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Agriculture in Herefordshire & Shropshire: Successes, Challenges and the Future Landscape

Agriculture has been at the heart of western England's economy since as far back as the Iron Age (1 - see sources at the bottom of the page), when livestock were treasured possessions and large farms were required to feed the local population.

Fast forward thousands of years and agriculture remains a hugely important part of life and business in Herefordshire and Shropshire. According to the Office for National Statistics, agriculture contributes around 10% of the total value of Herefordshire's economy and 3.5% of the total value of Shropshire's economy - both higher than the 1% average across the rest of England.

A tractor ploughing a farm

In Herefordshire, a wide range of crops are cultivated, from rapeseed, potatoes and corn to onions, asparagus and strawberries. In terms of livestock, Hereford's famous breed of cattle is the cornerstone of the county's meat production (2).  

According to Shropshire Council, Defra's 2008 Survey of Agriculture (3) revealed 'other' types of farming made up 44% of holdings, with lowland cattle and sheep accounting for 17.8% and cereals accounting for 7.8%. 

While this provides an overview of farming activity in these two historic counties, it offers little context into the current state of play in the agricultural sector today and the future of the sector here.  

This is why we're delving a little deeper into the agricultural sector in Herefordshire and Shropshire as it stands today, learning more about its successes, challenges and future prospects.  

Recent success

Herefordshire 

A goat on a farm looking into the camera

The county's rich agricultural heritage means Herefordshire is today full of talented farmers who continually push boundaries and contribute significantly to the success of the industry.  

Goat farming is one specific area that has experienced an uplift in Herefordshire in recent times. Goat meat is actually the most widely eaten meat around the world, but is still only a growing market in the UK.  

However, the Hereford Times reports Golden Valley Goats is one local company going from strength to strength (4) as a result of the growing popularity of goat meat and cheese. In fact, Observer Food Monthly recently named goat and kid meat the biggest food trend for 2015. 

Having bought their first goats four years ago, owners Rob and Miriam now have 120 Anglo Nubian, Toggenburg and Saanen goats and sell to a range of different pubs, restaurants and cheesemakers in the area. 

Another Herefordshire success story has seen one local hop growing business find international success as a result of the soaring popularity of craft beer. The newspaper states that Stocks Farm - which has been growing hops for around 200 years - has been selling its HomeBrew Hops to buyers in Europe, the US and even South Korea. 

Stocks Farm has 200 years of experience growing hops, but the youngsters of the Herefordshire agricultural sector have also been grabbing the headlines of late. Indeed, 

17-year-old agricultural engineering student David Stoakes has attracted interest due to his work rebuilding agricultural machinery. He was just 11 when he bought and rewired his first Land Rover. 

But that's not all. Young horticultural expert Daniel Smith from S&A Produce, based in Marden, has recently been recognised for his work innovating irrigation practices (5), winning the Business Leader of Tomorrow award at the 2014 Knowledge Transfer Partnerships Awards in London. Working alongside the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, his innovations around 'fertigation' processes have led to great results on his fruit farm and experts believe they could help other agricultural workers in the future. 

Dr Robert Hancock, academic supervisor of the project at the James Hutton Institute, said:

"Given the size of the operation at S&A, Daniel's findings will have a significant impact in enhancing the sustainability of the UK strawberry growing industry."

Shropshire 

Young farmer growing vegetables in a greenhouse

In the face of difficult conditions there have been encouraging stories emerging from the agriculture sector in Shropshire too.  

Towards the end of 2014 it was revealed (6) that Harper Adams University, the Newport Regeneration Partnership and major players from the world of agriculture were working together to bring a new agri-tech and engineering excellence centre to Newport. 

This isn't the only positive impact Harper Adams University has had on the local industry in recent times. Dr Russell Readman, principal lecturer in the Crop and Environment Sciences department, recently told us that the institution has attracted 25% more students to its BSc and FdSc Agriculture & Routes courses over the past five years. 

What's more, Shropshire company Maincrop Potatoes recently moved into a 2,000-tonne storage capacity unit in the form of an old munitions store in Nesscliffe after having experienced continued growth. The firm supplies a range of manufacturers and food outlets around the country and managed to secure a six-figure lending agreement, enabling them to take ownership of the five-acre site (7)

In addition, over the past year the price of farmland in Shropshire has experienced a rise in value. According to the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the average price of an acre of agricultural land increased by 7.5% in the second half of 2014 (8), with experts expecting prices to remain high for the foreseeable future. 

Based close to the border of Wales and with a presence spanning both Shropshire and Herefordshire, agricultural firm Wynnstay Group recently announced its “encouraging” half-year results for 2015. The company reported a 4.9% increase in operating profit despite “a difficult trading backdrop” and a year-on-year dip in revenue. 

Ken Greetham, chief executive, commented:

"Trading conditions for farmers have been difficult for the last two years. However, the industry is cyclical and the macro economic factors around world demand remain compelling."Our recently completed business planning exercise highlights the growth opportunities available to the group and the board remains confident about Wynnstay's continued future growth, built on the existing solid foundations." 

Challenges 

The picture is not entirely positive, however, to which agriculture professionals across the country - not just in these two counties - will attest. 

Julian Aston, a farmer based in Shropshire, told us how the local agriculture sector has, more often than not, been dominated by uncertainty. 

"It's hard to predict where farming is going at the moment and it requires such big capital investment the risks can be high," he said. 

Dairy farmer pouring milk into a metallic milk jug

Nowhere are the risks more clear than in the troubled dairy market, which has dominated headlines in recent months. Falling demand and Russian trade restrictions, among other factors, have caused milk prices to plummet and dairy farms to go out of business in their droves. The NFU revealed at the end of 2014 that the number of dairy farms in England and Wales dropped below 10,000 for the first time - a 50% fall since 2001 (9)

One high-profile victim of the crisis is Mark Oliver, chairman of the NFU's South West Dairy Board. According to the Western Daily Press (10), Mr Oliver is putting his 370 Holstein Friesian cows and farmland up for sale, despite being a spokesman for beleaguered dairy farmers throughout the downturn.  

"I have been farming all my life, I drove my first tractor when I was seven and I have no firm idea what I am going to do next."

Mr Oliver's decision follows similar drastic action from Newport farmer Jim Franklin (11) and Neil and Jayne Madeley from Bridgnorth, who were forced to sell up and consider other ventures. Things have become so bad that Richard Yates, chairman of the Shropshire NFU, asserted that at this rate of decline, there will not be a dairy industry in ten years’ time (12).   

What does the future hold? 

What does the future landscape look like for the agriculture sector in our local regions? Well, it seems the substantial challenges facing farmers are not about to dissipate any time soon.  

Mr Aston commented: "The picture is not great at the moment. Dairy farmers in our area are almost extinct and with more people coming out of milk they look at other areas of farming and that in turn increases competition and prices go up." 

That being the case, how do the experts expect the farming industry in the area to adapt to ensure the list of successes start to outweigh the difficulties experienced? 

Irrigation system on a farm

According to Mr Aston, it will be through "continued diversification, tourism and renewables". "Many farmers will look at separate income streams that they can do alongside farming," he suggested.  

"Farming is in our blood and most farmers find it difficult to stop farming even if their business is not viable. Looking at alternatives that allow them to make money from their land and still be able to 'farm' is becoming a more attractive option to some. 

"I think there will be a move towards 'mixed' farms again, rather than just keeping beef or sheep or arable, so that farmers have different areas of their business to spread the risk. If one job is bad, another is usually good." 

While Mr Aston's words are hardly ringing with positivity, it is clear that even in the face of extremely challenging conditions, farming professionals in the local area are doing everything they can to make their businesses work. In extremely unfortunate cases like those of Mark Oliver, Jim Franklin, Jayne and Neil Madeley, and doubtless many others, this just isn't possible. 

However, there is enough to suggest that the agriculture sector can get back on track, particularly with the help of progressive, innovative young professionals who are pushing the industry forward. 

Dr Readman from Harper Adams University commented: "A degree in agriculture or related subject area offers a wide range of career opportunities both in production agriculture or in the ancillary industries associated with production agriculture and at all levels in the food chain from farm to fork.  

"Agriculture is a global business and skills are transferable. What's more, many graduates use their qualification to work overseas. Long term, the increasing global population means that we need to produce more food, but with less impact and with greater competition for primary resources. Agriculture will be at the forefront of addressing this challenge; this represents considerable opportunity for young people coming into the sector." 

Sources

1- http://htt.herefordshire.gov.uk/509.aspx

2- http://www.allaboutherefordshire.com/Farming.html

3- http://shropshire.gov.uk/media/530615/Agriculture-in-Shropshire-2006-2008.pdf

4- http://www.herefordtimes.com/news/features/farming/11836219.Goat_farming_market_growing_in_Herefordshire/

5- http://www.herefordtimes.com/news/features/farming/11600000.Fertigation_research_wins_national_award_for_Herefordshire_farmer/

6- http://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2014/10/10/a-step-forward-for-shropshire-engineering-excellence-centre/

7- http://www.shropshirestar.com/farming/2014/12/23/shropshire-potato-merchants-take-over-former-munitions-store-as-business-expands/

8- http://www.shropshirestar.com/farming/2015/02/05/shropshire-farmland-soars-in-value-but-end-to-rise-in-sight/

9- http://www.nfuonline.com/news/press-centre/nfu-northern-dairy-conference-update/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-30882208#

10- http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Dairy-farming-crisis-causes-leader-quit/story-26664976-detail/story.html

11- http://www.shropshirestar.com/farming/2014/10/16/milk-price-cuts-force-shropshire-farmer-to-quit-career-he-loved/

12- http://www.shropshirestar.com/news/2015/02/23/dairy-industry-may-vanish-in-decade-warns-shropshire-farming-leader/