Campaign to Protect Rural England Standing up for your countryside

Skip to navigation

Real farming … and real commitments?

Real farming … and real commitments? Richard Fraser / Flickr

Michael Gove addresses the Oxford Real Farming Conference

The Oxford Farming Conference has long been a key event in the agricultural policy calendar (yes, there is such a thing) but nine years ago a group of forward-thinking farmers, fed up with the conventional, big-business nature of the conference, set up an alternative Oxford Real Farming Conference. This has now become a bigger event than the original and is generally considered the place to go to feel the buzz of innovation from land entrepreneurs.

Despite having worked on agricultural policy on and off for most of my career, this year is the first time I’ve been able to attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I’ve always wanted to go – even as a Defra civil servant the Real farming conference was seen as a more fun, exciting and interesting alternative to the traditional one - but with it always being held at the tail-end of the school holidays it has made it logistically difficult for me. Until now. With major decisions set to be made this year about domestic agricultural policy, which will have a big impact on how the countryside works and looks, I simply had to be there.

The attendees were a fascinating mixture of the ‘knit-your-own-muesli’ types who can be such a powerful force for change, interspersed with tweed jackets and check shirts. I was in awe of the fact that this spectrum of people are the ones getting their hands dirty and growing our food, usually for little financial reward.

Michael Gove on the future of agriculture

Michael Gove was the star of the show – venturing from the Oxford Farming Conference (which the Secretary of State ALWAYS addresses) to talk to the alternative counterparts. A tricky audience for him but he handled them expertly. He was incredibly impressive and charming in dealing with questions about the policies he’d announced in his speech to the OFC earlier in the morning. He’d made several big commitments, offering something for everyone: traditional farmers were relieved to hear that the £3bn they receive is now guaranteed up to 2024; and for environmentalists, that from 2024 onwards public funding will be directed to public benefits (habitat creation, soil health, public access etc.). We at CPRE were pleased by him highlighting the importance of our beautiful landscapes and the role of farming in creating them, as well as his recognition of the role smaller farms play in this and the wider rural community. But what will this mean in reality? What concrete measures will be delivered?

It was hailed as a ground-breaking speech, and though it does introduce some certainty, I don’t feel it takes us a significant way forward. Most of it was confirming things the Secretary of State has suggested before. And there are still many unanswered questions, such as:

  • Will the £3bn per annum level of funding continue post 2024 or will it be cut? A recent report showed that at least £2.2bn per year is needed to meet the cost of identified land management priorities alone.1
  • How will funding to support public benefits actually be designed and delivered effectively? There is a risk that it could just continue the current system of the largest payments going to the largest landowner.
  • How exactly will smaller farmers be supported?
  • What will be done to ensure new investment in public benefits delivers enhanced landscapes in the face of climate change?

We hope that the promised Command Paper, due this spring, will answer or provide views on these questions.

CPRE event: farm size diversity

I finished the day at CPRE’s event that looked at farm size diversity, held in conjunction with the Landworkers Alliance and Sustain. There has been a massive decrease in farm numbers over the past 70 years; despite loss of over 120,000 farms in England between 1950 and 1980, there was a loss of a further 28,000 in the 10 years from 2005-15 alone. CPRE’s Graeme Willis asked what sort of countryside we want – one of a few mega farms or one where both small and large farms contribute to a rich landscape? Rebecca Laughton of LWA outlined innovative models such as land co-operatives or trusts (I heard about the heartening Lauriston Trust at an earlier session) and share farming (Stream Farm is an amazing example of a share farming model) that could help stem the decline. She also challenged us about the changes that need to happen to the English countryside – for example, if we are to grow and eat more of the fruit and vegetables necessary to improve our health.  

There is no doubt that change is on its way for farming and, through it, the English countryside. CPRE will be working hard to ensure that Michael Gove delivers on his commitments and makes sure the change results in a more sustainable farming system and keeps our landscapes looking beautiful.

[1] In subsequent interviews Michael Gove suggested that the funding level would be kept at around the same level post 2024

There is no doubt that change is on its way for farming and, through it, the English countryside. 

Back to top

Hay field harvest

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. If that's okay, just continue browsing - or see our cookies policy for ways to opt out.
Cookies Policy I agree