There is a fashion in business and politics at present to look for strong leaders, perhaps always and not just at present …. I am a very strong leader when I wish to influence my sheep and am carrying a bucket of food – although at some times of the year my rams are less keen to follow me than to seek the ewes. Elsewhere, I am less influential!
There is also a need for innovation, which seems to be a very human trait. Necessity may be the parent of invention, and of course we have some of that at present. Also of course, the cross-country and Telemark skiing mantra, “Free the heels, free the mind” is interesting – putting things into a different context will lead to new thinking.
So context is vital for leadership and innovation.
I have been interested to observe that after an initial period of inertia (possibly even panic?), the UK agricultural community has begun to ferment with new ideas since the Brexit vote in June, 2016. This may be because there has been something of a policy vacuum from the centre, recently updated to become a one-size-fits-all “strategy”, or possibly, all of a sudden, we are free to think differently without the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy? There is however, always the challenge not to throw babies out with the bath water!
The ideas no doubt stem from the vital importance of Europe as a customer for UK agricultural output as well as being a supplier of many agricultural products, not just food and drink but also feed, fertilisers, etc. This sector was fairly divided about Brexit, although the NFU, for instance, was a remain supporter. Are there similarities between agriculture and Scotland?
Although farming and forestry are the largest land use in the UK they contribute relatively tiny amounts to our GDP. Mechanisation has reduced the labour requirements, even though fruit, vegetables and shearing rely heavily on migrant labour to meet seasonal demand. The key and vital public benefit role of farming in maintaining the countryside (mainly as a tourist venue), and in managing the environmental impact of climate, people and agriculture on our land, is still insufficiently recognised. This is well illustrated by the fact that 32% of farm incomes come from diversification, whether into energy, tourism or letting out buildings, and this figure is calculated before contract work, which is also important for many farmers.
In particular, sheep meat is a very valuable export, accounting for 30-40% of production, and would be expected to suffer if tariffs were imposed by other European countries or by the EU as a whole, since 96% of the exports go to the EU. And while of course wool is vitally important as well, at 3% of world textiles by value, it is a tiny blip on the economic scale of things.
The National Sheep Association has just produced an excellent, detailed, well researched and convincing report on the important complementary role of Upland Sheep Farming.
New ideas promoted at the two January farming conferences, Oxford Farming (theme: Thrive or Survive) and Oxford Real Farming ( including: the importance of being radical, changing the productionist paradigm ...) were interesting. For instance, the idea of giving an equal amount of £5,000 subsidy to all farms over 1 hectare or more, would certainly even the playing field between those top 16 recipients of farm subsidies who get £13.4m and those who get rather less. Also the idea of more sub-regional and local infrastructure support would hugely help with animal welfare as abattoirs reduce in number, strengthening local supply chains. Meanwhile the role of Groceries Code Adjudicator is seen as only the beginning of getting fairness into all levels of the relationships between producers and consumers. Also, there is growing awareness of the dangers of over-use of pesticides, herbicides and anti-biotics, in terms of the risks long-term of growing resistance and also of feeding these chemicals downstream into the food chain and the environment. And of course, the Savory Institute continues to inspire!
So now is the time to dust off the silly ideas we thought might not work, and try them for size! Or perhaps wander out along the fields and hedges to seek inspiration, or go to farmers markets, livestock markets, conferences, network events and so on – to reach out, observe, listen and see what is there and might work. Even perhaps start a wool business?!
All of these possibilities can be enhanced by good research – for farming, the data on soil, on genetics and estimated breeding values, on nutrition from different styles of husbandry, on adjusting for climate change, seeking lower impact from chemicals and drugs, possibly even genetically modified crops … all of these are influencing farming decisions more and more. It’s not enough just to look, though there is no substitute for good observation, provided that we also use the data – are we dosing correctly for the weights of our animals – do we actually know the weights? We might be wasting money by over- or under-dosing as one will not work and the other is unnecessary …
Farming and adding value today is a numbers game at every stage and we need to be aware of how to get the information and use it. We also need to understand how some information can be used in various ways to give a distorted picture (the simplest is to use the scales on a graph!) or selectively to lead to a conclusion which may not be borne out by having the whole picture. We have already provided some ideas and sources of information in our blog item Sheep and Death part two.
Thus, for instance, that wool is a miracle fibre is undoubtedly (!) true and most other fibres struggle to deliver the benefits at anything like a similar cost in actual and environmental terms, but this is carefully obscured by producers of artificial fibres (which are apparently sustainable, particularly when re-cycled or viscosed!) and some other natural fibres. Similarly, the very few bad aspects of wool production, all too graphically and unpleasantly depicted by PETA and similar organisations, are used to paint all sheep farmers black or bloody red. Farming does not generally fight back, because we do know that sometimes a few animals will suffer illness or accidents and somehow we dare not stand up for ourselves. Thus those who recently produced the Dumfries House good wool practice declaration were notably silent on mulseing which after all was supposed to have been phased out in Australia by 2010.
It is not an altogether straightforward decision as to whether to use mulseing or drugs or to allow flystrike to kill sheep. In theory, the way to develop sheep which are resistant to fly-strike or other diseases is to do exactly this – only those tough enough will survive, but then we would have been unnecessarily cruel and abandoned the Five Freedoms which we owe to those animals whom we have permitted to be born. If we breed animals, we have a duty to give them a respectful life. Let us make sure that in the "post truth" world, the changes coming will reject "post trust", and embrace morals, ethics and respect, particularly for the lives of farmers, livestock, women and migrants – and let us not be silent on this!
Our blog themes for this year will be based around sustainably adding value and marketing, exploring why we do things and generally looking inwards to reach outwards!