Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Independent crop consultants are set to play an increasing role in maintaining farm productivity and profitability over the coming decade. ‘Crucial role’ for independent advisers as farm support changes

• End of direct payments looms

• Good advice vital for growers

• Need to generate farm profits

Independent crop consultants are set to play an increasing role in maintaining farm productivity and profitability over the coming decade.

Arable businesses face a period of huge change, says agronomist Charles Garrard, of consultants Ceres Rural. This includes the phase-out of direct payments which have formed the bedrock of farm support for almost 20 years.

The phase-out of the Basic Payment scheme is one of three challenges faced by growers, Mr Garrard told a recent annual technical conference hosted by the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC).

It will see the comfort blanket of area-based payments removed, inevitably hitting farm income. The process started in 2021, with payments halved by 2024 and gone completely by 2028.

Volatility is also a major test, said Mr Garrard. Unpredictability is now embedded in our climate, politics and commodity and input prices, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future due to world events.

Compounding these two factors is the drive towards net zero. It has prompted action right through the supply chain from field to fork to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment.

Alternative incomes

“We will be under scrutiny to produce more from fewer inputs, including bagged fertiliser, and pressure from policy will propel that change and drive farms to look for alternative incomes,” explained Mr Garrard.

Forecasts suggest that the land used for food crops in the UK will fall from 26% to 18% by 2050, with urban development and energy crops taking some of that area.

A big increase will also be seen in woodland and agroforestry, forecast to increase from 13% to 19%. Some of these land changes are, in part, driven by net zero aims.

New incentives introduced as part of the government’s Environmental Land Management Scheme are also leading to noticeable changes to the farming landscape. They include the Landscape Recovery scheme, Sustainable Farming Incentive and Local Nature Recovery.

This is against a backdrop of relatively poor farm profitability, based on data from Farmbench – the AHDB’s online benchmarking tool that allows farms to compare performance to similar business.

Mr Garrard pointed out that only the top 25% of growers are making money from all crop enterprises, with the middle 50% only in the black on major crops like wheat and oilseed rape. The bottom 25% are not doing well at all.

But arable producers generally had a good year in 2022, when yields of winter crops were average and commodity prices high.

“With an increasing working capital requirement for our farm businesses and generally higher input costs going forward, these underlying profitability issues won’t be masked much longer,” said Mr Garrard.

Changing systems

The challenges and the subsequent changes to the way farm businesses operate are going to require the best technical advice and Mr Garrard said organisations like AICC are already well-placed to offer that.

But there will also be a need for an evolution of the agronomists’ skills, with embracing new digital technology to support decisions and helping implement different and more complex systems will likely be required.

Along with the evolution of skills, there is also likely to be an increased emphasis on crop consultants to provide detailed management as businesses become larger and more diverse post-BPS.

This will involve giving direction on all aspects of running a modern arable unit – or bringing in the right associates to help navigate specialist areas – to keep it productive and profitable.

“As independent advisers, we have a greater willingness to find these solutions for our businesses and we will be required to give greater input in the future.

“The evolving and next-generation of agronomists will need a great depth and breadth of knowledge, have an ability to spot opportunities on holdings and embrace innovation.”

Good communication

Communication is paramount, said Mr Garrard. Regular dialogue leads to a greater understanding of a client’s expectations and attitude to risk – an area which can help the independent sector pick up business.

Input costs

In recent seasons, when yield potential has dipped due to poor weather,some disgruntled growers have complained that spending on inputs has not dropped at a similar trajectory.

Mr Garrard concluded that the area-based model that underpins most agronomist-client relationships may also need to change as the adviser’s repertoire expands.

Agronomists will still charge for walking crops, he believes, but they should not undervalue their importance to clients.

“Some will have been with clients for years and have extensive knowledge on the holding.

“This allows them to advise both on the arable side and on strategic issues, so I see a hybrid system where fees are charged on a per acre basis with an extra hourly fee for strategic consultancy.”