What gives the best of British farmers the edge?

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British farmers are no longer competitive world leaders in agricultural performance suggests the latest research from the Oxford Farming Conference. However, the report points out that our best farmers are world-class in terms of their productivity, profitability and attention to detail.

The research was conducted for the OFC by The Andersons Centre to explore how well UK farmers compare with their global counterparts farming in other parts of the world - what they do well, what holds them back and where there are opportunities for improvement.

Burges Salmon, HSBC and Syngenta have sponsored the 2015 OFC research, demonstrating the importance of the topic to companies supplying the country's farmers, as well as to farmers themselves.

"Our report wholeheartedly acknowledges that Britain has some world-class farmers, but that, as a whole, our farming industry is lagging behind other countries and must make bold strides to becoming more globally competitive," explains Richard Whitlock, Chairman of the 2015 Oxford Farming Conference. "The research repeatedly highlighted that what separates the best from the rest is an individual's receptiveness to risk, their ability to save cost whilst raising output and an underlying zeal for building their businesses."

"Britain has its fair share of very successful farming entrepreneurs, with a considerable number of them establishing their enterprises from modest beginnings, or from scratch," he adds. "If the sector is to improve its global competitiveness, there are some fundamental 'must haves' that we must collectively address, such as lowering the barriers to land occupation, increasing the number of joint ventures and giving young farmers - who are often more eager to build their businesses - their chance to farm."

The report's author, Graham Redman from The Anderson Centre, sees underperformance being linked to direct subsidies stifling competitiveness, R&D which fails to focus on near-market needs and lackluster business appetites.

His recommendations for improved Britain's farming competiveness are:
• To raise agricultural productivity, the decline in public research expenditure on agriculture needs to be halted and research investments increase.
• A greater proportion of research funds should be spent on near-market research to best put the findings to commercial use. This should also attract more private funds for research too.
• Benefits from improved exchange of knowledge will be twofold, benefiting the research community whilst also helping to get information to those who can use it. It will help top performers move the productive frontier forward and those following to catch up.
• Focus should be centred on the top and middle sectors of farmer operators. Those that do not seek information will always be very difficult to influence.
• Opportunities for restructuring UK agriculture through facilitated young farmer access should be improved. Younger farmers are often more strategic and visionary operators than their elders. They are also more frequently prepared to use loan, venture or external shareholder capital to expand the business.
• Farmers as with all businesspeople should help themselves by seeking greater (non-agricultural) business acumen.

The research report was distributed to delegates on 8 January 2015 at the Oxford Farming Conference, and can be downloaded here.