Innovation and the future of farming

As we head for life after Brexit, the farming sector is facing some enormous challenges and changes.

The way farmers and landowners are funded for environmental work is changing following Britain's departure from the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy. In November last year, ministers published an outline of their post-Brexit plans for agriculture.

  • £1.8bn of annual subsidies paid directly to farmers in England through the Basic Payment Scheme, this, will be phased out over the next seven years. 50% will be gone in four years, starting this year.

  • The Government wants stakeholders in the countryside to help achieve its goal of protecting nature across 30 per cent of the UK and becoming carbon neutral by 2030, helping to achieve the UN's sustainable development goals.

The post-Brexit plans for agriculture, which are due to be fully implemented in 2024, includes an Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Under the scheme, the most 'unproductive' areas of farmland would be targeted. The aim is to plant 30,000 hectares of trees annually, by 2025 and rewild 30,000 football fields' worth of countryside. There will also be standalone projects to support tree planting, peatland restoration and nature recovery

To boost productivity, farmers will be given grants to invest in new technologies, and asked to improve soil health, water quality and reduce pesticide use.

An exit scheme will also be implemented to help those who want to retire or leave the industry, complemented by additional grants to create new opportunities and support for new entrants coming into the industry.

Consultation on the scheme with farmers to due to begin early this year.

With population growth (and the likelihood of a No Deal Brexit at the time of writing), the need for the UK to be more self-sufficient in its food production is increasing.

For Eden farmers, innovation is therefore critical.

Farm Consultant Andrew Jamieson says, "What you're seeing now is quite a few farmers looking at changing the enterprise balance on their farm. Adjusting what they have done traditionally to try and create better cash flow."

For instance, the dairy industry, which covers 16% of the farmed area in Cumbria, and is predominant in Eden, has several options to innovate. Over the last ten years, some Eden farmers have entirely changed the way they graze their animals using the New Zealand grazing system, where animals are outside most of the year. This has filtered through to the Auctions where there is 50/50 New Zealand Jersey/ Friesian style cow versus the traditional Holstein. Some sheep farmers are utilising deferred grazing with higher stocking rates on smaller areas of land. As the stock is moved almost daily, the grass yield is increased.

With the agricultural industry changes that are coming, Jamieson says the generalists are and will get left behind, while the specialists and those innovating are at least preparing for a yet unknown future.

While Eden is not known for crop production, the debate around how vertical farming can play its part in food production as well as innovative practices, has become louder across the country.

Vertical farms, which do require a high initial investment, can be housed in abandoned buildings or shipping containers. There are a few initiatives across the UK, including one in Cumbria. Announced in July last year, the proposed Vertical Farming Centre of Excellence at Lillyhall in Allerdale could create one of the most extensive integrated vertical farming operations in the UK, with up to 360 jobs created.

The vertical farming market was estimated to be worth £1.7bn in 2018 and is estimated to grow to £10bn by 2026 as demand for sustainable farming solutions increases alongside the need to feed a growing population.

Enthusiasts say vertical farming is a way to guarantee yields and reduce the industry's environmental impact. At the same time improving the supply of safe, healthy and nutritious food and minimising the miles involved in its distribution. The use of robotics and automation to keep human intervention and labour costs to a minimum is also attracting interest. At the same time, less food waste and making better use of limited land space are also considered bonus features.

But is it viable in Eden?

For Eden, there are challenges to vertical farming include the cost of electricity to power the farms, wind power could be an option; building a solar farm under current local council regulations isn't. But the amount of farmland is reducing as the main town of Penrith and surrounding villages expand. With an expanding local population who need feeding, diversifying into a small vertical farming operation could be an option.

Leading thinkers on the subject believe that developing a network of vertical farms could dramatically reduce food miles, reduce reliance on imports and create jobs.

Andrew Jamieson concludes, "I think the transitional plan that the Government has put out for the sustainable farming future will challenge traditional farming. For Cumbrian beef and lamb farmers, about 60% of their income comes through basic payment scheme subsidy so they must look to replace that income. They are going to have to look at their businesses and see if there is any possibility for innovation or if it is a case of good environmental management. Whichever way it is, the county's farmers are going to have to significantly change the way they run their farms over the next seven years to simply remain viable."

Fast forward seven years, and will we see the Eden Valley farming and urban landscape a mixture of traditional agriculture with the emergence of virtual farming in converted sheds, barns and old warehouses? Time will tell.

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