Getting through the daily grind required on all farms 24/7 can be a monumental task when their is little if any assistance available, so it comes as no surprise that few have the motivation, dedication or indeed time to go back to the books. However, taking that valuable time out and away from the farm to see other practices in other countries, can be hugely rewarding not only for the individuals concerned but also the wider industry, at The Scottish Farmer's Business and Technical Editor, Patsy Hunter found out at the Annual Nuffield Farming Conference in Glasgow, last week.

This year's two-day conference featured presentations from no fewer than 22 scholars with topics ranging from: Why the Future of Milk is a Branded One, to What is the Future of Colony Egg Production in the UK and Living and Dying with Avian Influenza, to Water's Value in Agriculture, Powering Pasture and the Relevance of Red Meat in the 21st Century and Soil Health and Fertility in Grasslands, which will be covered in future issues of The Scottish Farmer.

One of the most topical reports was Jonathan Baker's Insights from Agricultural Polices of Selected Non-EU developed Countries, which saw the Defra employee travel throughout much of Norway, Japan, Switzerland, South Korea and New Zealand in a bid to find out how farming operates with, and without, various levels of support.

Jonathan, who was senior land use policy adviser for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) when he applied and is now employed as a policy adviser for Defra's future farming team, visited the listed countries as all were economically developed and outside the EU, but all had various forms of support.

Switzerland had recently undergone a major reform of their agricultural policy that saw direct support repurposed to achieve environmental goals. These reforms are consistent in concept with the proposed policy changes in England.

Japan and South Korea were specifically chosen as their agricultural policies are poorly covered in the English language policy literature.

And of course, New Zealand has famously undertaken a still unprecedented major reduction in agricultural support in the 1980s while Norway has the world’s highest level of agricultural support.

According to Jonathan policy makers in the various countries refer to the 'multi functionality' surrounding agriculture, however he also said that each country focuses on different aspects of those flexible traits to different extents and implements the concept in separate ways.

For most of these countries, policies assumed that the more agriculture is exposed to market forces, the less agriculture is able to provide multiple functions, such as maintaining wildlife, ecosystems and rural infrastructure, as witnessed in New Zealand at present, he said.

"New Zealand’s reforms have seen a flourishing of the economic and food production potential of agriculture but at a social and environmental cost."

In contrast, a combination of political strength of farmer representatives and public support for the farming industry, in Norway, Switzerland, South Korea and Japan, have witnessed a complex and expensive set of policy interventions to maintain and limit change in rural areas.

He added that where changes in policy were happening, the drivers tended to be external forces such as the WTO or, in the case of Norway and Switzerland, the EU. Proposed reforms were rarely transformative and not intended to reduce the total level of support provided to agriculture. Instead, reforms tended to correct a perceived under-delivery of a specific function – be it economic development in Japan, the environment in Switzerland or rural development in South Korea.

Highlighting the individual countries, Jonathan pointed out that while Japan lost half of the country's farmers over the years, it now has some of the highest levels of support and policy mechanisms that not only focuses on the production of food but also rural communities.

Their policy mechanisms are based on sustaining a high price for table rice by subsidising feed-rice and the set-aside of paddy fields to ensure that the supply of Japanese table rice is balanced against demand. Hence, by supporting food production, the income of the hundreds of thousands of small farmers that make up Japanese agriculture are maintained.

In Japan, paddy fields are viewed as a positive environmental land use, managing water and creating habitat and keeping the price of rice high also supports rural communities and creates social links as a significant proportion of the rice produced in rural areas is traded or bartered rather than sold commercially.

In addition, Japan has a series of ‘multifunctional payments’ for the conservation of national land, water resources and the natural environment to the formulation of a good landscape and maintenance of cultural tradition.

Meanwhile, South Korea is experiencing major and ongoing reform to agricultural policies which are looking at removing some product specific payments and focusing more on general direct support and other interventions. These reforms are rooted in the relevant Basic Law which notes that agriculture is “a key industry carrying out economic and public functions by ensuring the stable supply of safe agricultural products and quality food for the citizens and contributing to conserving the environment of the national territory, agriculture shall be encouraged to serve as a foundation for the economic, social, and cultural development of the citizens”.

South Korea already has a diversity of direct support programmes such as landscape crops and environmentally friendly farming. They also have plans to boost domestic rural tourism which, compared to Europe, is under-developed. This is intended to provide a diversification opportunity for farmers, whose incomes are generally lower than urban workers.

In contrast, high levels of farming support, albeit for perceived 'public goods' have more or less been maintained in Norway which suffers from a harsh climate, high costs and employment, despite pressure from various countries to liberalise its support and tariffs through the WTO, over the years.

"In Norway, the current government and resultant policy focuses less on multi functionality and more on food production, farmer incomes and pushing farming to be more competitive. Norway does have some environmental payments and conditions but these were relatively unambitious with few pushing for a major expansion of these programmes.

"Farms in Norway are small and must be farmed to ensure small vibrant communities are maintained," said Jonathan.

Switzerland's farming policy is also related to market-oriented food production, dispersed population and environmental protection.

A similar type of system occurs in Switzerland, where the last round of reforms in 2014 saw a set of direct support programmes, each of which considers environmental, rural and food production goals. These are supported through robust tariffs which reduce the ability of third countries to compete on cost, and through land management policies that manage the development of agricultural land and seek to maintain food production throughout Switzerland.

In contrast, New Zealand manages its agricultural land and communities through market forces and regulations which over the years has seen land uses sharply divided with some areas dominated by agriculture and others being left to turn wild.

However, there have been concerns relating to loss of social links, caused by the creation of larger, more efficient corporate farms and the changes to the environment caused as a result, which are now discussed on a regular basis.

Water quality has been impacted by an increase in intensive dairy production and overseas investors have driven up the price of land, making succession for New Zealand farmers more difficult.

* The Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust awards approximately 20 individuals each year with the opportunity to research topics of interest in either farming, food, horticulture or rural industries, with a bursary of about £7000 given towards your travel and subsistence expenses.

In addition, the Trust and individual award sponsors meet travel and expenses in relation to the pre-study briefing and contemporary scholars conference, with the total value of an award being in excess of £12,000.

Scholars are able to travel anywhere in the world for a period of no less than eight weeks to further their knowledge and understanding of their chosen study topic. On return from their travels, they have to write a report, present their findings, and give the conclusions and recommendations reached at the annual Nuffield Farming Conference, which each year, rotates around the various regions. Scholars are also expected to spread the knowledge attained to their industry and beyond.