Arable News

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FG Q&A – February

Essex arable farmer, NFU delegate and farming communicator Guy Smith is in the hot seat for this months FG Q&A

Essex arable farmer, NFU delegate and farming communicator Guy Smith is in the hot seat for this month’s  FG Q&A. Dominic Kilburn puts the questions to him.

Over the past 15 years or more you have championed the belief that farmers should be more pro-active in how agriculture’s image is perceived by the general public in this country. During the intervening years, do you think farmers have responded in the way that you’d hoped?

Possibly I have been a small cog in a wider movement to improve the image of agriculture. Farmers, particularly the younger ones, are undoubtedly getting better at promoting themselves and their produce positively. There will always be a few curmudgeons who turn moaning and misery into an art-form but generally I think many of us realise the importance of positive messages and of an image of farming that is seen as caring, clean and responsible.

Do you consider that UK Farming’s image has changed for the better during that time?

The opinion polls suggest our approval ratings are on the rise. We have at last reversed a trend in sucking in imports of food that could be grown in the UK, and agriculture is clearly higher up the political agenda than it was. So, all in all, I’d say our image has improved for the better. Having said that, I remain firmly of the view we mustn’t get complacent. As the badger cull, conservation issues and the GM debate show, farmers will always get drawn into controversial issues by virtue of the roles we have in producing food and looking after animals and the countryside. We must always endeavour to be on the PR front foot. 

Back in the mid-nineties you once featured on Page 3 of the Sun newspaper proclaiming you farmed in the driest part of the country. With the increase in weather extremes that we seem to be getting each season, how do you think this will affect the way you will farm in the foreseeable future?

I’m not sure. I think the jury is still out as to whether our weather is changing fundamentally. I wish I could trust the ten day weather forecast let alone a ten year one. I’m still taking the weather one day at a time rather than assuming things in the future are going to get wetter, drier, hotter and colder, or combinations of all four. 

You have recently been re-elected NFU Essex council delegate and chair of the national NFU communications committee. What would you most like to see the NFU focus on in the next five years and what would you change about the NFU to improve it?

I’d like to see more attention given to membership engagement. The NFU is a successful combination of professional staff and active members. If we lose the latter it will become a fundamentally weaker organisation.

As a keen advocate of protecting and promoting wildlife, in balance with productive and profitable crop production, are you concerned that the current unprecedented high prices for cereals and oilseeds will simply encourage arable farmers to maintain tighter rotations to the detriment of wildlife?

The current generation of farmers has clearly embraced the conservation agenda. The calluses on our hands are no longer from handling pitchforks but rather from wrapping trees guards round newly planted whips. I don’t think it’s about what goes on in the middle of the fields; it’s about positive management of the margins. We are not going back to wall-to-wall wheat.

The EU has a proposal to re-introduce compulsory set-aside at seven per cent. What do you think of this and what would its long-term affects be on farming and the countryside?

Like most farmers I’m comfortable with taking out 3-5 per cent of my farm for conservation but if it gets significantly above that then it starts to undermine my fixed costs ratios. I also think you can do a lot more for wildlife through positive management of three acres rather than just abandoning ten.

On farm winter wheat yields have plateaued over the past 20 years – why do you think that is and what should growers be focusing on to try and buck the trend?

Clearly the weather in the past couple of years hasn’t helped. Possibly the decline in the wheat price in the 1990s and early 2000s meant we lost our attention to detail. Poor returns in those years affected things for the worse right across the piece from field drainage to new varieties. If we see a sustained improvement in the wheat price it will be interesting to see if we get a corresponding improvement in yields. It might just be a matter of getting our mojos back.

There has been a lot of emphasis on bringing young people into the industry recently, are you supportive?

I think it is really encouraging that we seem to have seen a revival of the ag intakes into our colleges and universities. The question is will we employ these young people properly? In the past 20 years we have moved away from providing permanent jobs to one largely run around temporary labour. If I was an agricultural graduate I wouldn’t be very impressed by only being offered eight weeks work at harvest. Similarly, if I was a new entrant I wouldn’t feel too bullish about borrowing a million pounds to buy a hundred acre farm.

Would you encourage your own children to go into farming?

I’d encourage them to find their own vocations without pressurising them with any of my opinions or expectations. Farming is a great life but not without its disappointments and challenges. There is a big wide world beyond the farm gate that’s worth exploring but at the same time there are those for who there’s no place like home.

Finally, how do you see the future?

With difficulty, I’m getting to that stage in life where my eyesight is starting to deteriorate. In recent years at the end of each harvest I don’t feel so much as ‘another year wiser’ but rather ‘another year more confused’. However, with a rapidly expanding population you suspect the market dynamics are moving in our favour.

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