Local farmers and landowners will explain how the agricultural sector is responding to the climate emergency. Planet Shaftesbury has invited four experts to a Town Hall debate later this month.
Tisbury farmer Martin Shallcross will be speaking at the Town Hall on 28th November, during the ‘Ecological Challenges for Local Farmers and Landowners’ session. He will be joined by Ffinlo Costain, the Chief executive of Farmwel, a consultancy that encourages sustainable agriculture. Ffinlo spoke about greenhouse gas emission measurement in Shaftesbury recently. He has advised Defra on this and associated topics.
Shaftesbury resident and professional forester Robin Walter has also been recruited to the panel. “This was an idea from Rachel Bodle of Planet Shaftesbury,” said Robin. “She thought it was a good idea to give people who work on the land around us a chance to share their perspectives on the climate emergency, how it is affecting them and what they might be doing.”
Matthew Price has been North Dorset NFU’s senior agent for the last thirty years and he will take up the presidency of the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show next year. Matthew is well-placed to understand the needs of North Dorset farmers and he was keen to accept the offer to chair the session.
“I think it’s important that those of us within the agricultural industry are seen to engage with one of the major debates of our time,” he said, adding that local farmers are well aware of the many threats posed by a warming planet. “Climate change will hit the farming industry first, before it hits most other things, because so much of what a farmer does is weather-related. It’s a key issue for farming,” said Matthew.
In North Dorset, extreme weather conditions could prompt a rethink of established farming practices. “There are going to be more droughts, heavier rains and more storms,” Robin said. Farmland needs protecting from all of that. The sun can bake it. It needs to be protected from run-offs and intensive rains. It is a period of both great change and great opportunity. That’s what we hope to discuss.”
The climate emergency issue does feature in Matthew’s work-related conversations with farmers and NFU officials, in both a global and national context. “I don’t have people routinely coming to me and expressing concerns about the Shaftesbury environment, but people talk in more general terms,” said Matthew. “It doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us locally. For all of us, no matter what we do, everything we do has an impact on the environment around us and that includes farmers, too.”
Matthew hopes that the meeting will give farmers and landowners a chance to address some misconceptions. “We hear that livestock farming is the most significant form of greenhouse gas emission. That is patently untrue,” he said. “With much of the local farming being livestock, that is something I would like to address during the evening and we can look at where greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming come from.”
Mathew says that the NFU has set a national policy for net zero carbon production by 2040. Wiltshire farmer and NFU president, Minette Batters, announced that target ambition. Matthew outlined the three principal pillars for achieving that. “Producing more whilst omitting less, maximising the ability of the land to store carbon and renewable energy,” he said.
As a forester, Robin Walter says he has questions about elements of the NFU’s 2040 strategy. “They didn’t really have much space on the tree planting, which is curious because if you look at the climate change committee, they anticipate a drop in meat and dairy consumption, which will free up 20% of farmland for tree planting, to sequester carbon,” said Robin.
Trees help to ‘sequestrate’ or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Planting trees, especially new trees, could reduce or reverse global warming. “That’s tens of thousands of hectares of planting for the next couple of decades. That’s quite a high ambition as a suggestion,” said Robin. “That tree planting will have to happen, if it happens at all, on farmland. All of that depends on what farmers want to do.” Robin wants to know what the policy drivers and grant systems supporting this are.
Matthew expects that some attendees might wish to discuss how moving to plant-based diets could impact on agriculture and land use. “UK-wide, something like 70% of land use is on agricultural production and roughly two-thirds of it is in long-term grassland. In the Shaftesbury area it is probably even higher than that,” said Matthew. “That grassland has little option to do anything else but grow grass and we are not yet in a position where, as a human population, we can eat grass. We need something to do it for us and that is livestock. People might think that’s contentious but ultimately that’s the way you make economic use of grassland.”
Matthew says it is important to remember that farmers are running businesses which need to be viable. “The key thing with any of this is that farming needs to remain economically sustainable. It needs to be productive. There is a clichéd expression, ‘It’s hard to be green when you’re in the red’. Farmers have to be capable of earning a living from farming. The need to engage with environmental measures, and support and help from stewardship schemes and other environmental schemes, is a very important part of that. It’s an area where farmers have struggled in recent years because it’s been hard to engage and difficult to persuade the government to do things in a timely manner.”
Matthew is keen to encourage local farmers to attend the session, share examples of what they have done to address the climate emergency and help people understand their position. “I would love them to come along and to come with an open mind and be prepared to engage in the debate in a proper manner,” he said. “The agricultural industry is part of the local community and shares common goals with it. We need to be thinking about all this together and avoiding conflict in the process.”
Robin is hoping for an informative and cordial exchange. “I don’t expect we’re going to solve this in an evening but it will be a really interesting opportunity to open up the debate. A lot of us, myself included, don’t know a lot about what goes on in a farm surrounding Shaftesbury and how it’s going to change in the years and decades to come.”
The event, at Shaftesbury Town Hall, takes place at 7.30pm on 28th November. You can book your place through the Eventbrite website. There is a suggested donation of £3 which can be made on the door.