Written evidence submitted by Millicent Harding (ELM0002)
- This has been completed under the supervision of Dr Sim Reaney, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University.
- This is a collation of 9 farmers experiences of the different agricultural schemes across Scotland and England who represent a wide range of the farming population from hobby farmers who have acquired parcels of land over time to farmers who have held their land for over 2 generations to those who got involved in farming in order to undertake conservation across their land to large landowners who control a significant amount of land in their area. Almost all were part of a scheme currently or had been part of a scheme previously so drew on their first hand experiences across the arable, dairy and livestock sectors.
- This is a small cross-section of the large and varied population that describe themselves as farmers but this will serve to illustrate, despite their differences, there are a large number of commonalities in relation to the design, implementation and assessment of these environmental and agricultural policies.
Section 1: How can ELM be made an attractive business choice for farmers and land managers while effectively delivering its policy goals?
- The most important factor that has been highlighted is capital payments and higher payments. Margins are very tight for farmers and it is extremely difficult to predict funding from year to year as there is little to no surety that payments will come when they are supposed to and stock prices vary dramatically. A couple have said they re-joined their farm in order to help with the financial aspect of the business either to improve their own wealth or to protect a family farm from being sold. One farmer summed it up quite succinctly ‘it comes down to money’ as if farmers simply cannot afford to do something they will do whatever they need to do to ensure their farm survives from year to year.
- There is a lack of clarity about who is eligible for which schemes as on participant missed out on the new entrant scheme as they were not informed in time and so missed out on the funding which could have helped considerably. Another participant also remarked that they had missed out some funding as it was not made clear when they had to apply during the year for it and so weren’t able to utilise the scheme for the utmost benefit to them.
- A key part of most participants envisioning of a new agricultural scheme that would help them was the use of payments for delivery of results as this would enable them to spend less time filling out paperwork over the year whilst having clear and defined objectives to work towards on their farm. This would free them up to spend more time implementing schemes on their farm and working with various bodies to maximise the environmental benefits they can deliver on farm.
Section 2: How can the Government ensure that ELM agreements achieve their intended environmental outcomes, reduce bureaucratic burdens on farmers and deliver value for money?
- One of the issues seems to be the lack of costs covering for fencing and other improvements as some money may be given but it doesn’t cover the full costs meaning the farmers lose money on doing these works despite the scheme making it a requirement for payment. There are often changes to agreements affecting how much funding is given which are rapid and considered to be without reason by participants. This is made more complicated in that it is also difficult to get in touch with bodies to understand why the agreements have been changed, why individual circumstances have changed or why x amount of funding is not being given.
- The initial upfront investment towards being organic and other such qualifications can be quite high as one participant noted they would be out £2000-2600 to middlemen such as the Farming and Wildlife Advisory group before beginning any schemes which is just further spending with little initial return. Some simply do not have the capital to spare at that point. The same participant pointed out that there was very good advice online and on forums but if people cannot afford to follow it what is the point?
- One farmer also pointed out they would appreciate money being used within schemes for previous capital works as they have posts on their land which cannot be repaired or removed as they apply to a previous scheme so cannot fund the removal or repair in any new schemes. This means they are effectively trapped in this situation where they are unable to afford to do anything with these posts without the money for the scheme but cannot get funded for it.
- Having higher incentives in schemes for achieving biodiversity results would go a long way to ensuring better farmer government relations. Not all participants have had a bad experience with the schemes in fact most were positive about the possibilities it brought but money was a concern for all. Participants cannot farm if they have no money to do so and ultimately farms are a business. Some of the participants are livestock farmers and noted the benefit of the schemes for buffering against the market forces of stock prices.
- A participant who had a long history in managing land with a high number of restrictions from various schemes noted that their credentials allowed them to input some flexibility into the management of the land as they had a history of delivering the goals. Not many farmers are so lucky and so the schemes are mostly considered to be relatively restrictive. It should also be emphasised that some did not want to be reliant on subsidies and these schemes forever so were looking for ways to actively ensure this was the case but needed that higher capital to ensure the correct inputs were made to reduce overall reliance on the schemes.
- The timeliness of payments has been a huge issue for almost all the farmers interviewed underlining the precariousness of the business they run. This is best summed up by one of the participants ‘lots of upland farmers live from one payment to the next’. Large volumes of capital run through the business but very little stays in the farm. This makes it incredibly difficult to make any sort of capital improvements and expand the business as money is constantly running out of the business for expenditures whilst any reimbursements take around 18 months minimum, according to the participants, to be sent back them. This is crippling for some of the farmers as they are making expenditures of £150,000 for stocking and setting up farms for scheme objectives but are not reimbursed for up to 2 years for this cost. Another participant detailed how when the title was transferred from their mother to them payments were delayed by around 2-5 years. This is simply untenable for most and as the participant told me they were lucky in that they could use their savings to carry the farm over through this period but the delay is unacceptable as their work towards these objectives in their agreement did not stop in the meantime.
- Something a couple of participants pointed out was the need for a personal advisor for farms as many only engage with other farmers online, at Oxford Real Farming Conference, at local area groups, and in specific networks of friends the participants have cultivated over the years. This is extremely beneficial as many got ideas about managing their farm but it was noted by one participant that many farmers do not engage with scientific papers but you get a few who read them or engage in research projects and so information is disseminated through them to the network. The farmers really want to engage with the schemes to the utmost benefit to the environment and their land/livestock but the large volumes of information they are supposed to absorb and the way in which they are directed to such information is overwhelming. A farmer noted his land lay on two area lines and so was sent links to environmental priorities for both with little to no information about how it would apply to his land as straddling the border.
- A major sticking point for some farmers has been the modes of assessment such as diaries and the ‘childish rules’. A lot of the participants named the paperwork and bureaucracy of the schemes as the most ‘painful’ part of their job but no one commented specifically on solutions to other ways of assessment so I cannot make any recommendations. There needs to be a shift towards rewarding results so that farmers who do the schemes and continually improve will get rewarded whilst those who do not improve year on and year will be incentivised to make sure they are making gains for the environment. One participant remarked they did not like the prescriptive element of the schemes and so it would be beneficial to outline expected results and let farmers go about achieving those results in the way that makes the most sense for their land.
Section 3: What lessons should be learned from the successes and failures of previous schemes paying for environmental outcomes?
- Regulators and representatives from regulators who make the farmers feel like ‘a criminal’ and so farmers find it ‘demoralising’ is a common theme throughout all the interviews. There is also the fact that these representatives have ‘no idea what they are doing’ and ‘are very good at measuring’ but lack the ability and understanding to accurately identify ecology in the wild to ensure farmers are being accurately paid. Those representatives who do visit farms are considered to be under skilled in advising farmers on how to excel in meeting environment and biodiversity targets or implementing ideas on the farm to achieve the goals set out by the government through a lack of knowledge on the basics of biology, botany and soil. A specific example from one of the participants notes how a representative from Natural England came to the local area and gathered all the farmers together to then ask the farmers to tell them about the specific minutiae in relation to the local area. The participant noted how they felt this was rather a waste of time as they really wanted to know more information about the area for implementation of schemes from Natural England rather than ‘paying lip service to farmers who don’t give a bugger’.
- There is a real want to engage with the schemes as in all the interviews that I have conducted as no farmer has said they want to get rid of or remake the institutions that deliver these schemes at any point. I specifically ask the farmers ‘if you could make the schemes more positive for you or completely remake the schemes what would you do?’ showing an intrinsic belief in the current system as fundamentally being beneficial. This is not to say they are all happy with the entire system and the way it functions but they have all kept the system when asked this question.
- There is however a distinct lack of trust in the regulators of the scheme as governance of the scheme and public opinion have created this rhetoric around ‘money being wasted by naughty farmers spending it in the wrong way’ the participant followed this statement up by qualifying it with that it has a lot more with ‘being directed to spend it in the wrong way’ by the government. The farmers feel they are directed by government objectives and the lack of public knowledge around how these objectives are set and the way money is delivered to farmers means blame is being misplaced. There is little intervention from government around this misinformation and so farmers are being blamed for things which they feel are not their fault.
- There is also the issue of how DEFRA deals with issues of animal welfares concerns and the ability for DEFRA to impose a regulatory threat to deal out appropriate sanctions1. One participant mentioned in particular the Hen Harrier project by James Moran as an example of a proper regulatory threat where farmers are encouraged to work together to avoid violations and where violations occur the contract is terminated with no apparent recourse for the reinstatement of the contract. There are also penalties associated with non-appearance at training events2. This is only a small scheme delivered in Northern Ireland but differs greatly to the current approach of DEFRA which is currently to dock 10% off of the Basic Payment Scheme or terminate the contract where there are serious welfare concerns but the offender is then eligible to reapply the next year after the scheme has been terminated. This makes no sense.
Section 4: Solutions and further considerations
- Logistically, it would be far too difficult to ensure each individual farm had its own advisor but having several area advisors who each have one area of speciality such as birdlife, ecology, soil and flora over a small area would be feasible. They would cover a number of farms perhaps between 1-10 farms in order to cover areas with a variety of small and large farms. These advisors would then be on call to provide advice, assist with applications for various schemes and grants, be in charge of notifying farmers of changes to their schemes, acting as an access point to the various governing bodies for information and queries, and providing a dissemination point for government interactions with farmers. Participants wanted instructive advice on areas they had little knowledge in order to achieve objectives set out.
- The impact of Brexit represents the biggest challenge to UK farming. One arable farmer remarked that his selling collective have refused to sell any malting barley for after Christmas as there is too much uncertainty around the impact of Brexit. They also mentioned the placement of regional markets and the importance of this as they farm down in the South East of the UK and sell malting barley outside of the UK. To sell it in the internal market is far too expensive as the market for barley is in the North East where farmers can get up to £12-15 more a tonne due to transport costs to the mills. For one livestock they remarked that organic Scottish livestock product was being sent down South by Tesco and for them it made no sense as this was grown up in Scotland but the lack of local market was the reason why it was not being sold in Scotland but the supermarkets were also refusing to develop a local market for organic products creating this situation where local products were sent to the other end of the country.
- Another important factor not yet mentioned here is the social aspect of farming which has completely deteriorated over COVID-19 and remains an extremely important part of understanding how change comes in farming. Many participants indicated they got ideas on how to improve their farm when participating in farm walks across the country which is where farmers invite a group of people to their farm to go on a walk to explain what techniques they have been using and what has or hasn’t worked. One farmer indicated that they had been doing it for years and had hosted and gone on farm walks allowing them to explore lots of different aspects of farming they might not have been able to if they had purely stayed online to help with their stewardship scheme. This is something that really needs to be cultivated as peer support can be extremely important during turbulent times3.
- The importance of engaging regional actors such as butchers and abattoirs cannot be understated as a couple of the participants had made major changes to their supply chains which resulted in significant gains for them. This was as a result of abattoirs changing contracts to a supermarket that would pay the farmers a reasonable wage or butchers introducing those who were significant players in the regional food scene to their meat such as high-end restaurants or well-known food campaigners. This allowed them to charge higher prices for their meat and enabled them to gain access to contracts that they likely never would have been able to attract. The farming of specialist products such as organic lamb and beef require additional considerations when rearing the livestock. In order to make enough money to pay any fees related to be certified as organic and then again to ensure any organic schemes are followed correctly all require capital inputs before results generate any incoming capital.
- The differing supermarket contracts represent a significant barrier to making a living wage for farmers as one farmer told me ‘I used to sell to the one that deals with Tesco but Tesco, are a dreadful company to deal with and I remember- just awful’ and that ‘Tesco wanted the cheapest price at any cost so Marks and Spencer stand by their prices, they offer a better price’ as they ‘basically try and make sure the farmer gets a margin’. If the farmers are not able to get a fair wage for their products how are they supposed to work towards environmental objectives that are in reality secondary to the business aspect of the farm and to put in the work to ensure the schemes are effective.
- A catchment wide management approach would be beneficial as some farmers are tenants or owners of land on scales that biodiversity objectives are not currently considered on. A couple of the farmers interviewed had areas of land up to 2230 hectares which is practically catchment wide. This would be best driven by devolved governance as there are serious ecological differences between the peatlands of Dartmoor and Scottish Highlands that cannot be accounted for in a one size fits all scheme. This would allow for specific and achievable objectives to be set that do work for the farmers in the devolved nations in order to pay them for the important work that they are undertaking. It also may speed up return of payments reducing the lag time which would be incredibly beneficial to all farmers. One participant also remarked there had not been enough work on soil fertility as a public good so this may be an area of consideration for inclusion in the ELMs.
- Although there are a lot of negatives as one participant put it ‘No matter how bad it is the effects are really rewarding’ underlining the importance that my participants place on delivering the benefits that DEFRA wish to see in the countryside and on farm.