Paul Harper from The Farmer Network introduced the session and defined the work of “holistic farmer networks” from the research into farmer networks entitled, “Putting the Spotlight on Farming Communities” by Rose Regeneration in 2013. He identified the key challenges facing upland farm businesses and this was followed by presentations from Sandra Dodd (Dartmoor Hill Farm Project), Katherine Williams (Exmoor Hill Farming Network) and himself (Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales Farmer Networks)
All three speakers emphasised that the work they did was directed/driven from the farmers and there were many similarities in the type of activity they are undertaking. All three speakers said they place a lot of emphasis on events that help to keep people informed and up to date, with members working together. Activities included study trips, technical events with specialist speakers on topics asked for by members, farm trials and testing to improve animal health/grassland management etc. Other aspects included information on grants and regulations, projects for groups to take advantage of opportunities e.g. marketing, separate events for women in farming and young people.
The main difference between the networks was both Exmoor and Dartmoor relied on external funding to cover the core costs, whereas The Farmer Network (Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales) is charging members an annual fee, which together with income from sponsors, project management and consultancy, means it covers its overheads. This meant that extra services that give a quick and direct benefit are provided by The Farmer Network compared with others (fuel buying scheme, £200 training vouchers for young people etc.).
All networks emphasised the value to members of being farmer-led, how they were trusted by the community and as a result, reached many farmers that most other top-down public funded schemes did not. The service being provided by networks is wanted by members, is helping improve collaboration and also improve some of the core business skills needed (be open to change, more confident to find solutions to problems etc.) to enable their businesses to become more sustainable.
The sessions discussed how the Upland Alliance could help in future. It was agreed the needs were:
- for these “holistic” farmer networks to meet occasionally to learn from each other
- to better communicate to people deciding on funding priorities the work and value of networks as a way of increasing collaboration, business and technical skills to many farmers who do not engage with projects designed and delivered centrally and in a top-down manner
- to be a communication link from members to policy makers
- to support networks to help them become self-financing