Delegates from all sectors of the farming, food and supply industries attended the 2023 Larking Gowen Autumn Farming Conference at Wherstead Park, in Suffolk, on 10 October, a day when temperature peaked at an unseasonal 25°C.
Organised by major regional independent accountancy partnership, Larking Gowen, in conjunction with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the event provided invaluable information on a wide range of subjects of relevance to the agricultural industry in the East of England and garnered an incredibly positive response. Headline partners for the 2023 Autumn Farming Conference were Oxbury Bank and CLA Energy, with additional support from YAGRO, Integrity Asset Finance Ltd, and Impact Services.
A feature of this year’s Autumn Farming Conference was a ‘live poll’ of delegates to assess their views on the future of farming in the UK. Notably, only 40% said that they were ‘optimistic’, compared with 50% in 2022, while 44% chose the ‘it’s complicated’ option, compared with 40% previously, and 8% were ‘not confident’ (2022 – 10%).
Delegates were welcomed by Bruce Masson, a partner in Larking Gowen’s Farms and Landed Estates Division, which has one of the largest teams of agricultural accounting specialists in the UK, serving clients with small family farms up to large rural estates throughout East Anglia and beyond. The driving force behind the event, Bruce stated:
“The pressures on agriculture have been acute and, when combined with a complete lack of clarity from our Government, it’s fair to say that there’s an awful lot of uncertainty in the sector. The Autumn Farming Conference set out to demonstrate the direction of travel for the farming industry and how the requirements of the environment and food production can be mutually compatible. The emphasis was on delivering practical information and advice which delegates can use in their own businesses going forward, and we succeeded in doing that.”
Chaired by CLA East Director, Cath Crowther, the event started with a welcome by the Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey, Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Speaking via a video link, she stated: “Agriculture is still on the transition as we work to make sure, having left the European Union and having had a subsidy system based on how much land you owned rather than what you were going to do with the money, to support not only sustainable farming but also sustainability for the planet. I am conscious that many of you are facing challenges unique to this part of the country compared to the rest of the UK. That’s why in our Plan for Water, for example, I mention the Felixstowe Hydrocycle Project four times.
“The Government is aware of the challenges which you have been facing, whether it’s about cashflow, whether it’s about the weather this summer that made it more difficult for you to get the harvest in. We recognise that in government. That’s why, in terms of the BPS payments, we moved to make that twice a year and, in terms of SFI (Sustainable Farming Incentive), we have opened many more options which are now available to apply for. And indeed, recognising the cashflow challenges, anybody who gets their agreements agreed and started, I’ll make sure you get your first payment within a month of you starting your agreement. It’s those sorts of things where I want to make sure that farmers are helped on this transition to sustainable farming, and I am looking forward to hearing feedback from today’s conference.”
Matt Ryan, Head of Farmer Relationships at Oxbury, the only UK bank dedicated to British agriculture, advised: “Keep it simple and focus on the things that you can control, like the cost of production, risk mitigation and efficiencies within your business. Everything else is influenced by something else or someone else.”
Environmental and sustainability policy, and its interaction with agriculture, was addressed by Emily Norton, a Norfolk farmer and independent rural policy advisor with a particular interest in natural capital influences on land, food and farming. Emily covered the evolution of environmental and sustainability policy as it impacts on customers and supply chains, as well as looking ahead to what this might mean for farming businesses when navigating the choppy waters ahead. She also addressed questions such as: Should you sign up for SFI? Where are the markets for nature-based solutions? Who will pay for your farm data?
Henry Welham, Partnership Manager for YAGRO, which exists to transform the food and farming industry through accessible, advanced data analytics, highlighted the increasing importance of more effectively utilising farm data. Emphasising that in many cases this valuable resource is already being heavily recorded on most farms, but often in many non-integrated ways, he demonstrated through case studies how a coordinated approach could add significant value.
With diversification uppermost in the minds of many farmers, the first of the afternoon’s presentations was particularly relevant and inspiring. In it, Ian Evans, who developed Copdock Hall as an events venue, along with the Copdock Hall vineyard, outlined the challenges, vision and determination needed to launch a successful business.
Highlights of the day were the presentations and subsequent interactive discussion focused on making the best use of water, an increasingly precious resource in the East of England, through more effective management. Chairing a panel of experts, John Patrick of Sustainable Water Solutions® LLC, was joined by Andrew Marriott, Rural Adviser at CLA East, Charlie MacNicol of Stody Estate Ltd, a family-run, diversified, ever-evolving estate in North Norfolk, together with Sarah Kerkham, a Norfolk farmer and Chair of abstraction and irrigation co-operative Heronhill Water LLP, along with Chris Robinson (Norfolk Assistant Project Manager, Reclaim the Rain).
With mental health a significant factor in the farming sector, it was opportune that the Autumn Farming Conference coincided with World Mental Health Day. The £1,630 raised by the event will be split between YANA (You Are Not Alone), the farming charity which provides mental health support for the farming and rural community, and the Farm Safety Foundation (‘Yellow Wellies’) which works closely with Young Farmers Clubs, HSE, Farm Safety Partnerships and a range of farming organisations to raise awareness of farm safety.