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?):
- 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.
- the difference between the best and worst farms has grown and is now enormous.
- does expansion increase or decrease your farm profitability and cash?
- benchmarking and budgetting are vital – a good point for wildlife NGOs too?
- the biggest variable in your business is you – there are good and bad farmers.
- the customer and consumer are king – how many times has farming been told this? But it still needs telling.
- be adaptable.
- know who is your competitor – I believe, more generally in knowing your enemies.
- collaborate with your neighbour.
- 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.