Friday, 1 April 2011

Pride Lost, Navel Found ....

London is exciting.  Mainly because, if I’m in it ... I am usually in it for a reason ... on purpose ... and not by mistake or due to taking a wrong turn. 
This time it was The Farming Ladder conference.  Organised by Sir Don Curry and Dennis Chamberlain. It had the same title as my Nuffield study and meant I felt obliged to go.
I think this sort of conference helps and there were some really good speakers.  This said, I came away feeling a bit empty.  A previous scholar told me at a get-together last year to “be selfish” in my study ... I’d get far more out of it.  I didn’t want to do that.  I wanted to help and come up with suggestions and potential answers.  Now I realise that there are plenty of suggestions, lots of ideas and a good number of potential answers ... its just that very few of them will actually make it all the way to practical policy. Taxation changes are sorely needed. Agricultural Holdings legislation could do with being reformed or even repealed ... with more imaginative options introduced.  The subsidy system protects the established and punishes the new.
Yet the conference convinced me that the only person in the room that was going to help me ... was me. The historic battle between landlord and tenant rumbles on, each taking a stance the other can’t accept.  George Dunn from the TFA was really impressive, a very clear thinker and excellent communicator.  I wish he was on my side ... but he’s not. He started off by saying it was vital that the calibre of entrants into farming had to be high .... hear, hear!  Then he proceeded to put forward the assertion that succession tenancies - where the only test of your calibre is who your father was - were the BEST farming ladder ... were THE farming ladder.  

Succession is the key to the farming ladder! [cue sigh of exasperation] .... And so the land constipation of this country will continue to cause discomfort.
Trying to draw parallels with diarrhoea prevention and interventionist legislation ... probably stretching it

If the tenants were the Imodium with a high level of intervention in the letting process ... the landlords seemed to take the more prune juice approach of the free market. Freedom of contract rules OK!  I sympathise with this attitude far more.  Yet it dramatically depends on trust. Trust hasn’t been prolifically used in this ancient struggle. Also, and crucially, freedom of contract tends to put off the issue of investment to another day ... ad infinitum.  When tax incentives were discussed and it was suggested that certain loop holes be closed ... some landlords got a bit edgy. “Lets have a system that suits us” was the message my cynical ears heard. 
Essentially, it was a conference where vested interests were vocalised ... albeit lined with good intentions.  It is useful to talk and outline your position ... jaw jaw rather than war war, and all that. 
What struck me, though, was that before legislation ... before policy ... attitudes need to change ... paradoxical cultures need to develop and recede.  The conference was helpful in chipping away at this.  But as we talk, we are also part of a huge orchestra of fiddles ... we play intently ... as Rome burns.  The bastions of the past will be the bastions of the future.  UK agriculture ... its quality ... its merit ... its pride is being suffocated by short term views, short term greed and an inability to see beyond our own, very personal, navels. 

Nero "fiddling" while Rome burnt ... I always thought it was a violin
Going round the world - where no one looks to the UK for agricultural guidance - is a humbling process.  No one rates us!  This is the country of Townsend and Bakewell ... this is the country that was the stud farm to the world ... this is the country that invented the tractor, the plough and the threshing machine.  We have been distracted by chasing subsidy ... where a meeting on a new support scheme attracts an audience of 200, whilst a technical seminar gets an audience of 10.  We are disabled by our historic struggle for the control of land. We now think in individualistic terms ... our farm business ... our land owning business.  We only think of "our industry" when it comes to supporting it with payments with other peoples money.  All the lobbying ... all the talk ... is to do with subsidy, intervention and regulation.  We don’t seem to have a communal pride in our real industry anymore and we no longer judge it on production or on innovation.
Bakewell ... in my Top 20 Hero List
A perfect storm is brewing.  Food is going to be a big issue in 2030 ... and big business.  In the UK we'll probably still be talking at conferences, fearful someone else might benefit slightly more than us ... whilst the rest of the world have left us behind. We were once a world leader in production, we had an industry to be proud of in a worldwide context.  Unless we think ... and, more importantly, act ... to free land up, to make an industry that is merit based, where the best farmers farm - whoever their father was ... we will never have that pride again.


Rona Amiss said...

this is the FW report on the same seminar

spot the differances.
You're right Michael it is time to stop talking and actually do something before it's to late.
It is also getting slightly irritating how suddenly the lack of opportunity now seems because the new entrant aren't profesional enough. In this drive to be businesman, what about the need to also have fantastic practical skills and be prepared to work when any sane person would give up?
Come the revolution!

Michael Blanche .... bless said...

Rona - read the FW article. It is slightly "new entrants are a bit crap, so we don't have anything to feel guilty about" heavy, isn't it. I know plenty of excellent established farmers who would tremble at the thought of lodging a tender on their own and would just get someone else to write it for them. Please hurry up re. the revolution, I am becoming impatient!

Anonymous said...

If I had half your skills I'd be a bloody genius!

George Dunn said...

Michael, apologies for my late response to your blog, I have just stumbled across it by searching for something else. I was disappointed to read that you do not think that I was on your side. You seem to have misunderstood what I was saying at the farming ladder seminar about succession which is obviously my fault for not being clearer about what was saying.

In terms of putting rhetoric into action the TFA has been working with the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs to provide training to aspiring new entrants. I alluded to this in my talk and I truly believe that this has increased the calibre of potential new entrant expressing interest in farms available to let.

I said that 15 years farm business tenancies had not provided the opportunities that had been promised and that change was necessary. I said that we needed to consider changes to the taxation framework in which landlords make decisions in order to encourage longer-term letting in the private sector whilst maintaining county council smallholdings as the principal point of entry from which the leap into the private sector could then be made.

The point I was making about tenancy succession was that currently (and disappointingly) that is the only area where the farming ladder is working well. And it's not just about being the progeny of a farmer. Successor tenants also have to show that they are eligible and suitable by virtue of their training and/or experience in agriculture, the extent to which they are reliant upon farm work on the holding for their livelihood and that they are not occupying other farmland on a commercial basis.

My argument was that at a time when the farming ladder is broken and needs repair I was concerned that some of the voices from the landlord community are more active in attempting to destroy the only working bit of the farming ladder (albeit for a few) whilst doing nothing about true opportunities for individuals from outside the industry. The truth is I want both and I'm sorry if that was not well communicated during my presentation. I would encourage you to read the TFAs 2020 Vision available on the TFAs website which contains sections on both county council holdings and the farming ladder which I'm sure you will find accords with your views.

Best wishes.

George Dunn
TFA Chief Executive