Christine Hill RNAA
Christine Hill chairman of the National Farmers' Union in Norfolk
Acting locally, thinking globally
Christine Hill comes from a long line of farmers and has a lifetime of experience in agriculture. Now, as chairman of the National Farmers’ Union in Norfolk, she’s campaigning for the future of her industry.
The future of farming in Norfolk is all about achieving the right balance, according to the county’s first female chairman of the National Farmers’ Union.The challenge facing us is not an easy one, in Christine Hill’s opinion – to maintain our countryside and our wildlife while addressing the need to increase food production and limit global warming. “Where is our energy going to come from in the future? How will we make sure globally we have enough to eat? How can we increase crop yields but use fewer inputs and impact less on the environment?” All of these questions have to be considered by the farming community, she says, and, in Christine’s view, Norfolk as an agricultural county is well-placed to lead the way forward.We have some of the top research and teaching facilities in Norfolk, including the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research, the University of East Anglia, Easton College and The Arable Group (part of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany) which carries out practical farm research. “We have it all – from blue sky research through to testing new ideas on the farm – and we need the educational facilities to keep the industry up to date, not just for Norfolk but nationally and even further afield,” she says.“The whole scientific picture to drive our agriculture forward is here. There is great potential for all the institutions to work together more, to create a joined-up international centre for knowledge in agriculture and food production.”Christine explains: “Funding for practical agricultural research was withdrawn by government in the early 1990s and we have had too few new research graduates coming through.“Farming has had a difficult time in the past 15 years and, coupled with a shrinking research budget, young people haven’t seen agriculture as a particularly attractive career. Many of our top agricultural scientists are on the point of retiring.”Now, the picture is different, she says, with government recognising that agricultural research must play an important role in finding solutions to pressing problems, like climate change and global warming. “We need a new generation of scientists and practitioners with knowledge of soils, pests and diseases who can develop crops that are more efficient in use of water and fertilisers and can resist diseases. We need to develop plants that can efficiently provide fuel as well as food. “The demand is there now, and agricultural research and practical farming look much more attractive as careers,” says Christine, who farms with her husband David in Shipdham, near Thetford. For a long time now, farmers have been encouraged to work the land in an environmentally friendly way. Environmental Stewardship schemes have encouraged farmers to establish wildlife havens and create new habitats to promote successful breeding of threatened species, like the stone-curlew. This bird is now no longer on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ “red list”. A recently published government survey found that farmland bird numbers actually increased between 2007 and 2008.Now a new initiative has been agreed between government agencies, the farming community and environmental and wildlife groups. The Campaign for the Farmed Environment has been set up to encourage even more farmers to get involved.It is a voluntary campaign but with measured outcomes, which aims to extend and enhance the environmental benefits previously provided by set aside. It focuses on farmland birds, farm wildlife and protection of soil and water.Christine says she’ll be spending time in her second year of office as Norfolk NFU chairman talking to farmers about this campaign. “There were benefits to be gained from having land set aside,” she points out. “But there are lots of variations on people’s farms – land type, their farming practices and their local habitat provision, so not all set aside was well targeted or useful for wildlife.“The Campaign for the Farmed Environment encourages farmers to take stock of their own environmental management, to look at what they can do to improve biodiversity on their particular land and to come up with a scheme that suits the habitats that can positively be developed on their farm.”Christine pays tribute to Environment Secretary Hilary Benn who has backed this scheme rather than a compulsory blanket set aside scheme which was also under consideration. This campaign has more options and can be targeted so much better, she says, adding that England would otherwise have been the only country in Europe with compulsory set aside, saddling farmers with a strong competitive disadvantage.“It’s been great that the NFU, the Country Land and Business Association and the environmental groups like the RSPB and Natural England have joined forces to promote the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. Success depends on them all,” she says.“We already have 66pc of our arable land nationally in Environmental Stewardship schemes and the aim is to increase that to 70pc. There are also targets for voluntary options outside any set scheme for farmers to do.” As NFU chairman, Christine visits all her local Norfolk branches as often as she can, and attends both regional and national events as the county’s ambassador. She has really enjoyed her first year in the role and says there is a surprising number of areas with which the NFU is involved. “There were 235 different issues on the books the last time I went to a national council meeting,” she says. “The NFU does try very hard to support all sectors of the industry.”
The Royal Norfolk Show is the largest two-day agricultural show of its kind in the UK, playing a major role in promoting food, farming and the countryside.The show’s record attendance figure was in 2006 with 105,629 visitors over the two days. More than six million people visit agricultural and country shows in the UK each year, which is 10pc of the population.
• The NFU celebrated its 100th year in 2008 while the Norfolk NFU was 90 years old last year.
The Campaign for the Farmed Environment has three aims: To increase farmland birds, farm wildlife and protect resources of soil and water.It encourages farmers and land managers to be involved in an Environmental Stewardship Scheme and also to take up voluntary measures to protect habitats and resources on their farms.National targets must be reached for the area of land in environmental management schemes, for improvement in voluntary management of current and for additional uncropped areas on farms.The campaign covers England and Wales. It was launched in November 2009 and ends in June 2012.
The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association is best known for the annual, two-day Royal Norfolk Show, which will take place on June 30 and July 1, 2010, but the organisation does much more than this. It arranges and hosts events throughout the year, supports education in the field of food and farming, backs many local groups with charitable grants, and funds student scholarships. If you would like to find out more about the association and being a member, please contact Sarah de Chair on 01603 731961 or visit the website at www.royalnorfolkshow.co.uk
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