by all parties.

We continue to see examples from our members of poor and sharp practice – I received a number yesterday that members wanted to share ahead of today, and we think a Tenant Farm Commissioner would work well alongside the Code of Practice in changing the culture between landlords and tenants for the better.

And changing the culture is what we need to do.

We have made progress through the government’s response to the Rock Review but tenants are still vulnerable.

They often don’t have the financial capital to pivot to embrace new opportunities in the same way as non-tenant farmers.

Every farmer, tenants especially, will need to become more resilient to extremes of weather and markets and investment is the key to that resilience.

How can we make sure the grant schemes such as the Slurry Investment Grant Scheme as well as the Farming Equipment and Technology Fund work for tenants?

How or who, will invest in new land drainage on a tenanted farm?

How do we make tenants more productive?

How can a tenant invest in soils as they should on a short term FBT (Farm Business Tenancy)?

We have some of the right incentives there now under the SFI, but increasing soil organic matter takes time.

Even applying lime under annual FBTs is nearly impossible, which is to the detriment of everyone. We need to incentivise longer tenancies or a framework where tenants can invest in the future, knowing they will be compensated if the tenancy ends.

How can a landlord invest in a holding knowing they will have their asset looked after and get a return?

Supporting the next generation

At home on my farm in Sussex I face similar pressures every day.

I have an excellent relationship with my landlord, built over 30 years, but as an FBT tenant, how I will create a succession opportunity for my 28-year-old son?

How does he get the chance I had, with the myriad other opportunities to make land pay available to the landowner, that weren't there when I started?

How do we create those exciting opportunities for the next generation?

The answer to these questions are in some of the really good examples of landlords and tenants working collaboratively with both parties benefiting from a successful business.

To make that happen we need to see a new generation of modern tenancies that sit behind modern farming businesses.

Ones that value each asset fairly and flexibly, giving confidence to both sides.

Collaboration between tenant and landlord is the future.

NFU offer for tenants

So what is our offer for tenants from the NFU?

Today is an exciting day for tenants and the NFU and I want to share with you our plans for the future.

Firstly, please remember that the Tenants’ First Advice Service is available giving up to £600 towards agents’ advice regarding rents especially when a review is being carried out.

If any of you are entering into a new tenancy agreement please use our contract checking service available via our Legal Assistance Scheme and Legal Panel Firms.

Today, I am very pleased to announce, we have launched our new NFU Tenants and land community on our website so please do have a look at it.

This is the place for every member to have their say, share their views, see what resources we have specifically for tenants and see all the relevant events going on both locally and nationally.

This new community is for you so please do go online and join it.

For those in the room we have this leaflet on our new tenant offer on your tables, detailing the 7 ways we’re here to support you. 

We will be promoting this to every tenant in the country in the coming weeks.

We and the strength of the NFU are here for you now and in the future.

‘If anyone can succeed a tenant can’

I am, as many of you know, a positive person and a passionate advocate of farming, and especially tenant farming and I’m aware that the message today is full of challenges.

However, tenant farmers are some of the most dynamic and forward-thinking farmers I know.

They have to be innovative to not just survive but thrive, whatever the situation.

If the environment is right, they can continue to grow food for the nation, whilst delivering the government’s environmental ambitions and being at the heart of rural communities.

If anyone can succeed a tenant can.

NFU members, join our Tenants and land community to comment

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