Sustainability is like a three-legged milking stool; it needs all three legs, otherwise it just won’t work. Three things are necessary for sustainability in farming to succeed – it needs to be socially acceptable, deliver environmental results and it needs to make a profit. For farmers, the last point is particularly critical, and it often gets overlooked. That’s where I come in. The key message I want to get across to farmers about sustainability is that they can make money doing it. And I can put my hand on my heart and truthfully say that I’ve never had a client who hasn’t been able to.
As an independent sustainable food and farming consultant, it’s my job to help farmers improve the sustainability of their business. The media likes to put all the emphasis on the environmental side of sustainability, but if it doesn’t make a profit a business simply cannot carry on prioritising it.
When a farmer contacts me for the first time, they often talk through their past stewardship agreements and the work they’re doing on farm to improve the environment. They’re probably doing all the right things, but sustainability is much bigger than that. I want to know about their carbon footprint, energy consumption, the way they manage their fixed costs, how they’re using their resources, as well the environmental measures they’ve already undertaken. Conversations have a narrow focus to start with, but they quickly broaden out to encompass the whole business.
Many farmers expect me to come in and recommend seed mixes or specific breeds of tree. But the reality is that every single farm is unique, and while there will be optimum trees and hedgerow plants, the story is much bigger. It’s my job to work out where they are now and how to get to where they want to go.
One of my skills is offering some shortcuts and easy wins that farmers can make early on. For instance, one of the businesses I’m helping in the Resilient and Ready programme has made sizeable savings just from monitoring their diesel consumption and taking steps to reduce it.
Then we move forward, and I show farmers more ways of boosting their performance while saving money. Not only that, but also ways of generating more money as a result of being more sustainable. A longer-term option I often help farmers with is achieving Leaf Marque certification - it’s a big mountain to climb, but once all the plans and policies are in place, the hardest bit is done.
If you’re a farmer and you’re starting to consider what you can do to become more sustainable, the first thing to do is work out where you are now and where you want to be. Don’t listen to the fog that is generated by a lot of the media about agriculture being part of the problem – we have a great opportunity to be part of the solution.