Suddenly the future of agriculture in Europe is centre stage, many will say not before time.

The widespread farmer protests in Europe and the acknowledgement by the president of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen that farmers’ concerns have to be listened to, coupled with the welcome departure of Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans from Brussels.

He was the chief proponent of the most illogical aspects of the so-called Green Deal have all created a new atmosphere of reality.

Suddenly there is official regret that the Green Deal and the sustainable use proposals for pesticides were launched and attempted to be implemented with no real impact assessment, and it is clear that there is now a reappraisal of the proposed measures and a push back against them.

There is also a realisation that the targets for the proportion of food to be organic by 2030 are wildly unrealistic.

These areas were well presented by the UK National Farmers Union’s representative from its Brussels office, Jenny Brunton, at an excellent Ulster Arable Society’s conference held last week at Greenmount agricultural college.

However, as well as a policy overview, there was an extraordinary contribution from a UK farmer Ed Horton, based in Gloucestershire.

Farming commercially on a large scale, he faced farming at a loss as he and the family contemplated a future with no single farm payment from London to replace the Brussels direct payments as Brexit took effect.

While mainly arable, a section of his land has a narrow layer of light vulnerable topsoil, which can easily lose organic matter.

Key initiatives

He has developed a number of key initiatives. The first was a resurrection of the old practise of grazing well advanced winter crops with sheep in the spring.

I used to hear crops being referred to as ‘too proud’ coming out of the winter, but he was clear that grazing down the crops encouraged tillering in winter wheat and winter barley, and helped to control both rust and Septoria.

He direct drilled his winter wheat into a simple cheap cover crop. The second innovation was the use of a camera-steered inter-row hoe to cut down on herbicide use.

Again, I had seen these used in soya crops in the US, but never in cereals in these islands. The inter-row width was from 17cm to 25cm.

The final innovation he spoke of, which is becoming more widespread, was the use of umbilical spreading of pig slurry onto the growing crops in the spring.

It’s worth mentioning that some of these developments would not have been possible without significant capital grants from the UK government.

We may need to examine the scope of our TAMS grants.