Diversification and Dinosaurs – the Farm Business Innovation Show 2017

Tuesday, 21 November, 2017

The beginning of November saw our Campaigns and Policy Officer, Tom Kuehnel, attend the Farm Business Innovation Show at Birmingham’s NEC, to learn about ways farmers can diversify their business, and crucially, to find out the what options are available for animal farmers looking to make a living that is better for them, the animals, and the planet.

The show takes place every year and exhibits a wide-array of stalls and talks, there to inform farmers and land owners about what else they can do with their land. I’ll admit that I was expecting to turn up to see a hall full of stands marketing the benefits of growing crop X, or using tractor Y, as you would expect at any other farming show. However, this was no ordinary farming show, and my preconception soon vanished upon arrival when I was greeted by a 10ft dinosaur. Apparently its job, apart from providing a photo opportunity for the tweed-laden attendees, was to promote a stall selling life-sized models of pirates, dinosaurs, and celebrities. Why would this be of interest to a farmer? Your guess is as good as mine. 

The rest of the show continued in a similar vein, and featured a weird and wonderful selection of exhibitors, ranging from wigwam holiday pods to watercress growers. But if the show provides any indicator of what farms of the future will look like, then expect no shortage of glamping sites and wedding venues. Non-agricultural activities were certainly the stars of the show, evidenced by only a handful of stands waving the flag for agriculture out of 500 or so exhibitors. 

Even with the inevitable increase in farmers moving away from agriculture over the coming decades, and the so-called ‘generational time-bomb’ – a real worry for the farming sector, we can still feed the UK population if the remaining farmers move towards growing crops for human consumption. After all, vegan farming uses the least amount of land of all farming systems, so we wouldn’t need to use all our land for agricultural purposes anyway. 

Our Grow Green campaign focusses on plant protein as one possible solution to tackling climate change and environmental degradation. However, if a farmer wants to fill their farmland with life-sized models of dinosaurs in a bid to attract tourists to the area – then we should welcome that move with gusto. At least the farmers embracing these alternative means of income will be positively contributing to their local, rural communities not to the detriment of the environment and animals. 

Over the two days at the show, I managed to catch talks by some truly innovative farmers. One farmer told us how he been successful in growing wasabi in Hampshire, so successful was his business that he now exports his product to Japan, the home of wasabi. Another farmer discussed his journey to growing quinoa, typically grown in South America, which he now sells to all major supermarkets. It seems like we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible to grow in the UK. And with interesting and novel uses for crops being developed all the time, like pea crisps, and hemp building insulation, it’s difficult not to be excited about these miracle crops.

Diversification is championed by Defra as a way for farmers to reduce risk for their business. Obviously there is a danger that diversification can strengthen animal farming’s position, providing animal farmers security, especially during the hard times. However, the alternatives, both agricultural and non-agricultural, will become ever more attractive as the tide turns against animal farming, and the market for animal ‘products’ diminishes.   

There are a growing number of farmers who are moving away from animal farming and towards growing crops for human consumption, many will remember farmer Jay who we are working with to transform his farm for example. Even the latest issue of Farming Monthly, a leading farming industry magazine, features on its front page a Pembrokeshire farmer who has moved away from animal farming and now grows pumpkins, strawberries, and flowers. 

Motivations for transitioning are varied, for instance Jay was motivated by environmental and ethical concerns, whereas most farmers will be motivated by financial concerns. Whatever their reason, farmers looking into alternative, ethical, and environmentally-friendly means of making a living should be actively encouraged. We need to promote these alternatives to animal farming at every turn. Merely decrying animal farming will only get us so far, we must set-out a viable, ethical alternative if we are ever to make progress towards the vegan world we all want to see.

by Tom Kuehnel

Campaigns and Policy Officer

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