This month, our head of land management Hazel Kendall talks to the Western Morning News and Western Daily press about our work to support environment friendly farming.
“Agriculture not only gives riches to a nation, but the only riches she can call her own”.
So said Dr Samuel Johnson, English poet, literary critic and author of the Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 – memorably recreated by a certain Blackadder sketch.
Quite what he would have made of our current political situation and how this affects the prospects of UK farming we cannot guess but clearly, he held great value in the potential embedded in our land and what this brought to society as a whole.
The UK has undergone massive upheaval and change since then; agriculture as much as other sectors due to mechanisation or technology.
The consistency behind all these system changes over generations are the people; the social fabric of our rural communities, the individuals who commit their working years (and often retired ones as well) to farming. Father to son, mother to daughter, seasoned master to apprentice.
At the Westcountry Rivers Trust (WRT), one of our three operational teams focus on land management; working with farmers and landowners to provide advice ensuring Best Farming Practice, developing options with them to complement their current farm business towards improving efficiencies and economics, while also protecting and enhancing the environment.
Over the years our projects have revolved around the fundamentals of land and water management, but the people we work with are vital to the success or otherwise of these.
As a charity this allows us to present ourselves as an objective and informed advisor, we have no regulator powers and can offer free and confidential professional advice aligned with project ambitions – generically our remit being to improve and protect our natural resources, to optimise positive outcomes for the benefit of all.
Our drivers and benefits have been evolving, originally more directly seeking improved water quality – yes, we still want that, but also if it brings about improvements in biodiversity, air quality, increased Carbon sequestration, reduced flood risk and greater levels of wellbeing, surely so much the better?
This has led to a change in the approach and language used to understand what exactly it is society seeks from land management and how this can help bring about sustainable practices, and income to enable it to happen.
This shift is noticeable from Agricultural and Environmental Policy, from emerging schemes or commodity markets, and feedback from consumers.
However, in the South West we have also seen the traditional structure of small, family-run mixed farms eroded over time to the point that its often financially impossible for the next generation to set up in farming, or want to take on the level of sheer of commitment needed from a single individual to keep the job viable.
We hope and aim for our role to be a positive spoke in the wheel of farming industry to keep things moving; how to build relationships, build trust and build ideas which support their future business security.
Frequently WRT operate as what’s commonly referred to as an ‘ethical broker’, effectively we are a charitable middle man in a business transaction – using our skills and experience to negotiate interventions on a farm for practical improvements, which deliver benefits for the ‘buyer’ and society as a whole (which may not otherwise be paid for).
Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes can provide the objective view needed to spot opportunities, and this needs an honest and open conversation which can only operate on trust.
Its building the relationships behind these initial meetings that stand the test of time and truly deliver change; farmers like most businesses, may be happy to discuss what’s going right but less about what’s going wrong.
Their support networks that used to exist may also be lost; weekly livestock markets were often the sole chance to meet and chat with others, thus adding to social isolation when lost – especially in an aging population or where there is no succession to take on the farm’s future.
So sometimes it’s about more than advice from WRT – sometimes it’s about friendship, welfare or emotional support and being there for a chat. Some very good specialist support exists to fill this gap and to address issues of mental health; especially in rural areas and especially among men as evidence suggests their high risk – to which we can direct people who we feel in need.
Of course, negotiations and entering a deal with a farmer is always a job in itself. Horse-trading is an expression well deserved. I’m sure that it could be developed to the level of an Olympic sport – and sport is definitively how it is viewed by many characters.
To me, the resounding measure of success in building these relationships is to receive a phone call from someone you first worked with over five years ago who has a question and felt able to ask you for help.
This tells me that not only did they feel comfortable asking, but that the trust was there to handle it for the good of their business and not just our ambitions.
This for me is the bottom line on helping and supporting our farmers and land managers; if you want to know what and how they may be able to help you achieve joint ambitions, then ask them, don’t assume you have the answers. Work with your farmers as equal partners, they have a very diverse skill set and a canny sense of business.
2019 has been our 25th Anniversary at WRT; an opportunity to reflect on projects, milestones and progress. None of our land management projects would have been possible without the goodwill, and support of our farmers – literally thousands of them over 25 years – who have accommodated us, contributed endless time (and brought their own financial investment), resources and cups of tea at the kitchen table while we worked out a mutually beneficial plan.
To enable society to continue to benefit from our natural resources and to keep those passionate people working on the land, we hope we will be around for the next 25 years at least to share this.