Navigating change with resilience in farming

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James Cossins reflects on Rawston Farm’s adaptive strategies in response to climatic shifts and evolving agricultural policies

The river Tarrant taken in the summer of 1965, showing its more typical flow Images:
James Cossins

As I write this in the farm office, the rain is beating against the windows in this seemingly never-ending spell of wet weather. As a family we have measured the daily rainfall since 1960 – in 2023 we received 49 inches (1,225mm in new money) of rainfall. This figure is only to be beaten by 2012 with its 50 inches, and 49 again in 2014. Interestingly, prior to the year 2000 we have generally never reached above 40 inches. Between 1960 and 1980 we rarely went above 35 inches. Maybe there is something in the climate change debate! We are clearly experiencing more extreme weather patterns.
I know that I shouldn’t tempt fate but it does seem a long time ago that we experienced any significant snow fall …
So with all this rain, how have we been coping at Rawston Farm? This year we only have one group of cattle who are outwintered. We have to be careful to pick a field that drains well, is far away from any watercourses and has hedges all around the field for shelter. They strip graze a forage crop and have access to straw or silage. Their electric fence is moved daily so they have a new piece of ground to go to. So far they are doing ok – with the presumption that it will not rain every day this winter!

The same spot of the river Tarrant almost 60 years later; it’s in full flow this month.

Incentive schemes with down sides
January is a good month to reflect back on the last year, and also to prepare plans for the new year coming. 2023 was certainly a challenging year for all farmers and growers. We finally received some stability in the prices of the foods we sell, but most prices we received were considerably lower than the previous year. This made the harvesting of our crops – which largely needed drying due to the wet conditions last summer – even more costly to grow, with a lower price received at the point of sale. Even now, the prices of cereals appear to be static, with the traders telling us there is little evidence for any reason why they should increase.
We were able to sow most of our winter crops, although some were a little late going in the ground. They have, however, begun to germinate so it looks as though we will get a crop from them. In many parts of the country there are still winter crops to sow – many growers have given up and decided to grow spring crops instead, which has lead to a shortage of seed.
As we make our plans for 2024 we have joined DEFRA’s Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme. This involves land managers being able to choose from various environmental land management options, for which we can be financially rewarded for executing – things like sowing pollen and nectar mixes in parts of fields, creating winter bird food crops and taking part or all of a field out of production, sowing a legume crop to be left fallow for two years or just leaving grass areas untouched.
There is also an option for reducing the amount of fertiliser used on grassland and managing the grass so the grass is less intensively farmed. The management of hedges can be included too, ensyring they are only cut on alternate years, and cut late in the season.
Generally I support the scheme – it gives us flexibility on how we manage the land, while increasing benefits to the environment. At Rawston we have taken some poorly productive parts of fields which were uneconomic completely out of our cropping rotation. I am concerned, however, that on some farms – even though the soil and land is productive – large areas have been taken out of food production. If this is carried out on a large scale, the country’s food security will be at risk, and the consequence will be yet more imported food.
There has been concern in the UK farming world over the running of the Red Tractor Scheme. Currently we pay a membership to have our milk, beef and crops assured with the Red Tractor logo on the packaging, demonstrating the goods have been produced to a recognised standard. To achieve this we get audited every year to ensure that we are meeting the standards set out by the Red Tractor Board, thereby giving consumers the confidence that what is bought with the Red Tractor logo is produced in this country, to a high standard.
It appears that without any consultation to the members, a ‘green standard’ was going to be imposed at an extra cost. A review is now taking place as to the running of the scheme – the last thing we want to create is uncertainty among consumers as to what the Red Tractor means. Consumers should be able to look for the red tractor and the union jack, safe in the knowledge that the food inside has been produced to a high standard and has come from this country. Many imported foods simply will not have been produced to a similar standard.
I wish you all a happy New Year – let’s certainly hope we have a less challenging one!

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