The Welsh Government is currently developing agricultural policy proposals which aim to support farmers in adopting sustainable farming practices. Their intentions for primary legislation can be found in the Agriculture (Wales) White Paper, for which consultations closed in March 2021.
Their intention is for the Bill to ‘be informed by the best available evidence’ from a wide range of stakeholders, aligning this decision-making process with the public right to participate in environmental decision-making set out in the 1998 Aarhus Convention.
Our recent research project aimed to explore how a participatory approach to designing sustainable land management practices could support farmers for post-Brexit sectoral changes. Understanding farmers’ experiences at this time of significant change in the agricultural sector is essential. In doing so, the Welsh Government can ensure policies offer an appropriate framework in which farmers are supported to make changes to their practices in pursuit of sustainable land and resource management.
The experiences of farmer-led groups, such as the Sustainable Management Scheme (SMS) funded Fferm Ifan group, offer rich insight into the design and implementation of collaborative, landscape-scale, sustainable farming practices. With the support of several partners, the group were successful in their application to the SMS and received £696,352 to work towards several collective goals through experimenting with locally appropriate solutions, such as planting hedges and trees on individual members’ holdings. Their collaborative work to improve the sustainability of natural resources on their land has seen cattle grazing on the Migneint, a large moorland in central Snowdonia, for the first time in living memory.
Fferm Ifan’s successes are the result of a combination of scientific and experiential expertise and high levels of social cohesion. Their relationships with their partners were key throughout the SMS process, allowing them to develop a strong application grounded in scientific data and providing continued monitoring and evaluation to capture environmental changes. These attributes also offered the group considerable collective power in the decision-making process and ensured the environmental solutions provided were satisfactory for all involved. You can find out more about their work on their Twitter account.
Though Fferm Ifan’s experience has been largely positive, there are several key lessons which can be learnt as the Welsh Government develop the Agriculture (Wales) Bill and associated policy. The consultation process should be appropriately advertised and made accessible to all. This will involve ensuring farmers and land managers are notified of opportunities to get involved in workshops in a language of their choosing in a timely manner. Sufficient time should be allocated to the consultation process to allow trusting relationships to be built. Some groups may need more time than others to feel comfortable contributing.
Monitoring and evaluating policy and practice is essential to improve future policy design and implementation. Our understanding of what works for the environment has changed considerably over the last decade alone. It will be important to critically reflect upon the successes and failures of previous agri-environment schemes, such as Tir Cynnal, Tir Gofal and Glastir.
Stakeholders, including farmers and other landowners, should be offered the opportunity to present their opinions on how best to approach complex environmental issues, again, using a combination of scientific and experiential expertise. There should be improved signposting to Farming Connect’s network of facilitators, as there will be cases where it may be appropriate for a group of farmers to address issues at a landscape-scale, such as the work exemplified by Fferm Ifan. This existing service can be used more effectively to encourage neighbouring farmers to explore the possibility of working together to address issues at a scale larger than that of their individual farm. Facilitation will be essential in ensuring any collaborative working is successful.
As the effects of both leaving the European Union and the Coronavirus pandemic become clearer, there will be opportunities to align the needs of agricultural communities with rural communities more generally. As a new agricultural policy is developed, the Welsh Government have an opportunity to align it with the key policy asks outlined in the Welsh Local Government Association’s Rural Forum Rural Wales Vision.
There is emphasis in the Agriculture (Wales) White Paper on what farming can deliver for the environment, but this overlooks farmers’ roles as producers. Food production is a key element of many farming livelihoods and its support should be given more careful consideration in policy. The contributions farmers make to community cohesion should also be recognised. For example, farmers play an essential role in the maintenance of the Welsh language: those employed in the agricultural sector are more likely than those in any other sector to speak Welsh, with 53% of upland farmers speaking Welsh as their first language.
If these important issues are appropriately addressed, Welsh farming policy can meaningfully support farmers to contribute towards several goals identified in the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.