Sector tackles key issues at Farmers Weekly Question Time event

Sector tackles key issues at Farmers Weekly Question Time event

On 19 October, farmers, farm workers, students and industry professionals came together to discuss some of the biggest issues facing agriculture at the Farmers Weekly Question Time event, held at Newcastle University. 
Food prices and farm assurance schemes were discussed at the Farmers Weekly Question Time event in Newcastle.
From left: Ellen Holmes, John Renner, Nicolas Saphir, Johann Tasker, Julia Aglionby and James Standen.
Food prices and farm assurance schemes were discussed at the Farmers Weekly Question Time event in Newcastle.
From left: Ellen Holmes, John Renner, Nicolas Saphir, Johann Tasker, Julia Aglionby and James Standen.

TIAH were proud sponsors of the event, underlining our commitment to supporting the sector and bringing people together to share ideas and find solutions to the challenges we face. Here, our Digital Project Officer, Oli Hatton, explains more about the event and the hot topics covered. 

Last week Tess Howe (TIAH’s Head of Partnerships) and I travelled to Newcastle University to represent TIAH at Farmers Weekly’s Question Time.  

Chaired by Johann Tasker, Farmers Weekly’s Podcast and Projects Editor, the panel comprised:  

  • Ellen Holmes, Partnership Coordinator with Food Newcastle
  • John Renner, Northumberland LEAF demonstration farmer
  • Nicolas Saphir, AHDB Chairman
  • Julia Aglionby, Land agent, professor, care farm trustee and Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Penrith and Solway
  • James Standen, Farms Director for Newcastle University and NFU Combinable Crops board member

Farm assurance 

Serious examination of upland profitability and consumer prices were geographically relevant and these came out as two key themes from the evening. However, the panel began on farm assurance. Right out of the gate, the panel considered the question 'Is Red Tractor still fit for purpose' inspired by farmer-led criticism of its recently launched Green Farm Commitment. 

Following a broad conversation around farm assurance schemes, their potential to add value, governance and reflections on varied approaches to farmer engagement, the next question considered the geography of the surrounding farming areas. 

“How should we best support Britain’s hill farmers?” 

Julia Aglionby led the response, discussing falling incomes among farms in Less Favoured Areas (LFAs), such as the nearby North Pennines and the Cheviot Hills, arguing upland farmers provide significant public good, particularly in connecting the visiting public to the farmed environment in national parks and on common land and that they are not adequately rewarded for this.  

An audience member supported this statement, saying his farm incomes alone were not sufficient and contracting was critical to the survival of his business. And while he could add value to his livestock enterprise by offering meat directly to consumers, this route was not available to all upland farmers due to dwindling local abattoir numbers.  

John Renner said farmers should expect to know and micromanage their costs of production to ensure they remain profitable even during periods of low prices. 

“Should British consumers be paying more for food?”  

Discussion then turned to food prices and food security. With the cost-of-living crisis affecting households across the UK, panellist Ellen Holmes said Newcastle Foodbank had estimated demand for food parcels was likely to increase by more than a third again this winter. 

Polling the audience found a slight majority thought consumers should pay more for food. Nicolas Saphir highlighted how closely the two issues were linked, as France and Germany paid around 30% more for their food. And when supplies were limited, produce was typically diverted to more lucrative markets, leaving the UK short. 

Both farmers on the panel agreed food security appeared to be low on the government agenda. James Standen and Ellen Holmes shared the view a national food strategy was essential. Julia Aglionby added such a strategy must encourage the right food in the right places, highlighting the public health component required in such a plan.  

Questions and discussion on AHDB levies, environmental schemes and regenerative farming followed. For the full discussion and comment, read Farmers Weekly's article about the event or listen to the podcast

Good mental health and support

Finally, each member of the panel was asked what skills and attributes they thought a young entrant should have. Julia Aglionby said patience, energy and hard work allied with good mental health and support where required. James Standen echoed optimism and willingness to talk to others was key to success.  

My favourite response came from John Renner, who encouraged newcomers not to look over the hedge at what others were doing and compare themselves, but to make a plan and to go for it.   

To close, Ellen Holmes was asked to summarise her experience of the evening. She reflected on how rare it was that each end of the supply chain made meaningful contact and how much she had learned from the evening.  

Returning home the next day, Storm Babet had set in and an extraordinary amount of wind and rain was not only disrupting our journeys, but causing a range of issues for farmers. Observing from the rail and road, it was clear to see waterlogged crops, flooded feed stores, villages cut off by rising rivers and significant soil runoff.  

Next Question Time  

These events will hopefully inspire questions on farm resilience and nutrient management at the next Question Time, to be held on 27 November at The Welsh Winter Fair. TIAH will be there, and you can be too by registering with Farmers Weekly now.

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