South Of England Farming Conference Takes On The Great Agricultural Debate

Speakers at the South of England Agricultural Society's Farming Conference opened up the Great Agricultural Debate to an audience of over 250 farmers, landowners and agriculturalists from across the region last night [Wednesday 14 November] at the South of England Showground in Ardingly, West Sussex.

The audience had been asked to bring their questions to the Conference this year and together with insights from leading lights in British agriculture, hot topics including Brexit, education, sustainability, consumer food trends, environment and working together for a more positive future were all keenly debated.

The atmosphere was lively and engaging and the new 'Question Time' format proved popular with the audience. BBC presenter, Charlotte Smith steered the impressive panel of industry leaders and navigated a path through the plethora of topics raised giving each the opportunity to share their knowledge and views on the challenges that were presented to them. 

Speaking after the debate had closed, Charlotte said, "Firstly it was brilliant timing to host this conference tonight, because actually in real time as we opened the debate, Theresa May came outside No.10 and announced the latest news on Brexit. This immediately resonated with the audience who were trying to work out what this will mean for their businesses. A few years ago we wouldn't have had this engagement and we can see and hear from so many tonight that suddenly farming is really stepping up to ask itself about its future and to discuss it."

Nuffield Scholar and innovative Sussex farmer, Joe Delves brought his knowledge on successful dairy farming following his studies and travels from around the world, which he is now very effectively putting into practice and inspiring others to do the same.

He said, "I am a huge fan of getting people together from the food and farming industry to discuss relevant issues such as economics, social and environmental impacts and tonight has been fantastic in doing just that.

"One of the main messages that I will take away from tonight is how we position the food and farming industry to the next generation. As farmers already working and loving what we do, despite the daily concerns we all face, it's crucial that we are more positive about our job and be prepared to embrace change in order to inspire people to follow in our footsteps. Education and training is essential but also how we promote farming to those being educated is absolutely key."

Leading business consultant, Séan Rickard has been involved in agri-food policy for more than 40 years and as previous Director of the Cranfield School of Management MA programme, Chief Economist for the NFU and a government academic adviser on farm policy he had some hugely valuable points, albeit controversial at times, to bring to the forum.

Said Séan,"Farmers have to start believing in themselves instead of being dictated to and others in the food chain need to realise the value of what farmers bring to the end product and work together to be able to have a positive future. Sustainability, animal welfare and provenance are becoming increasingly important to the consumer, but this cannot be at the expense of the farmer and those in the food industry need to protect this and work as a team. The farming industry cannot be expected to take on maximum risk with minimum reward."

Guy Smith who farms a mixed and diversified family farm in North-East Essex has held numerous senior positions with the NFU and is currently Deputy President. His answers unravelled some of the many Brexit questions that people had, referring to the choices the Prime Minster set out during the evening, that being 'this deal, no deal or no Brexit'. He stressed the importance of the Agricultural Bill and the crucial role it will play in all eventualities stating that it would lead to greater transparency in the farming industry and productivity in the food chain and help to steer both through this vital period of transition.

Stuart Thomson, who heads up the European Food and Farming Partnerships' food supply chain development work, was a key spokesman at the event. With over 20 years' of experience in the industry he agreed that sustainability remained a priority but when farmers are planning their businesses they needed to listen carefully to consumer food trends. "Food companies are investing hugely into finding out what people are choosing to buy off the shelf and consuming and making friends with those further down the food chain, with direct consumer insights, is a very good strategy moving forwards for our farmers in the UK," said Stuart.

A Technical Forum was held during the afternoon before the conference, inviting active and progressive farmers and students to learn more about 'breaking the mould and building a business in a new era'.

Chairing the session was 27-year-old Chris Appleton, third generation dairy farmer from Arlington in East Sussex. Presenters included husband and wife team, Andy and Laura Hodgkins who gave an inspirational overview of their extensive outdoor system on the Cowdray Estate predominantly used for breeding first class stock for to add to their 2,000 head flock of New Zealand Romney sheep.

Regular contributor to Farmers Weekly, Matt Redman brought a fascinating insight into how he operates an agricultural contracting business covering Bedfordshire and surrounding counties and farming 240ha of tenanted land in Cambridgeshire. Ian Webb, who leads the South East Agriculture business for Lloyds SME Banking offered his financial expertise, highlighting the character traits of successful businesses; and finally Séan Rickard expressed his views on Brexit and the opportunities and challenges this will present to farmers if or when we leave the EU.

Iain Nicol, CEO of the South of England Agricultural Society said, "We are delighted to host this important Great Agricultural Debate tonight, especially at this key moment of change in the food and farming industry.

"Education and how to engage with more young people from all backgrounds to enter into farming has been raised many times throughout this evening and, as proud sponsors of the Young Sussex Farmer of the Year category in the Sussex Food and Drink Awards 2019, we are encouraging all farmers under 35 years of age to enter the competition at www.sussexfoodawards.biz"

Sitting in the middle of 150 acres, the South of England Showground was the ideal venue to host the Farming Conference, supported by South East Farmer magazine and sponsored by Mayo Wynne Baxter, Complete Land Management (CLM), Lloyds Bank and Richard Place Dobson LLP.

For further information visit www.seas.org.uk


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