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‘The agricultural world could be a very different place in 30 years’

Farmers should beware of losing control of their land-use options amid conflicting demands for natural capital, public goods and food production.

According to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV), farmers are facing a generation’s change in just one decade.

This is with removing support payments, combined with Brexit, the drive to net-zero and changing political and public demands.

Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the CAAV, said that those pressures drive new competition for rural land use.

He said there is potential for “massive” change in the coming years and more varied enterprises to meet these needs.

But, he added that it is vital to assess the options to retain control rather than locking farmers into long-term plans.

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And he stressed that farmers would need trusted advisers to work through this.

Land-use options

Mr Moody spoke at the Oxford Farming Conference on Wednesday, January 5th, 2022.

At it, he said two-thirds of the retargeted Basic Payment money in England would go to changing habitats.

On the other hand, Scotland aims to increase forestry, restore peatland and reduce farm emissions by 31% by 2032.

“Such policies might help or hinder farmers, but the real decisions over land use are theirs to take. This decade offers the transition period in which to manage this major change.”

Mr Moody sees five general routes for farming to develop:

  • Commodity production by good farmers focusing on efficiencies;
  • Higher investment, higher return farming of vegetables, fruit and livestock under cover;
  • Controlling value with specialism, branding, adding value, etc.;
  • Combining agriculture with environmental outputs;
  • Focusing land use mainly on the environment, from ‘re-wilding’ to forestry and solar, with little or no agricultural production.

He added that farmers should beware of the obligations and restrictions of some environmental land use agreements.

They could tie them into restrictive management for 30 years or more.

In some cases – like solar leases – that might be attractive, but agreements based on outcomes rather than actions would be even more limiting.

“If you are paid to provide services, that is one thing, but once the buyer takes control of the carbon, biodiversity or other outcomes, you may have lost control of the farm, with restrictions and penalties to protect what the buyer has bought.”

“Carbon is also a paradox: It is very important to the farm but has a trivial market value.”

“Selling carbon credits looks to handicap farmers who will be expected to reduce their own carbon footprint. It is counter-productive as the farmer will then have to find that carbon reduction again.”

Forestry and biodiversity 

Furthermore, he added that farmers are also unlikely to be “wooed” by forestry. He added that this is because of the permanent land-use change and loss of options it involves.

“But new markets for biodiversity, net gain and nutrient neutrality could be potential options in future. However, biodiversity net gain agreements are set at over 30 years. Nutrient neutrality could take even longer.”

“Given rapidly advancing scientific knowledge and technology, as well as evolving natural capital markets, the agricultural world could be a very different place in 30 years.”

“Farmers and landowners should, therefore, take balanced and trusted advice to understand the implications before signing on the dotted line.”

“These are very big decisions that are as critical as any that we have faced in living memory. Be sure to do things on the right terms for the right reasons and the right money,” he concluded.

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