U.K. Update: November 2016
A turning point for drainage?
By Rob Burtonshaw
Britain’s looming exit from the European Union may create opportunities to elevate drainage’s profile in the country’s agricultural policies.
I feel like the little boy who cried wolf. In my last column I predicted a reduced workload and belt tightening, but as it happens, we have had just as busy a year as last year. Lesson learnt; from now on you will hear no predictions from me.
Obviously on this occasion I’m very happy to be proven wrong. My error was due to being fortunate enough to win a couple of large jobs and the demand for drainage being far more robust than I expected. Despite low wheat prices and average rainfall, growers are still investing in drainage. This is excellent news. Here in the U.K. many farmers are taking soils seriously. For many years this has not been the case, but right now soils are in fashion. The pages of the farming press are full of articles about soil health, cover crops and no-till. With the exception of a sentence or two explaining how important it is, drainage still tends to be overlooked, but this is still an improvement. The more thought and value a farmer places in the soil, the more likely he or she is to think about installing drainage. I’m sure this is feeding the growth in our business and it is most welcome, especially as changes are afoot.
Following the referendum result on June 23, Britain will at some point leave the European Union. What this means is still unknown and, bearing in mind my earlier comments, I will refrain from even the slightest suggestion of a prediction. The change may be minimal or it may be the biggest change in British agriculture since the end of the Second World War. In addition, whilst we know this event will happen, we have absolutely no idea when it will happen. I’ll be honest: I voted to remain and some of the reasons for my vote were work-related. I think British agriculture had a good (although sometimes maddening) deal in place. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) took up 40 percent of the EU’s budget and, for all its faults, paid what many could describe as generous subsidies to European farmers. Sectors like drainage, which offer long-term investments, prosper in stable and predictable economic conditions – something the CAP tried and sometimes succeeded in providing. Time will tell if the vote to leave will turn out to be a good decision, but what we have now is an opportunity to influence policy and regulation.
It will be difficult to make our industry’s voice heard. We are a small part of the agricultural sector, which in turn is a small part of the British economy. I’m not entirely sure how we can do it (and maybe we can’t), but the recent interest in soils will, perhaps, offer not just an increase in workload but also an opportunity to leverage that interest into influence on regulation. There is a viewpoint that soils and good soil health are vital not just for successful farming but for the environment. Soil has the potential to act as a store for carbon dioxide. This might be a very useful characteristic. If wet soils prevent or hinder reduced tillage practices, it might provide a successful argument to promote drainage and a favorable regulatory framework. I do not know what will happen, but as always, my answer will be to work hard, put pipe in the ground as efficiently as possible and promote drainage as much as I can. We seem to be living in some interesting times.