Monday, February 26, 2024

A ‘subsidy junkie’ fears for UK farming future

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English arable farmer describes system to NZ farmers at FAR field day.
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Payments for a multitude of on-farm environmental initiatives has changed the way farming is done in the United Kingdom, at least for now.  

Rob Waterston, an international guest speaker at the Foundation for Arable Research’s annual Research in Action field day at Chertsey, near Ashburton, told the 300 people in attendance that UK farmers “have become subsidy junkies”. 

The visiting English arable farmer said current payments for environmentally focused plantings have changed the way farmers farm, but he’s not convinced that the payments will go on forever.

Waterston is farm manager for the historic Welford Park Estate at Berkshire, with the farming operation taking 670 hectares in arable with a further 200ha in permanent pasture managed by a contract grazier. 

Brexit meant the end of European Union subsidies to UK farmers for producing food and stock feed. The subsidies have been replaced by payments for a multitude of on-farm environmental initiatives. 

The prevalence of invasive crop weed black grass as well as the loss of traditional crop chemistry is also causing UK farmers to change their rotation and management, Waterston said.

Waterston has been an arable monitor farmer with the UK Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) for three years, with a focus on reducing the use of chemical inputs and machinery while incorporating sustainable farming methods. 

Welford Park’s rotation is wheat, winter beans and oilseed rape, with spring barley introduced to control black grass. 

Cover crops are now grown on all land destined for spring cropping. 

“We get paid by the government for this. We are subsidy junkies in the UK,”  Waterston said.

Welford Park receives an annual income equivalent to $71,000 for these cover crops as well as a nectar and flower mix, flower-rich margins and plots, and permanent grassland. 

This figure rises to $95,000 with the addition of capital items such as planting hedges and trees and fencing. 

A further $50,000 comes in each year from another fund, which rewards woodland improvement and management and the restoration of park land.  

“There’s money there to be had, so why not have it?” he said.

Waterston said the payments are changing agriculture in the UK, especially as arable farmers, including himself, are struggling to grow break crops like oilseed rape and pulses.

The last good oilseed rape harvest at Welford Park was in 2017, before access to neonicotinoid seed dressings was removed. 

With farmers receiving guaranteed income for growing a multi-species cover crop, many are now switching from a traditional break crop to a cover crop-herbal ley. 

Waterston’s cover crop of choice includes vetch, linseed, buckwheat, Berseem clover, oil radish and phacelia.  

However, he’s not convinced that the environmental payments will go on forever.

“The worry is that we have an election next summer and with concerns about where the money is going to come from, the next government could change the rules.”

He also issued a strong warning to New Zealand growers about the dangers of letting black grass take hold.

“It will ruin your farm. Black grass is a very intelligent plant and is now germinating all year round, which it never used to do.”  

Welford Park ditched the plough in 2012, replacing it with a direct drill and a strip till drill. This has reduced tractor hours by 50%.

“We are working towards getting the soil biology right so we can fully utilise nitrogen in the soil.” 

The farm is also working on ways of managing with fewer, or no fungicides.

In 2021, Welford Park signed up to Agreena, a certified soil carbon offsetting scheme for farmers who use regenerative agricultural practices. 

The scheme provides a commercial opportunity from sequestering carbon in their soils.

The platform allows farmers to track carbon sequestration through the year and take steps to improve it. Once the harvest is over, soil carbon storage measurements are independently verified and certificates are issued; these can then be sold. 

For harvest 2021, Welford Park received $82,000 for carbon sequestration with calculations showing that emissions of 2450 tonnes CO2e per year were offset by -4925t CO2e sequestered, resulting in a carbon balance of -2474t CO2e. 

Harvest 2022 looks to be significantly less. 

During questions, a farmer asked about the profitability of Welford Park’s farming operation once subsidies are removed.

“It’s all very good having these environmental incentives, but if you’re only making money because of government support there is no hope,” the farmer said. 

Waterston agreed and said growers need a better return for grain. 

Average UK yields for wheat are 8.2 t/ha, so it is a challenge considering the cost of machinery and inputs. 

“The farm is holding its own and historically if we have a bad year then the subsidies are your profit.”

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