Farming needs new blood if we’re going to have an independent Wales

Picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

Simon Thomas, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Climate Change and Rural Affairs

Farming, and the sustainable stewardship of the countryside it provides, is an essential building block to an independent Wales.

This is a key industry that employs 58,000 workers actively looking after our environment, on which tourism, small businesses and communities also thrive.

It is also central to any vision of a bilingual Wales, or one million Welsh speakers.

We must remember that farming is the workplace with the highest proportion of Welsh speakers: 27%.

The future, of course, is dependent on the influx of new, highly trained individuals into the industry.

New blood brings new ideas and innovation into the sector and promotes the foundation of sustainable, profitable and resilient farm businesses in Wales.

It’s young people and new entrants who provide much of this new lifeblood. And if we are to have any chance of adapting and bending to the winds of a post-Brexit future we will need the enthusiasm and commitment of young people in droves.

Unfortunately, the average age of farmers in Wales is over sixty – just three per cent are under 35.

So I was keen to ensure that young people in farming benefited from any budget agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru.

Between 2010 to 2014 Plaid Cymru helped over 520 young people in the farming industry with a £7m scheme.

Under this budget deal I secured £6m over two years to get a new grant scheme to help young farmers’ get on their feet.

This is a clear signal of Plaid Cymru’s commitment to the next generation of farmers and our belief in the industry as one of our nation’s building blocks.

Asset

I will be meeting young farmers, the unions and others to plot the way ahead.

I’m starting this conversation about what people want for a young entrants’ scheme later this month with South East AM Steffan Lewis in Abergavenny and with colleagues in Newtown when we discuss how we create a more sustainable Powys.

County Council smallholdings could be a ‘first step’ on the ladder for new or young entrants.

To this end, tenants should be encouraged to move onwards and upwards in order to release these farmsteads to the next generation of farmers.

Over recent years there has been increasing concern about the number of council holdings that have been ‘lost’ to new entrants through sell-offs and amalgamations.

We believe that the decline in the County Council farm network has meant the loss of a major asset to encouraging people into the industry.

Ideally, we would like to see local authorities reinvesting in council-owned holdings.

However, we would also strongly encourage remaining holdings to be retained and enhanced at a local level through identifying the ways in which their management could be streamlined across Wales.

The major strength of the council holding network is its ability to provide start-up facilities of land and buildings at a competitive rent to enable starters to build up capital and experience.

Access to finance remains a problem to new entrants into farming and we will investigate ways of encouraging more investment opportunities.

The tenanted sector could provide important opportunities for new entrants in Wales and we believe that landowners should be encouraged to let out more land for longer periods for farming.

Tenancy arrangements can offer an important route for getting people into the industry.

Successful

If we are to encourage young people to take up a career within the agricultural industry, we must break down the perception that farming is an unrewarding, low paid, manual labour sector.

It undoubtedly is hard work, but it is also at the cutting edge of innovation and technology.

Robotics, harvesting renewable energy, biodiversity, tourism, hydroponics, horticulture, high animal welfare; all these and more will be needed to be exploited by the next generation of farmers.

We will need our schools, colleges and universities to be part of developing and maintaining the skills in these areas.

Business and management skills are also essential to those entering the sector and are vital to continuing professional development.

Mentoring can also have an important role in training and development and can help new entrants to build successful businesses and develop their business capability.

I’m keen for anybody who has the best interests of Welsh farming at heart to get in touch so we can devise the best scheme for new entrants.

It is part of my vision for a sustainable, independent Wales that we invest in the next generation now who will build and develop our rich natural resources and do that in a way that will be a template to the world.

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13 Comments

  1. Make the battery farming of dogs illegal and then just perhaps livestock and arable farming in Wales will lose it’s dirty tag

  2. Only 27% of farmers are Welsh speaking? I find that figure shockingly low considering Ive met native Welsh speaking farmers right upto the border at Y Waun / Chirk in northern Wales

    But anyway you provide a lot of good evidence and the supposed benefits of farming (food being a core one!!) … but I do have to query somethings as a biologist by trade

    “Farming, and the sustainable stewardship of the countryside” – I would argue it was quite unsustainable in many areas and aspects, such as phosphate fertiliser use and the fact biodiversity is incredibly low on many farms – an intense industry not a environmental utopia.

    “58,000 workers actively looking after our environment” Questionable on what you want the “environment” to look like, some do protect many aspects of sustainable land management and are good guardians, but theres some around me dumping toxic chemicals and non-biodegradable rubbish and plastic into woods and burying waste even in their fields.

    I’ll vote Plaid Cymru – but they have always been a bit weak on environmental sustainability of the land actually believing the hyperbole about how great industrial farming methods are without reading actual scientific literature.

    When I stop meeting farmers telling me to get rid of my hedge on my own fields (hedges fantastic break for water run off as I live on steep slope), I’ll know we are heading for a more enlightened management

  3. The Bellwether

    Hmm.. asset rich and cash poor is the phrase that comes to mind about farmers. Coming from a North Walian Welsh speaking farming background, two generations removed (thank God!), live in a farming rural area, and having read the most depressing book in history about farmers ‘On the Black Hill’ by Bruce Chatwin I don’t have such a rose tinted view of farming as the author.
    There is a widely held ‘contrary antagonistic view’ of farmers and farming in urban and industrial areas of Wales. It goes like this. Have you ever met a ‘poor’
    or hungry farmer? Everything they do is claimable against tax from red diesel, to tractors, to combine harvesters to dog food. The claim that they are ‘custodians of the countryside’ is ridiculous. They have destroyed it along with being in hock to Big Pharma, Monsanto for pesticides, animal growth hormones, ad libitum antibiotics, GM crops, weed killers; you name it farmers will dollop it, spread it over everything from the comfort of their 4×4 range rovers, iPhone wifi enabled tractors. Subsidies! Who else in business gets such vast subsidies to not do any work (set aside)! Farming is not an important or vital contributor to the real economy of Wales, it is less than 5% GDP. Farming may be hard work?? (nobody shovels cow shit anymore, there’s an app for that) in all weathers but so are many other occupations. Farm work is the last remaining slave labour for refugees and immigrants.
    Having got that out of the way, yes we do need to attract new young entrants into farming but we need to redefine what farming and agriculture means and vigorously counter the very real perceptions and prejudices above.

    • The very fact that you think Welsh or even UK Farmers are using animal growth hormones or growing GM crops shows that you have no right to judge our industry. Please educate yourself before stating such drible !!

  4. Benjiman L. Angwin

    Diolch am yr erthygl.

    A big part of the problem is that food options in Welsh grocery shops are British and not Welsh. and we have no large, Wales-centred business apparatus selling ‘Welsh’ in Wales.

    The Co-operative grocery chain is on a British level for instance, not a Welsh one, and you can find meat and produce in their shops from places such as Kent and Ayrshire which are being produced by farmers in the next cwm. If you want new blood, Wales needs an all-Wales grocery chain to give Welsh farmers a platform to move up in the business through, to invigorate local demand and partnerships, and to compete with British grocery chains. It will require Welsh people to be loyal to it despite the fact that the price on some goods will have to be higher.

    It could also be run by Cymry and have a Cymraeg-first policy, which would gradually force competitors to use more Welsh.

    • A local chain can be somewhat more agile in its sourcing, since it doesn’t have to provide for hundreds of stores all over Britain, which tends to favour the largest suppliers. It may be better to concentrate on what it can do well, rather than trying to directly compete with the major supermarkets, having a narrower product range concentrating on fruit and veg, milk and dairy products, local meat, and some tins and jars etc, rather than trying to stock everything that the likes of Tesco and Asda do. It wouldn’t necessarily be more expensive especially for products that are grown locally, and then if you factor in all the impulse buys that supermarkets make their profits from may well be cheaper.
      This could also complement a food box delivery scheme, which can give farmers more stability of income than the vagaries of supermarket purchasing decisions.

  5. Land reform is necessary. Existing farmers are protected by exemption from Inheritance Tax. The exemption increases the attractiveness of land as a tax shelter. Land is both a private asset and a public resource, but private owners have privileged status. Change in Compulsory Purchase regulations to split value uplift between the vendor and the purchasing public organisation would help redress the current imbalance of rights. Totally agree that local authorities should be increasing their smallholdings estates, not disposing of them, but currently even poor land is expensive and funds for new entrants are scarce. Buying land for farming (at around £8,000 an acre for middling arable) is not a profit opportunity, but a long-term investment in the future of the nation.

  6. Eos Pengwern

    The best way to encourage people into farming is to increase farming incomes, and the best way to do that is to increase farming productivity. The sorts of technology developments which are coming through the pipeline at the moment are very exciting: enabling large-scale low-cost measurements of soil condition, microclimatic conditions, animal location and welfare, presence of wildlife (e.g. badgers in the vicinity of cattle) and all sorts of other things. By maximising the use of such technologies where they are appropriate, Welsh agriculture could steal the initiative and increase both productivity and quality, without depending upon the mass use of antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides to such an extent as in the past (and yet without necessarily going fully organic). This in turn could make Welsh produce stand out as a high-value brand in international markets.

    There is some interesting work going on in this vein amongst both Welsh universities (I’m aware in particular of what Aberystwyth is doing) and in the SME sector. Quite how to accelerate the adoption of such technologies – which are not necessarily expensive – in the farming sector as a whole, I’m not sure, but it may actually be an area where some well-informed government intervention could do some good.

  7. There is a lot of remote sensing data freely available. NASA and the US Geological survey operate the Landsat satellites which regularly observes at a 30m resolution, in a number of bands https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov The European Space Agency operates the Sentinel series of satellites, Sentinel 2 includes 10m optical data, and a number of infrared bands at various resolutions. Sentinel 1 takes microwave data, which can observe through cloud. https://scihub.copernicus.eu/dhus/#/home
    Remote sensing can be useful to monitor the growth of crops, or grassland, especially when the visible is combined with one or more of the infrared bands.

    I know Environment Systems in Aberystwyth make use of data such as this, and also aerial data from drones etc.

    • That’s definitely true, and it’s very useful, but I had in mind particularly ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) type sensors which used in conjunction with satellite imagery can give a tremendous amount of data about what is going on with the land. I was talking to some people from a small company last week who are active in this area, who said that while “smart cities” are a buzzword at the moment, their aspiration is to create a ‘smart countryside’. I was hugely impressed. Imagine that as an international brand – “Wales, the Smart Country”.

  8. These kind of sensors could be used to study microclimatic conditions, allowing plants to be grown which might not be winter-hardy in most locations.
    Greenhouses could be heated by power excess to requirements when there is a high level of wind generation, at least enough to prevent frost. This could be achieved by material with high heat capacity – even water tanks might do it, which would hold the energy from when there is excess power to when the coldest calm weather occurs.

  9. Agriculture is an industry where most of the businesses are run by those who inherited them.
    What and how important the implications of this situation are can be debated but there are implications.

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