We need to support our farmers and not demonise them if we are to meet our climate goals, writes Chloe Palmer, chief executive of Trent Rivers Trust.
Farmers are our most important allies when delivering environmental improvement schemes. Not only do they usually own and farm the land, but they are also a vital source of information about it; how it drains, what will and won’t grow there and where different species breed and feed.
Understanding the implications of any scheme for their business is essential before making ‘the ask’ because after all, it is their livelihood which is potentially being affected. Even if the impact is minimal, amounting to a little inconvenience, it is still important to make sure there is something in the scheme for them and most of all, that their contribution is valued and appreciated.
The farming calendar is obviously entirely determined by the weather and the seasons. This influences what farmers do and when they do it and taking this into account when planning a scheme is fundamental.
Expecting a farmer in the uplands to make time for a meeting in March and April will inevitably not be a good start to the working relationship – they will be in the lambing shed.
Similarly, asking an arable farmer to help out by providing kit in July and August is never going to be met with a positive response when they are sat on a combine from dawn until dusk.
The charity I lead, Trent Rivers Trust, employs dedicated agricultural advisers who have a strong farming background and an intricate knowledge of the different agricultural sectors and issues. Making the right approach to farmers so they are most likely to agree to our schemes is critical to the success of our projects.
The key is to focus on what the farmer will get from these schemes, whether it is financial compensation, a successful application to a grant scheme which will fund other works they are keen to undertake or simply the goodwill of the local community and public recognition. Hopefully, the outcome for the farmer will equate to more than one of the benefits listed above.
Maintaining regular communication with the farmer so they know about any changes to the timing of operations or minor alterations to the scheme is vital. What might seem like a trivial matter to our project manager could be a game-changer to the farmer if it means they cannot turn cows out when planned or the intervention is now going to be in a part of the field which was to be used for storing manure or turning machinery.
Farmers are becoming more aware of the importance of the provision of public goods. They recognise they have a part to play in managing flood risk, in mitigating for climate change and for maintaining healthy and clean fresh waters. Generally most want to engage with this process and acknowledge if they wish to continue to access public monies post-Brexit, they will have to sign up to the public goods and natural capital programme.
‘Farmer bashing’ has, unfortunately, become commonplace across our sector and this is not only ill-informed but it is entirely counterproductive. If farmers feel maligned, they will not participate.
There is evidence to show modern farming practices are not always in harmony with environmental enhancement, but blaming farmers for all our environmental woes is equally inaccurate.
There are enormous opportunities for the environmental sector to work constructively with farmers to deliver significant environmental benefits. For example, implementing natural flood management schemes on farmland to reduce flood risk and working with farmers to improve soil health to reduce diffuse pollution, increase water infiltration and sequester more carbon.
All of these require a positive relationship with the farmer, and one which needs to be developed over months and years, not weeks, to build trust and understanding. If done in the correct way, this mutual partnership can result in significant and multiple gains for the environment for many years to come and provide real value to the taxpayer.
Chloe Palmer is chief executive of Trent Rivers Trust.