The Farming Social Hub - a voice for the farming community

Learning on the job: the Tom Clarke interview

Learning on the job

Tom Clarke farms on the productive soils of the Fens, just outside Ely, Cambridgeshire. He is a fourth generation farmer but spent the first part of his working life first in local government and then working for a management consultancy. He returned to the family farm 12 years ago and has been learning the ropes and refining his own approach to farming ever since.

As Tom says, much of his approach to farming involves working with, rather than against nature. In 12 years, this approach has brought back a wide variety of wildlife to an area that had been depleted by farming methods intent on producing as high yielding crops as possible from the land. Now, on his farm he has water voles, egret, grey partridges, otters and heaps of other flora and fauna. He says he is an ‘accidental farmer’, but is clearly a very intentional custodian of the land.

Tom also writes for the Farmers’ Guardian and is a prolific and balanced voice on social media. He can be found tweeting @Tom_Clarke. For his website, click here.

  1. Food production versus the environment – is a balanced approach possible under Defra’s planned strategies?

Tom Clarke: “It has to be. The way we have been farming since the end of the war has got us out of a hole as the population increased massively. But now, we can see it is not a sustainable way of operating. We have to work with nature. We  farm on top of nature with the environment as our foundation. You need varieties of plants, insects etc, you need predators and you need control over pests – that all comes from nature. We are also realising the importance of healthy soil. So we need a thriving environment from which to farm. But 70 per cent of the land in the UK is farmed, so you need farming to be efficient. We have 15 per cent of our farm down to environmental schemes but we couldn’t afford to do that if the rest of the farm wasn’t profitable. 

2. How problematic do you feel will be the transition from BPS into a system with no payments as such but instead a number of schemes?

Tom Clarke: “There is a risk that some farmers may say ‘We are not getting BPS, so we need to go more productive and uber intensive and have no concern for the environment because that is a model that would work without subsidies’. Or, there may be cases where really good, productive land is put into environmental stewardship and we are not self sufficient in food enough as a country to be able to do that.

There is a risk that farming will be polarised into food and nature but I think there is a middle way where we can do both.

There is a tendency among the urban/middle class folk who like organic food, to want ‘park’ [instead of farms]. At farm shops and delicatessens you can get lamb where you can trace the family tree back to the great grandmother. That is all very bucolic and ideal but the bulk of people are eating food that has been imported from Brazil where they are slashing rain forests and so we are just exporting our environmental footprint. We need productive agriculture not subsidised farming.

3. How do we attract talent into farming – are the changes likely to signal an exit from many older farmers and an influx of new talent, or will we suffer a knowledge gap?

Tom Clarke: At the moment farming is dominated by the pale, male, stale farmers who are doing the way it has always been done. That is a problem. A lot of young people are chomping to have a go. But it is so hard for anyone not brought up in farming to get into farming, the barriers are enormous. There’s more chance of an ethnic minority girl from the middle of Birmingham becoming a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist than her becoming a farmer. We can’t afford to exclude good people, with good ideas, energy and enthusiasm. We need to make it more open and accessible.

4. Is an expansion into Asia markets a realistic, credible and acceptable development?

Tom Clarke: “In this country, apart from whisky, salmon and, to an extent barley, we haven’t really looked at or thought of exporting. That is partly because we don’t grow all we need here. We don’t have a mentality of exporting. In fact, Minette Batter says we have been ‘lazy exporters’.

We have a big domestic market and there is something to that. 

But, we must be open to possibilities but having said that there is the ‘gravity theory of trade’, which says you are more likely to trade with those closer to you, and that is logical. I think we need to make sure that we secure trade with those closest. 

5. How valuable is the Red Tractor scheme?

Tom Clarke: I have conflicting views. You get Red Tractor assurance for your milling wheat. You keep your records, you get inspected, you have training records for your staff. You have all these things to make sure you are producing wheat for bread to a certain standard. Then you load up and you keep a sample and you keep a passport to help with tracking. Then, at the mill, your wheat gets tipped up onto a load of wheat from Canada that has not had any of those checks. You don’t get paid any more money and there is no premium for checking that wheat at every stage of its production. That is unfair.

But on fresh produce, meat and eggs, I think Red Tractor is very valuable. 

The value comes from consumers’ trust. Red Tractor is trusted by the consumer and that is important to farmers. For example, a lot of people scrimp and save to get their food every week and the overall price of food is important but it is those people who cannot afford higher end food who are most in favour of Red Tractor because they can ensure the safety of their food without paying high end prices.

Listen to the complete podcast by downloading Episode 23 (aired on 7 March) of the Farming Social Hub from the KL1 Radio website.