Farming practices have changed and evolved over the years, but much of this relies heavily on innovative technology and sufficient subsidies — both of which are in short supply
Farming and agriculture, it seems, is in a constant state of peril. I spent the vast majority of my younger years living next to a farm, and we would always hear about the issues faced by UK farmers. Foot and mouth disease, the globalisation of farming, cheap imports — the list is endless. Even now, the prospect of Brexit has many farmers worried about losing subsidies.
There’s a lot of social pressure on British farmers these days, too. People are changing their eating habits, and becoming more aware of animal welfare. Recent news of the inhumane treatment of livestock in slaughterhouses highlights growing public concern. Tricky times, then — and it’s hard to see a future without issues for the farmers of the country.
That said, there will always be a future for farmers. It just depends on their abilities to adapt and move with the times. But what can we expect in the coming years, and how will the farming landscape look in the next decade or so?
Whether you voted in or out, the impact of Brexit is going to be huge for farmers. While no one has addressed the subject directly — yet — there are serious concerns. Once Brexit occurs, farmers are going to lose out on millions of pounds of subsidies given by the EU. There are real fears that this will cause lasting damage, despite talk from MPs about protected subsidies.
The problem is that not all government officials are on board with that half-promise. Dozens of MPs have put in a request to shift billions of pounds in subsidies from farming to environmental businesses. There are also concerns that farmers are being used as pawns in the general trade agreements that are starting to take place.
With Britain set to make new trade deals with the entire world, where will it leave UK farmers? Again, no one knows — but there are signs it will have a negative impact. Take the pig industry as an example. It has a long history of boom and bust, and at the moment it is recovering from a serious downturn.
The reason? It is all due to global instability. After the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the EU introduced trade embargoes for many Russian products. The Russians responded in turn, banning the import of a variety of foods — including vast quantities of German pork. It left German pig farmers with far too much product and nowhere to sell it — so the price of pork tumbled.
There is also the Chinese problem to consider. China produces more than half the world’s pork, and with new deals on the way, could this be a pressure point too much for the pig farmers of the UK? It’s going to be tricky for the family-owned businesses to survive. Unless the big four supermarkets decide they want to pay more, they will have to look at more intensive farming practices.
One area of positive news for farming comes, unsurprisingly, from technology. Agriculture has always relied on new technology, and it could be the one thing that helps save the industry in the UK.
Look back to the 1960s and you can see the impact it can make. Only a decade before, farming was still a rustic pursuit, driven by hand machinery and horsepower. The decade after, farmers were looking for a tractor or lawn mower for sale in their droves. In recent years, there has been the introduction of driverless tractors, for example. Drones are becoming an essential part of the farmer’s toolkit, too. Not only do they use them to spray crops, but they can also help with assessing crop growths.
More sustainable tech is also on the way. It will help farmers increase output without damaging the environment. We can also expect to see increased interest in software and app-based products on the market. There are plenty of software and apps available that attempt to solve common farming problems. But few have genuine knowledge of end-use requirements. However, according to the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, a change could be on the way. Researchers have come up with a checklist to help technology designers improve their software and apps. It should see farmers getting a lot more value — and understanding — from technology products.
It’s vital for farmers to seek out answers from technology — particularly when it comes to sustainability. As mentioned above, there has been a growing concern from the public in recent years that UK farms are failing the environment and livestock.
While public perception has become more crucial in the current climate, the trouble for farmers is that it’s not down to their actions alone. The big four supermarkets set their prices when it comes to buying products, and farmers have to comply. There is no choice. It’s hard for smaller farms to rear animals outdoors because the costs are too high — and few people want to meet those costs. Supermarkets just aren’t willing to pay more, and will always demand intensive farming to drive down prices.
If there is going to be a solution to this growing problem, it’s going to come from technology. And if it helps meet the problem of rising demand, it will return farmers to their rightful title as custodians of the countryside.
The new generation
Of course, the next generation of farmers are the people that will push all these ideas forward. But with farming becoming an increasingly challenging industry to work in, are there enough people coming in? According to the National Farmers’ Union, the numbers are there. But there is an issue with young people not getting to have a proper say. It’s their future, and that makes it vital that young, fresh voices are heard.
Agricultural policy is set to change a lot in the coming years. And, while current farmers need attention, it’s the young people that these issues will eventually affect. The future is being shaped right now, and it is critical that young farming professionals have their say. If they don’t, the coming decades might not be a bed of roses for one of the UK’s oldest industries.