The Farming Social Hub - a voice for the farming community

Meet Defra’s Janet Hughes

In Episode 20 of the Farming Social Hub, Defra’s Janet Hughes discusses how the government department is looking to work with the farming community to deliver the biggest changes in a agriculture for 40 plus years. Here, we outline just some of the wide-ranging issues discussed by Janet as she talked openly about the challenges that lie ahead.

Janet Hughes joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2019, working on the DEFRA EU Exit portfolio ahead of a potential no-deal Brexit. Following that role, she spent two months working as Delivery Director for DEFRA’s Food for Vulnerable People initiative.

In June 2020, she took on the challenging role of Programme Director, Future Farming and Countryside Programme. In essence, she and her team are leading the agriculture into one of the biggest periods of change in 40 plus years.

Among the challenges that Janet will be facing are: supporting farmers as they transition out of the Basic Payments Scheme; implementing the Countryside Stewardship Scheme; designing and introducing the Lump Exit Scheme; designing and building the Environmental Land Management policy, including the Sustainable Farming Incentive; and working to improve existing schemes such as the Rural Payment Agency.

Getting it right first time

Currently, much of Janet’s work is about assessing, discussing and co-designing. The Agricultural Bill, which became law late last year, heralds a seismic shift in the way agriculture operates in the UK and Janet is not about to rush into policy-making.

She says: “We want to get things right. Take for example, the Sustainable Farming Incentive. I will take it on the chin if we get criticism for not doing things quickly enough, my concern is more about getting it right.”

Janet’s career has been devoted to public service. She has had spells with the NHS and the Department for Education. She says her speciality is in making things work better for people. And that is what she intends to do for the agricultural sector.

Looking in on the agricultural sector, people could be forgiven for thinking that there is a big divide between environmentalists and those in the agricultural sector. This is something that Janet has quickly learnt is far from the case.

“There is a lot of progressive, forward-thinking in agriculture that isn’t always visible to those outside the sector. Certainly, there is a lot of common ground between environmentalists and agriculture and the response to the policy direction suggests that there is a consensus that this is the right thing to do.”

barley field

From BPS to new schemes

The changes to agricultural policy, which have been causing farmers so much angst and worry include a range of measures to make farming more sustainable. Among the key changes are the reduction in the Direct Payments, starting this year. Money released from the Basic Payments Scheme will be used to fund new grants and schemes, with the focus on boosting farmers’ productivity and rewarding environmental improvements.

One question asked by many farmers is how to balance environmental concerns with the pressure of productivity. Hughes is adamant that one feeds off the other. By using organic fertilisers, by taking poor quality soil out of agricultural use and putting it in an environmental scheme, farmers will reduce their costs and become more efficient.

The headline policy under the new Agricultural Bill is the Environmental Land Management scheme. This will consist of three components and farmers and land managers will be able to assess which component is best-suited to their land.

Sustainable Farming Incentive, supporting approaches to farm husbandry that deliver for the environment, such as actions to improve soil health, hedgerows and integrated pest management.

Local Nature Recovery, farmers and landowners will receive payments for actions such as creating, managing or restoring habitats, natural flood management and species management.

Landscape Recovery, this focuses on landscape and ecosystem recovery through projects looking to achieve large-scale forest and woodland creation, peatland restoration, or the creation and restoration of coastal habitats, such as wetlands and salt marsh.

The Farming social Hub- top image

In addition, the Farming Investment scheme is aimed at improving productivity in agriculture, addressing the underlying causes by supporting businesses to invest in equipment, technology, and infrastructure. This will be structured in two levels:

Farming Equipment Technology Fund, which will offer small grants to contribute towards the purchase of a list of specified items.

Farming Transformation Fund, which will provide larger grants towards the cost of more substantial investments in equipment, technology or infrastructure, with the potential to transform business performance.

There are many more facets to the Ag Bill, including animal welfare; skills, training and development of the workforce; and the exit strategy for those wishing to leave the profession.

Collaboration is key

These are enormous challenges but Hughes says with the team she has, she feels well equipped to meet that challenge. However, Hughes and Defra will not be working in a silo. Co-design and collaboration is at the heart of the government department’s approach.

“I talk to famers all the time and I invite anyone with a view or an opinion or an idea to contact me. I want to be open, transparent and accessible because we want to make sure that the farming policies work for everyone.

“There are farmers I have met who want to do agri-schemes but to this point they haven’t trusted us [Defra] with the schemes we run right now. I will know I can chalk that up as a win if they are convinced by the scheme.

“I want to see people excited and willing to get involved. At the moment people are engaged in the discussions and looking forwards, I want more people, from all sectors of this diverse community, to help us get things right.”