Over the last twelve months, spanning the produce of two harvests, the down turn of prices has been the dominant factor for farming in the whole of the UK. The falling farm-gate price of milk has made the news headlines on a regular basis, but behind these stories almost all sectors have been feeling the pinch.
Diversification, either within the traditional farming model or into other activities, is one way the forward looking grower can try and cope with falling prices. Although there have been some big changes for arable growers over the last twelve months, for once the weather hasn’t been such a big feature in the South East. It might not have seemed like it at times, but we have been blessed with good growing conditions. Further up country growers have had a really wet time of it in 2015. The big changes have been in the type of crops grown and rotations. Most of this has been driven by changes in European regulations due to CAP reform, but also by a need to adapt to problem weeds like Blackgrass. Spring sown crops feature more widely with a considerable acreage down to Spring Wheat, a crop that was hardly grown a few years back. Oilseed acreages have plummeted, on the back of an increase in Winter and Spring bean sowings. Another marked change is a swing to quality bread and biscuit wheat, away from the traditional animal feed varieties. The yield gap between ‘feeders’ or ‘quality’ wheat has narrowed, making the premium price more attractive, which is useful in a time of falling ‘base’ prices. Hop growing is one crop that is bucking the trend, driven to an extent by the popularity of Micro or Craft Breweries. In Kent at the last count there were thirty seven brewers, which apart from Shepherd Neame, are all Micro by definition. The EU Protected Denomination of Origin, PDO, for the East Kent Goldings hops has been a major contribution to the recent success story for Kent hops. All of this goes to show how Farmers are willing and able to adapt, or diversify, to business pressures. Climate Change will continue to mould the crops we grow in Kent and how we grow them. Who would have thought five years ago that apricots grown in Kent, along with sweet potatoes, would be coming forward in such quantities for supermarket to show an interest? But the list of future possibilities keeps growing, from Carbon Capture, through Community Energy projects, to public access. In the past the best incomes from wooded areas came from Paint Ball weekends, but as that pastime starts to now look like a fad, the value of Access to the greater national health are being recognised, with Well-being being linked to increased personal health, both physical and mental. Ten percent of Kent is Woodland, giving rise to opportunities across our county to get involved in this new ‘low impact’ public access. In Kent we are well placed with organisations like the Kent Downs AONB and the Kent Wildlife Trust, able to help landowners assess what is there now and work in partnership to enhance areas for generations to come. Coppicing, a backbone of large swaths on Kent in the past, ticks all the boxes going forward for employment, coping with climate change and biodiversity. The Kingdom of Kent continues to be the ‘Garden of England’, but as we all know the best gardens are a mixture of vegetables, fruits, flowers, ponds, lawns and ‘men in sheds’, truly diversified.