Taking place on the 4th of October, the first-ever Larking Gowen Autumn Farming Conference has received an extremely positive response from delegates.
Organised by independent accountancy firm Larking Gowan, in conjunction with the Country Land and Business Association East (CLA), the event included presentations from a range of speakers. It also featured a live pole of delegates, assessing their views on the future of UK farming, with 50% being optimistic, 40% saying it’s complicated and 10% not being confident.
Bruce Masson, the Larking Gowen partner who originated the Autumn Farming Conference, was delighted with the response, said: “Given that the farming industry faces numerous challenges and uncertainties, from major cost and supply issues due to the geopolitical turmoil, the effects of Brexit, phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme and labour shortages, to name but a few, it was pleasing that most delegates were positive about the future, albeit with some reservations.”
Chaired by CLA East director Cath Crowther, there were presentations from Steven Rudd, Larking Gowen’s head of farms and landed estates, Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge and Shadow Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, Alec Smith, director of Sentry Ltd and Jason Cantrill, a partner at farming consultancy Ceres Rural.
Emma Hayley was there to represent YANA (You Are Not Alone), the farming charity providing mental health support for the farming and rural community, which received a £1500 donation from the event.
It also included two very different presentations from Norfolk farmers Stuart Mayhew and Izzi Rainey.
Mr Mayhew and his wife, Rebecca, farm 500 acres in South Norfolk. He outlined the family’s regenerative journey and how they changed their approach to farming.
“Despite all of humankind’s achievements, we owe our existence to 6″ of soil and the fact that it rains. But now the soil is going out to sea, and it has stopped raining, so we cannot just sit back, carry on with business as normal and do nothing. For the first time in my life, when I see clouds of dust rising as fields are cultivated instead of thinking ‘great, they’re all cracking on, being industrious and getting ready for the next crop’ I think ‘that’s the topsoil blowing away.’ Two millimetres of erosion a year over an average life of 75 years is 6″ of topsoil lost, and as an industry, we do not have that much to lose.
“Since our break with nature came with agriculture, it seems fitting that the healing of culture should begin there. Agriculture should take the lead and all of us who are involved must ask ‘what can we do as a collective, as an industry, to give ourselves back the power that has gone to big industry’? I am not suggesting that I have all the answers, but what I have discovered is that the key to anything is to ask better questions. The more of us who ask better questions, the more control we might be able to give ourselves and the better the future that we might leave behind.
“My aim is to hand the farm over in a better condition than I found it. That is not a criticism of my grandfather or father, who did an amazing job which they were asked to do by governments at the time, to massively crank up food production. They fed the world, but at what cost? Only now is that becoming apparent and if we are to go on feeding the world for the next 50, 100, 250 years we must start doing something different.”
The birth of their children, followed by a series of personal and business challenges, had a very profound effect, and made them look at life in an entirely new light. As a result, they decided to move away from farming very conventionally with 450 sows and taking progeny through to finishing using all the grain and straw from their arable farm.
After clearing out the pigs following a severe outbreak of disease they chose to pursue a system of regenerative agriculture and became a founder member of Regenerative Agriculture Community East (RACE). Formed in April 2022, it aims to help connect the region’s farmers, retailers, and consumers, shorten supply chains, support sustainable farming, and help to improve food security.
Starting in 2016 with one Jersey cow, they now have 50 Jerseys with calves kept at foot, the herd is milked once a day in a new dairy and raw milk is sold on site. They also produce beef from native breeds, sheep for meat, goats for meat and on-site experiences, rare breed pigs for meat, together with chickens.
Based on a system of arable-pasture cropping and ‘vertical stacking,’ the business is proud that all ruminants are 100% pasture fed, while the pigs, chickens and eggs are soya-free. Old Hall Farm also has a farm shop and butchery, café, and vineyard serving thousands of customers every year.
“One of the benefits of starting something from scratch and being quite naïve is that while you do encounter most of the pitfalls you don’t know all the things that you can and can’t do, but it certainly hasn’t been easy,” Mr Mayhew added.
“In 2019, after we had been open for just nine months and were just getting our teeth into the new business, with the café, restaurant, and shop fully staffed, the world was shut down by Covid. That was a huge challenge! Overnight, we became a supermarket and focal point for the local community. I will never forget turning up one morning in April 2020 with the wind howling across the car park and seeing a queue of people waiting for our farm shop to open. It is quite humbling to be able to offer that service and see how reliant people are on others to provide their basic needs.
“The last 12 years have been a roller-coaster ride. Adopting a holistic approach to farm management encourages you to really think about what you want to achieve, what do you want your life to look like and what must happen to achieve those goals. Basically, you have to distil everything into a nutshell. My nutshell is that when my children ask me ‘when the world was going wrong what did you do’ I want my answer to be ‘everything that I could.’ I am not for one second suggesting that I have all of the answers, but what I have discovered is that the key to anything is to ask better questions. And the more of us who ask questions the more control we might be able to give ourselves and the better the future that we might leave behind.”
Ms Rainey grew up on her family’s farm at Foulsham and, after graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, established IzziRainey, a farm-based textile company. She presented a first-hand account of diversification without stewardship, as well as the success of women in agriculture and the role of the next generation.
“Growing up on a farm has been a huge influence on my life, especially working with cattle. After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art and having spent four years in the city I was ready to return to Norfolk. My final project at Art School drew inspiration from life on our family farm, the textures, shapes, and colours found within the machinery, buildings, and surfaces.”
The business was formed in 2014 with long-time friend Lara to design and manufacture high-quality stationery and homeware products. Ms Rainey is also a trustee of the Highland Cattle Society and, alongside her Highland herd, she runs a number of Lincoln Red and founded Bates Moor Farm Beef in 2017 to deliver beef boxes across the UK.