LEAF – turn over a new one

By [2] ([1]) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By [2] ([1]) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On Monday I went to the Linking Environment and Farming President’s conference in the headquarters of HSBC in Canary Wharf.  I have a lot of time for LEAF, although there were a few moments on Monday when I thought I might have stumbled into an NFU conference instead of a LEAF one. How long should you have to be in the room before you could tell the difference?  Discuss!  I’ll come back to this at the end of this post.

There were many very nice farmers in the room and I enjoyed talking to quite a few of them, and there were a range of interesting talks.  I’d like to give you an insight into what one of the speakers said – Allan Wilkinson from HSBC itself.  I choose this talk not because it was the ‘best’ (although it was very good) but because I found it very stimulating, and because the speaker had 10 points which makes it easy to summarise.  Here are Allan’s 10 points, in bold, and my comments on them not in bold (how could I be so unbold?):

  1. few farms operate at their economic optimum – in other words, there are a lot of inefficient farms out there despite British farming often saying that British farming is the best in the world.
  2. the difference between the best and worst farms has grown and is now enormous.
  3. does expansion increase or decrease your farm profitability and cash?
  4. benchmarking and budgetting are vital – a good point for wildlife NGOs too?
  5. the biggest variable in your business is you – there are good and bad farmers.
  6. the customer and consumer are king – how many times has farming been told this? But it still needs telling.
  7. be adaptable.
  8. know who is your competitor – I believe, more generally in knowing your enemies.
  9. collaborate with your neighbour.
  10. volatility is here to stay.

I thought that these points, and others, were made clearly by the man from the ‘listening bank’ which I will now think of as the ‘listening and straight-talking’ bank.  They come from someone with a knowledge of farming but not a farmer, and they may have relevance for your (and my) business too.

I’m not sure that LEAF’s Chair, Stephen Fell, had completely incorporated Point 6 when, in a recent blog, he had a go at the London left-wing intelligentsia.  If we take London=urban; left-wing= not Conservative or UKIP; and intelligentsia=brighter than average, then that only leaves about 5% of the population to whom farmers can sell.  Nor, am I sure that Mr Fell had completely got his head around the State of Nature report which showed that 60% of (enclosed) farmland species (for which data exist) are declining – and 34% of them are declining strongly – when he wrote that ‘the same weary suspects still trot out their mantras about intensive farming ruining the environment…and farmland bird populations reaching dangerous levels’.  Some of us will not weary of mentioning declining farmland wildlife until it has recovered.

We should, probably, take LEAF’s Chair’s dyspeptic remarks as a momentary lapse but I fear that they might also indicate that LEAF has not yet decided what its role is to be.  If it is to be just an occasionally slightly nicer version of the NFU then there really isn’t much point in LEAF and we should simply ignore it.  LEAF should be standing up for stewardship, an old-fashioned concept I know, and facing up to farming’s environmental challenge.  If it does then it is worth supporting, as a customer and consumer.   Then, I hope that it would be  encouraged and championed by the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB and their millions of consumers – a collaboration worth having.

The LEAF Marque is miles and miles better than the Red Tractor Logo, in my opinion, as a marker of good British farming.  With continuing evolution this is a label that the ‘London-based left-wing intelligentsia’ could get behind.  This could deliver a market-based incentive for the rural, right-wing and left-wing, ignorati and intelligentsia who work in farming.

If LEAF is serious about stewardship, and I know lots of individual LEAF farmers who are, then it has to accept that there are problems that need solving.  It needs also to read that list of 10 points above and realise where its best chance of collaboration lie.  I’ll watch this space with interest. Turn over a new LEAF.

Olga Wisinger-Florian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Olga Wisinger-Florian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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18 Replies to “LEAF – turn over a new one”

  1. The farm that surrounds me is empty of wildlife and my garden is full [not because I feed the birds but plant the right species]. He is given around £20,000 a year to keep going and I get nothing. He is around 200 acres and I am 1/2 an acre. What if the National Trust who own 1/3 of the Lake District and many other parts of the UK actually gave farms to people like me and they were purely run for wildlife first and farming second.[They were bought apparently for the benefit of the people!!] Big farms could then get on with the business of producing food without worrying about wildlife even though many species could adapt to their methods.

  2. When you next hob nob with the likes of the boss of HSBC please ask why we cannot have a “farmcoin”. An easily traded (in small amounts) investment backed by land. You have grumbled how land values rise so. Many people donate a tenner to their wildlife trust to buy land but they may put (and keep their £100) in a fund invested in land with wildlife friendly covenants. One of your contributors commented that RSPB does not make any profit on Hope Farm that all goes to the contractors etc but it still has the land. So would this fund. When a prize winning conservation farmer dies where does his good work go.
    There are various crowd sourcing funding methods which I do not pretend to understand. But the can raise considerable amounts of money.
    Of course the “suits” would have to take a smaller cut from the operation commensurate with the digital age. Maybe the Triodos bank could organise it.
    I know there are companies that help the rich invest large sums in agriculture but this is aimed at a smaller investment.
    There is a Forest Bond but I am not sure what it is http://www.globalcanopy.org/projects/understanding-forest-bonds

  3. “With continuing evolution this is a label that the ‘London-based left-wing intelligentsia’ could get behind”

    I suppose this is better than where Labour is at the moment - “Behind Unite”

    Mark – (sometimes) you do talk rubbish !

    PS - Is that continuing evolution of the Label or the left-wing intelligentsia?

    Left-wing intelligentsia ? An oxymoron if ever there was !

    Is this another classist rant of yours?

    1. Trimbush - it isn't a classist rant and there never has been one of those on this blog, except, perhaps, shades of such in your comments?

  4. The customer and the consumer are two different people - and the question I'd ask is: is the customer - the British supermarkets - King or an absolutist Dictator ? It scares me that farming - distributed amongst thousands of producers who have little or no power against the near monopolistic giants who buy their produce - seems to be the victim in the ruthless, short term and volatile stock market battle between the major supermarkets.

    Its really very hard to separate out the consumer from the food industry agenda: is the 'perfect product' - the blemish free, identically sized (tasteless, imported) apple something we all wanted or something we have been taught is what we want ? Similarly, to what extent are we victims of the reality that the more processed food is the cheaper the ingredients, the higher the mark up and the longer the shelf life ? It is all too clear how unenthusiastic supermarkets are about the low margin, short shelf life fruit and vegetables they are still obliged to sell.

    Stephen Fell's comments are spectacularly inept - quite simply, this is an urban country. There is no purchase in trying to pretend otherwise and whilst I understand people in the countryside feeling misunderstood and threatened (I've been there myself !) there is no future without connecting with what they feel and want. And his comments about intensive farming and wildlife remind me of foresters forlorn attempts to persuade people that they really should learn to love miles and miles of unbroken, thicket stage Sitka Spruce plantation.

  5. Sorry,what a load of rubbish from a senior bank employee,that bank cannot even manage to get my cheque book to me after several attempts of asking then I get two at the same time,worse as I had chased them up for a cheque book they decided it was stolen or lost so they cancelled one book completely without notifying me so that when I sent cheques out they bounced even though plenty of cash in account.
    How can that bank talk about farmers.
    All the points raised are obvious ones a 10 year old could suggest.

    1. Despite the claim that the points raised are obvious to a 10 year old, many in the industry don't get or want to get this basic stuff! Isn't that claim alarming? I can't think of another industry in the UK that needs business advice from a 10 year old?

    2. "Sorry,what a load of rubbish from a senior bank employee"

      Denis - tell me, what do you you find so objectionable about Allan Wilkinson's 10 points ? I'm intrigued.

      Are you seriously suggesting that should Allan Wilkinson should not make any comment on the industry he works with, on the basis that the firm that employs him, once made administrative error regarding your cheque book ?

      Really ?

      1. EM - you are right of course regarding Allan Wilkinson's involvement after all he has been El Chiefio there for a long time, at Midland before they were shanghaied by HSBC. I would have more concern, rather than because I sacked Midland for dipping their sticky fingers into my account once too often, that LEAF were hosting an event at the UK HQ of an outfit what does this:


  6. "The difference between the best and worst farms has grown and is now enormous"

    Best and worst at what?

    I suspect he meant best and worst at making money. But this question might prompt us to ask us what we as a nation want from our farms. Farming will never allow us to be self-sufficient in this densely populated country, so increases in farming productivity, while advantageous in further enriching the NFU brigade and perhaps reducing food miles for some of the items in our supermarket baskets, should not be our only goal.

    I am leary of any farm operating at its econonomic optimum as, given that ecosystem services are ignored by nearly all financial models, that will usually mean such a farm is operating way below its environmental optimum.

    For me farming subsidies should be overwhelmingly designed to encourage farming practice that supports our native biodiversity, restoring our countryside from its current state as green but pheasant bland.

    If the customer is really king then achieving environmentally sustainable farming requires that rather than talk to (sometimes recalcitrant) farmers about achieving this, we should instead be focusing on educating and encouraging the wider public to demand this from farmers...

  7. Mark
    It was good to see you at the LEAF President's Event, and if I could highlight another excellent paper, it would be that of Gregor Henderson, director of Wellbeing and Mental Health for the new agency, Public Health England. He talked about how engaging with the countryside and nature improves physical and mental health - a message most pertinent to LEAF with its Let Nature Feed Your Senses Programme, and also to RSPB.
    Organisations like RSPB quite rightly praise the work that LEAF farmers do for environmental stewardship and farmland birds, which can go hand in hand with productive and innovative agriculture. I would dearly love to increase the numbers of farmers who follow the principles of what we clearly identify as "Integrated Farm Management", but I believe that in the long term, financial inducement from government is not the way. The market should encourage and reward, and this it already does by certain far sighted retailers and processors insisting on food being grown to LEAF Marque protocols.
    If you really wanted to have an impact, could not the RSPB actively encourage its membership to look for and ask for LEAF Marque produce at every opportunity, knowing that when they do so, they are actively encouraging the habitat production and retention so vital for farmland birds?
    I am clear what LEAF's role is - as I said in my opening remarks at the conference, it is to inspire and enable farming that is prosperous, enriches the environment and engages local communities. Point 9 of Allan Wilkinson's list is about collaboration - the sort of collaboration that I have outlined above, with organisations like RSPB, could make a real difference.
    Stephen Fell - Chairman of LEAF

    1. Stephen - welcome and thank you for your response. It was good to talk to you on Monday and it was a very stimulating day.

      Most RSPB members, most Wildlife Trust members and most National Trust members, won't have the faintest idea what LEAF is at the moment. And most won't know what LEAF Marque stands for. And those that might, won't have a very strong feeling for whether it is good or not. A range of NGOs, and individuals like myself, are potential respected links to the public - consumers. I'd guess that they will only want to do that job if they feel confident that LEAF really is offering a quite different form of farming that is environmentally more friendly. The more that you can do to foster that confidence the better.

      Thank you again for your response - and for an excellent day earlier this week.

  8. Gongfarmer,think the answer to another industry needing advice from a 10 year old is obvious.
    Banks could do with that advice far more than farmers,they have proved that, farmers could never cock up as badly as they have.

    1. Fair point, I'm not going to defend bankers but farming does loose the UK tax payer a fair sum every year for little public good.

  9. I’ll just pick up on a couple of points as raised by Allan Wilkinson.
    1. To operate at ‘their economic optimum’ in the way that most banks see it will mean totally unsustainable farming practices; so maximising inputs, hammering the land to get maximum outputs. We already have, not just in this country a soil crisis with extreme loss of the stuff that the food we grow needs. Soils are increasingly biologically dead. Not one word about sustainability here.
    2. Best and worst farms – It is more often than not, the best places for wildlife and that includes farms and/or certain landscapes, probably has the ‘worst’ farms. So in the south west we still have poorly drained pastures and meadows on sloping, slumping, ground, thick untidy hedges etc. These places are where the ‘best’ wildlife still hangs on. Of course we could make these farms better by draining the last patches, adding artificials etc and hey presto we maximize production and end up with ‘better’ farms. You could also include back-breaking loans for those small ‘inefficient’ farms that banks are so keen to give to make them just that little bit more efficient.
    3. Customer/consumer are king – really! Advertising of food, (I say food, having seen the ingredients on a pack of Mr Kiplings cakes it’s more like chemical warfare) most manifest in products for children is all about selling in bulk as cheaply as possible. Cash strapped consumers/parents (and that’s most of us) have a choice and for most its cost.

    Someone mentioned ecosystem services. One thing the banks, NFU and others fail to mention in the drive for production and ‘better’ farms is how much its costs us the tax-payer to clean up our rivers, safeguard our soils and hopefully ensure we have some wildlife left. When the main banks start talking about sustainable agriculture, careful land management (I do believe HSBC et al, fund massive dam projects, palm oil production etc in the developing world), then I’ll listen with a less sceptical ear.


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