Were you listening?

This blog is slightly about last week’s ‘announcement’ on new farming schemes in England that was made at the Oxford Farming Conference, but actually it is rather more about what people said about it. It’s more a listeners’ guide to what was said, than about what’s actually happening.

The reason for that is partly because there isn’t much to say about the new schemes because we still don’t know enough to get into them in any detail, but that didn’t stop the airwaves being full of pontification. If you want to know what’s probably happening then it’s all written down by DEFRA here (transcript of George Eustice’s speech) and here (the actual announcement). i do some pontificating of my own at the end of this post.

Below I will point you in the direction of interviews on BBC radio from George Eustice (DEFRA), Tony Juniper (Natural England), Minette Batters (NFU), Craig Bennett (Wildlife Trusts) and James Robinson (Nature Friendly Farming Network) a Cumbrian farmer. There are lots of other things that were said to the print media, TV and other radio stations and programmes but this lot will give you a flavour of the chit-chat on the subject.

I’ve listened to all of these excerpts several times, and really listened to them. I didn’t listen while jogging, getting the kids to school, getting dressed or reading my emails with the radio on in the background – I listened to them, so I am a rarity, I guess.

It’s not the job of the interviewees to explain everything about the subject to the listener – explaining things is what the presenter should be doing. The interviewee, particularly the experienced interviewee (as all of these are) is there to give opinions on the subject, not to explain it. The most valuable lesson that a media trainer can give you about interviews is that they are your opportunity to get your points across, not to answer a load of badly-informed questions from a journalist. Yes, you should appear to answer the question, and some questions are gifts, but your job (since you are being paid for doing this interview) is to get from the question to the points you want to make as smoothly, engagingly and quickly as possible. If I were to give you anonymised transcripts of the interviews below and told you who the pack of interviewees were then you probably could allocate each interview to each organisation pretty easily.

If you listen to these interviews then look out for things like ‘the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy’ and how people talk about it, listen for mentions of wildlife (see the DEFRA announcement) and listen for suggestions that there is too little or too much emphasis on wildlife.

George Eustice on BBC Radio 4 Farming Today on Friday – click here from 08:44 to 12:44. Eustice is a farmer and has been a DEFRA farming minister for years before becoming SoS. He knows how to talk to several audiences at once. He doesn’t overclaim too much but it is clearly his job to say that this is all good stuff (and he’s a Brexiteer so he needs to show that we can do better on our own than we did as part of the EU decision-making process). He’s a good operator.

Craig Bennett on BBC Radio 4 Today on Thursday – click here from 36:20 for a useful introduction to the subject then Craig comes in at 38:20 or so and lasts until 39:12 when we get a little snip of Mr Eustice until 39:55. Craig doesn’t have a lot to say but says it well – it’s a knack! He is absolutely right to say this stuff might be very good, but we can’t tell yet and it all seems a bit small scale really.

James Robinson on BBC Radio 4 Today on Thursday – click here from 1:35:00 to 1:38:19. This sounded like a real person talking and I listened carefully – Mr Robinson was saying much the same as Craig Bennett but in a more interesting accent and from a farmer’s perspective.

And then immediately on to Tony Juniper BBC Radio 4 Today on Thursday – click here at 1:38:19 to 1:41:10. Tony heads up a statuory agency and in some ways Mr Eustice is his boss – so he’s not the person to come to for a dismantlement of the proposals (not these days). His line is right – these might be really important new approaches to farming and the environment and we’ll only know when we roll them out, but there is a lot of past work to inform what we do. Fingers crossed it all works out well.

Minette Batters on BBC Radio 4 The World at One on Thursday – click here at 18:30 to 24:45. this was almost as long a piece as the others put together in terms of the time the interviewee had to speak but there was little content at all. The interviewer allowed the NFU President to wander around the subject of farming, raising all sorts of non-issues without pinning any of them down. When the interviewee is asked ‘Are you saying…?’ and then doesn’t say yes or no then you can safely switch off the radio.

So, what’s going on here? There are new farming schemes coming along, rather slowly. We all hope they’ll work well for wildlife and carbon storage, flood alleviation etc but it’s too early to tell because we don’t know what they are yet. The farming lobby says it wants them to work but isn’t very convincing as it keeps banging on about food security and how tough it is to be a farmer. Everyone says we need to have farmers on board to get these things to work – that’s not really true, we could probably do the Landscape Recovery projects better through state ownership of land rather than a complex grant scheme approach. In any case, the farming lobby has been on board with agri-environment schemes for decades and those have largely failed to make a difference, and have certainly not made the difference that the taxpayer deserved for the tax-pounds invested. Letting the farming industry have too much say in the future of farming is the problem not the solution to wildlife and environmental outcomes in the countryside. The failure of past approaches in the UK is not that the EU told us what to do as iwe had a massive amount of freedom in what we did, no, the problem was that the government listened far too much to the farming lobby in designing environmental schemes. It’s like getting oil companies to design our new zero plans. There is a danger that these coming schemes, thanks to pressure from the farming lobby, will be too small and feeble to make much difference and will result in a different waste of public money than that which we have seen in the past – but that may be an overly pessimistic view. When DEFRA claim that Landscape Recovery pilots will do lots of stuff (see here, again) we are talking about around seven ‘Knepps’ in area for England. That would be a good start but won’t scratch the surface of wildlife loss that has occurred in farmland in my lifetime.

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12 Replies to “Were you listening?”

  1. Farming is a nightmare and, despite many noisy opinions for and against, does its best to keep all the people happy all of the time. It has to balance many differing demands. Such as feeding the country’s growing population with food they can afford (and want) so as to remove the need for expensive, often exploitative imports with attendant food miles attached. Then there is the need for the conservation demands to be met, whilst still doing the first. There is also the ‘must have unlimited access’ demand whilst still trying to achieve the first two. Awfully glad I retired from it when I did. Don’t watch Countryfile for an accurate picture, watch Clarkson’s Farm for, despite his playing to the gallery, he does show it as it is.

    I agree with Dr Avery that wildlife numbers have plummeted, certainly since my post-war childhood. The causes are manifold. How to arrest it needs cooperative action not words. But somehow we need to balance my three points in equal measure rather than tear up one in an attempt to satisfy another. Tough call. I shall be long dead when it happens.

    1. Funny thing is that the most, and in fact usually the sole consistent issue when the aims of the farming community are scrutinised is what’s going to pull in most money. Food security is given as the critical factor for why the public need to keep subsidising highly marginal hill farming, but food security suddenly becomes irrelevant when a farmer can make big bucks selling better quality land to developers. With the scope there is for greenbelt land to be sold off for luxury executive housing on very large plots so their (occasional) occupants can enjoy a sense of privacy we could be seeing a lot of comparatively good farmland lost to growing food and not being given over to ecological restoration and flood prevention either. However, future food security determines that we’re required to give money to hill farmers to keep them going……while their lower land colleagues sell off more productive land to accommodate avoidable sprawl?

      If indeed they’re acting out of nothing more than base self interest then that doesn’t necessarily mean a significant proportion of the farming community are any worse than a significant proportion of any other sector of the community, but it also means they’re not any better than them. They certainly shouldn’t go unchallenged when making unsubstantiated claims about being dedicated to conservation or feeding the nation either. I trust the NFU and minions no more about protecting our food security than I do about them saving our wildlife. And I never referred to the 30 – 40% of our food that gets wasted, but which never seems to get mentioned when food security is being discussed.

  2. More reason than ever to support , as far as possible, the numerous private initiatives for rewilding, regenerative farming etc, the snowball will gather pace, and show the general public ( at least those that give a toss) what is possible.

  3. Very good summing up paragraph Mark. Quite frankly I don’t think one can believe or expect any god outcomes for wildlife or nature from this “ pussy footing “ from Defra. The ministers in Defra are simply too heavily involved in farming and have too many vested interests in it as does Ms Batters of the NFU who has no interest in helping our wildlife whatsoever. The NFU always opposes anything to do with wildlife improvements/help.
    So this whole exercise has all the prospects of doing nothing for nature whatsoever. It will just reformat the existing very damaging system in a different way and it will still be just as damaging.

  4. Couldn’t agree more – we are effectively in State Capture by the NFU: 100,000 people are taking £ billions off the rest of us for a pretty minimal return.

    It all seems very complicated but it isn’t: watch one key indicator, in field options (beatle banks, wildflower margins) on arable. RSPB Hope Farm has demonstrated that just a tiny proportion of in field options could halt, even reverse, the decline of birds like Corn Bunting. But farmers won’t take them up – they are all too keen to exploit ‘easy’ field edge – hedges etc – options which are money for old rope, but nothing actually on cropable land.

    In field options should be compulsory on arable, but if not they should at least be a condition of receiving other payments such as for boundaries. So watch out for it. Will it happen ? No way – and because it and similar measures don’t happen the Government will be well down the road to breaking its new laws under the Environmental Protection Act. Will it care ? I don’t think so – and before we start discussing improvements perhaps we should look towards getting back to where the last Labour Government left things in 2010.

    1. I love the concept of Hope Farm, but will someone confirm that, in isolation, it makes a living return/ profit (tell me how much) to sustain a farming family with absolutely no RSPB financial or physical input. I have always wondered.

  5. I have, and put me straight, all i can find is a review (without formal accounts) for 2019 and all other accounts only up to 2014. They are not the easiest accounts I have ever read but then I am not an accountant. If the farm is to sell itself to other agribusinesses and the public then a simple comparison would be useful. Eg: Total net income (profit) per acre at Hope Farm after RSPB take equals £x to the farmer. Make that the focus and others might buy in. Of course Hope Farm is contracted rather than family run thus without all the necessary family costs and exceptional and unexpected extras that we all have to budget for. Certainly, if you take out the single farm payment, which everyone rails against, it is far from profitable. I love the concept and fully support it, but if it was a family business I doubt it would wash its face which was my first point.

  6. As Austringer and Les quite rightly point out, the bottom line is the bottom line. Behind all the puffing and blowing of the farming lobby is one proven fact: if the money says jump farmers will jump, hard fast and effectively. Farmers are efficient, energetic deliverers and will deliver what pays. So if infield options became effectively compulsory because without the payment the job couldn’t pay it looks like we could halt the decline in arable farmland birds. As to the uplands, the average fiercely independent hill farmer gets a higher proportion of his income from the Government than I did as a fully paid up civil servant working for the Forestry Commission. I actually believe strongly that we need a thriving agriculture to provide a significant part of our food but have no time for a lot of the farming rhetoric and even less for the ratcheting damage ever more intensive farming has done to our wildlife and countryside. What isn’t generally apparent behind the barrage of noise from NFU and its members is that the CLA has a much broader stance on the future and is signed up to natural capital economics – more so than the lagging conservation sector.

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