Speakers at today’s Northern Farming Conference gave a series of thought-provoking and informative presentations on topics ranging from the roll-out of SFI, to the latest agri-tech innovations, to strategies to mitigate the effects of wet weather on soil.

The event, which had the theme Tomorrow’s Farming Today, took place at Hexham Auction Mart, and was attended by more than 200 farmers and industry experts.

Janet Hughes, Defra’s director for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, was the first speaker, and gave an update on the take-up of the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme. She said 15,000 farms had expressed an interest in SFI since August, and 1,700 applications had been submitted in the first six weeks of the scheme.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Defra's Janet Hughes speaks at the 2023 Northern Farming Conference

Significant changes had been made to offer greater flexibility following the original pilot scheme, and now applications were being turned around in an average of three weeks, said Ms Hughes.

She told the farmers in the audience: “You are trying to run businesses, and I know that historically, you have felt that we in Defra haven’t recognised and respected and understood that – it’s almost been a dirty word the idea that you’ve got to make a living out of what you’re doing.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Hexham Auction Mart hosted the Northern Farming Conference

“We absolutely recognise and respect that, and value it, and that you’re working in very volatile, uncertain economic times, we’re making the biggest changes to farming policy for 70 years, you are at the forefront of tackling climate change, and you can also be blamed for it at the same time. There are challenges on biosecurity, and avian influenza - you’ve got it coming at you from all angles.

“That’s why I and my team are out and about a lot of the time listening to farmers, trying to work with you to understand what’s it going to take for the work we’re doing to actually work for you, because if it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work.

“That is absolutely of fundamental importance to us, it’s the most important thing on any given day, to make things better for you, to make things work better, to make what we’re doing attractive, accessible, fair and business-like for you, and then we can deliver the outcomes for food, farming and environment.”

Ms Hughes said Defra and the Rural Payments Agency are working hard to improve services so farmers “see us as people who can be relied upon, you can have confidence in us, you can have a proper business relationship, we’ll pay you on time, we’ll make sure we process your queries”.

Martin Hanson, head of agriculture at HSBC, which was the headline sponsor of the conference, said for the first time in 50 years, the bank’s annual forward planning publication for agriculture this year will include data on carbon emissions for producers.

“The desire here isn’t to highlight the difference between relative high or low emission foodstuffs,” he said. “It is to help farmers understand what their peers are doing, and move towards a lower emission production within whatever product they are rearing or growing.”

He said this type of data is going to be increasingly important for the industry in the future.

The third speaker of the day was Joe Stanley, head of training and partnerships at the GWCT Allerton Project, a research and demonstration farm combining food production with growing the natural environment in Leicestershire.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Joe Stanley speaks at the 2023 Northern Farming Conference

He said he had scrapped his original presentation in view of the recent flooding which has badly affected farmland across the country, and instead spoke on ways to reduce the impact of wet weather on soil, including increasing soil organic matter, tramline management, and the use of leaky dams to hold back flood water.

Meanwhile in wide ranging remarks before chairing a question-and-answer session, Lord Richard Benyon, Minister of State for Defra, spoke about the regulation of private sector green finance, the potential for planning reform to reduce red tape for the conversion of redundant farm buildings, and the need to depoliticise the debate about culling badgers to reduce the spread of bovine TB.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Lord Richard Benyon speaks at the 2023 Northern Farming Conference

Other speakers included Andrew Meredith, editor of Farmers Weekly, Peter Illman, sustainable agriculture manager at Tesco, who dedicated his slot to how the firm is supporting innovation in the agri-tech sector, Prof John Gilliland, special adviser to the AHDB, Caroline Grindrod, consultant and coach supporting food and farming businesses to transition to regenerative systems, and Lincolnshire farmer, Andrew Ward, founder of Forage Aid.

The conference is a joint venture between Armstrong Watson, the CLA, Hexham and Northern Marts, North East Grains, Womble Bond Dickinson and Youngs RPS. It was chaired by Andrew Robinson, partner and head of agriculture at Armstrong Watson, in the morning, and Samantha Charlton, the AHDB’s head of engagement, in the afternoon.