THE Environment Secretary Steve Barclay has used his first major speech to set out his commitment to backing British farmers and being on the side of rural businesses.
In his keynote speech at the Country Land and Business Association conference in London on November 30, the Environment Secretary set out his vision for an innovative and productive agriculture sector, supporting the sector to continue to develop into a more sustainable and profitable industry.
Almost £45 million in competitions and grants are set to open in the coming weeks as part of the Government’s £168 million investment this year to support farmers to foster innovation, boost productivity and improve animal welfare.
This includes an initial £30 million on offer in the second round of the Improving Farming Productivity Grant, providing capital grants of £25,000 - £500,000 towards robotic and automatic equipment, with further funding potentially available depending on levels of interest.
For the first time, it will also fund grants of between £15,000 and £100,000 towards solar equipment which can be fitted on rooftops and float on irrigation reservoirs, helping increase energy resilience and take-up of renewable energy generation on farms.
Almost £8 million will also be available in the third round of the Large R and D Partnership, a competition specifically designed to boost industrial research and experimental development projects, and a further £850,000 through the Research Starter Round 4 competition to identify and accelerate new agricultural solutions, funding growers or foresters who have bold, ambitious, early-stage ideas.
By enabling some of the UK’s most promising innovation and research initiatives to get off the ground, this funding will not only see our farmers become more efficient and productive, but will also equip them with the knowledge and tools to maintain our high degree of food security.
Speaking at the Country Land and Business Association Rural Business Conference in London, Mr Barclay said: "My pledge to you is that this government will always back British farmers who produce some of the highest quality food in the world, contribute billions to our economy, and to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for taking care of our countryside."
In addition, the Environment Secretary also launched the third round of the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF).
With individual grants of up to £100,000 on offer from a total £5 million, this round has been designed specifically to support farmers to prepare nature projects that will help attract investment from the private sector.
This is a further step forward in meeting the Government’s target to stimulate at least £500 million of private sector investment into nature recovery in England each year by 2027 – rising to at least £1 billion each year by 2030.
Alongside these new competitions opening in the coming weeks, 2024 will see the extension of the Farming Innovation Programme grants to include the Accelerating Development of Practices and Technologies (ADOPT) fund, where businesses will be able to apply for a share of £44 million to test and trial new technology and techniques on farms.
The announcement builds on the success of previous competition and grant rounds, with winners already driving practical examples of innovation and automation across the sector.
Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, run in partnership with Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has committed more than £125 million in funding to-date and supported 150 projects involving 400 organisations.
This includes Bradley Farms in partnership with Harper Adam’s University who are combining advanced robotics and intelligent software to create "The Fieldsman" – a robot that seeks to drive productivity by navigating autonomously through blueberry plantations to collect crucial data on crop production, growth, health and yields.
HL Hutchinson Limited, successful in the second round of the Large R and D partnerships, is developing new systems for measuring and assessing fruit tree status. This aims to transform the tree fruit industry and deliver new levels of environmentally sustainable crop production, increasing efficiency and yield while lowering cost and environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, through the Improving Farming Productivity Grant – part of the Farming Investment Fund - Woodcote Farming Ltd was able to purchase two "Farmdroid" robots to plant flowers and weed its fields, enabling its business to produce a higher yielding crop while reducing reliance on labour and pesticide usage.
Jim Bubb from Woodcote Farming Ltd said: "Being successful in the farm productivity grant took our business to the next level.
"Purchasing our Farmdroid robot with the help of the grant has revolutionised the way we grow crops.
"Weeding by-hand has been significantly reduced and we can look forward to a sustainable future, reducing requirements on labour, improving the environment and producing a better crop."
Round 2 of the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund also saw the Environmental Farmers’ Group (EFG) receive £100,000 in funding to establish the Green Avon Valley Project to help farmers understand natural capital assets. Launched in May 2022, the EFG completed its first trade in March 2023 and now comprises 257 farmers and covers 140,000 hectares.
The NEIRF grants can be used to help farmers blend public and private investment, complementing the Government’s environmental land management schemes which are designed to be compatible with the growing market for environmental outcomes, where scheme participants can earn income from public and private sector sources for things such as carbon sequestration or payments for natural flood management.
The Government’s funding in innovation and technology forms part of the £2.4 billion being invested to support the sector every year to the end of this Parliament. It sits alongside the Government’s new farming schemes – Countryside Stewardship, Landscape Recovery and the Sustainable Farming Incentive - to produce food sustainably while championing the environment.