Arable Matters – by Brian Henderson

Encouraging innovation and productivity – these seem to be the cornerstones of NFU Scotland’s vision for post-Brexit farm support which is currently being revealed at meetings around the country.

And, to be honest, what’s not to like about such a broad and acceptable policy? A bit like fostering sustainability, or pushing for a fairer society, there will be few who would argue with such an approach.

But achieving such aspirations can sometimes prove to be a bit more difficult.

Admittedly, in this case there are additional reasons for choosing this route – and it might be seen as a way of finally making sure that support goes to the people who farm the land, rather than to those who simply own it.

At the meeting I attended, it was also flagged up that the simplistic system of area payments had led to inertia within the industry – both in terms of 'churn' of landholdings and of risk-taking within the sector.

While I wouldn’t imagine that there will be too many objections to this course from the country’s forward looking arable sector, that doesn’t mean that moving down this road is necessarily going to be a walk in the park – and strong land-holding interests might want to see a different route taken.

From the point of view of those administering and policing the system there might be a degree of reluctance for whole-scale change, for – contrary to what the horrendous fiasco we’ve endured with the Scottish Government’s IT system might indicate – one thing an area based payment system should have had on its side was simplicity of delivery.

And, while we might not yet have reached the point, the time must be drawing closer where the £180m system will finally be knocked into the sort of shape which will let it do what it was meant to do. So, I suspect that there might be some real inertia – if not outright resistance – from government to us waltzing blithely into a totally new type of scheme. However, to curb a beneficial change for this reason would be likened to the tail wagging the dog.

So, in this world of accelerating high-tech developments, what aspects of the arable sector are ripe for innovation and productivity boosting measures?

The SRUC has just published the results of a survey of growers in the main arable areas of the east of the country, looking at the uptake of precision agriculture techniques, concentrating on machine guidance and variable rate nitrogen application technology.

It showed that 80% of wheat growers surveyed had adopted some of these techniques while, rather surprisingly, only 60% of potato growers had so far bought into the technology. Those who had adopted new technology cited financial benefits stemming from reduced and better targeted inputs, together with greater precision and the ability to work effectively after dark as the main reasons for taking it up. Some also indicated that controlled traffic also offered improvements in soil structure.

Those who hadn’t taken up these precision farming techniques were primarily worried about the costs and if the initial investment would be paid back in a reasonable time scale – or indeed ever at all.

Others felt that their businesses were too small to justify the expenditure, while some claimed they were approaching retirement age and couldn’t see the point in adopting new technologies.

But there was also a clear indication amongst the non-adopters that the lack of opportunity to see the technology in action – either in the form of organised demonstrations, in a monitor farm type setting or even by seeing what was going on 'over the hedge' on neighbouring land, had been a barrier to uptake.

A desire to see the technologies developed and improved also shone through– with more than half the farmers interviewed believing that they would be using variable rate pesticide applications and seed planting technology within the next five to 10 years.

So, does this research give us any pointers as to the shape which a policy to incentivise the continued development of innovation and productivity should take?

The need for demonstration is obvious – but I’m told that the recent increase in state funding going to agri-tech research centres should see a number of satellite demonstration farms up and running shortly. To provide direct grants to farmers to encourage a wider uptake by subsidising the purchase of new technology could prove expensive though.

Down south a £40m scheme launched just over a week ago has already come in for criticism. Taking the form of a 40% grant, the minimum claim has been set at £35,000 – which would equate to a minimum project spend of £87,500. The upper limit is to be set at £1m.

So it looks like only those with a substantial amount of cash to back their bid will be the only ones to be successful. Would a more indirect approach prove fairer – by encouraging certain practices to be adopted, rather than forcing producers to compete for grants for equipment?

In Scotland, we have had just such a scheme in operation for some time now – and while it’s not directly applicable to the arable sector, there can’t be many who haven’t heard of the troubles surrounding the Beef Efficiency Scheme. Designed to buck up the breeding of beef calves in the country, the initiative was aimed at encouraging uptake of a whole range of management and breeding techniques, together with the creation of a genomic database of cattle in the country.

So, while the BES might have ticked all the right boxes – but, as was said at the union meeting, while the principle was spot on, the delivery was a disaster – so a lot of work will need to go into ensuring that any new schemes can come up with the goods on all fronts.

On the broader front, taking the lead and guiding policy might not be the easiest thing for the industry to do – but it looks like the only way we can try to waken those in the corridors of power to the urgency of the situation and to stop them sleepwalking into Brexit.

With only 16 months to go before we leave the EU, there’s certainly a need for some productivity and innovation to be exhibited by our governments.