Using intermediaries to bridge the gap between government and farmers

By Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield

There is a crucial role for skilled intermediaries to play in supporting farmers throughout the post-Brexit agricultural transition, as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on farmer engagement.

This is a period of significant uncertainty for farmers. Even before the pandemic, the period between 2021 and 2028 represented significant uncertainty and change for farmers within England, due to policy changes and post-Brexit trade deals. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently moving towards piloting and rolling out environmental land management schemes (ELM), starting with the Sustainable Farming Incentive and followed by Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. Recognising the importance of utilising farmers’ experiential knowledge in policy development, Defra has committed to engaging farmers and other land managers in the ‘co-design’ of the new schemes.

For the successful delivery of ELM, it is vital that farmers who have traditionally been Harder To Reach (HTR), or ‘easy to omit’, for Defra and the wider Defra group are included in the co-design and piloting of the new schemes. This will ensure that the policy fits with farmers’ needs.

When we spoke to individuals and organisations working with farmers we found that the pandemic had increased social isolation due to the closure of places where farmers normally socialise, and created uncertainty in planning ahead, exacerbating farmers’ mental health and wellbeing problems.

Our research findings have highlighted the diversity of business factors and emotional states that make some farmers HTR for Defra, as well as the challenging policy context within which engagement with HTR farmers takes place. The findings also emphasise the important role of locally- embedded skilled intermediaries in helping Defra engage HTR farmers throughout the co-design and delivery of ELM.

Locally-embedded skilled intermediaries offer an incredible resource that can be utilised by Defra to engage HTR farmers. These actors are able to use their pre-existing relationships with farmers to provide a range of support to assist farmers through this agricultural transition. By utilising their experience and knowledge of the farming sector, they can facilitate knowledge exchange in multiple directions, supporting HTR farmers while also feeding back into Defra on specific challenges facing farmers on the ground.

If Defra is able to utilise this locally-embedded resource effectively, it will be possible to overcome some of the barriers associated with distrust, thereby helping HTR farmers become ‘easier to reach’.

Successful implementation will require effective communication and engagement strategies – for Defra to engage with both skilled intermediaries and HTR farmers. However it is also important to recognise not all farmers will be able to adapt, prepare and plan for future changes at the same rate as others. HTR farmers in particular may be more vulnerable to changes, while also having less capacity to prepare and adapt. One of the biggest concerns raised during our research by interview respondents was the lack of clarity and detail about the ELM schemes, which they said is preventing farmers from being able to plan and adapt for the future.

Unless Defra itself becomes easier to reach, any progress made may not be sustainable over the long term. Defra should, therefore, work to overcome the widespread distrust and suspicion of government bodies within farming communities.

Our research has clear policy implications, providing a framework with which Defra policy teams can think through engagement with HTR stakeholders. Whilst previous research, as well as Defra itself, has recognised the importance of using trusted individuals when engaging with farmers, this research has gone further, by bringing practical and implementable findings on skilled intermediaries to the forefront. Our work has identified who these trusted individuals are, as well as the benefits they can bring to engagement with HTR farmers. It has also put Defra’s engagement with HTR farmers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a challenging but important lens through which Defra should plan future co-design activities

Defra needs to take all this into account when designing the implementation of the ELM scheme. They need to mobilise a network of intermediaries that understand the individual needs and circumstances of farmers and land managers at this challenging time, and can facilitate the involvement of these groups in the co-design of pilot implementation schemes. Without this, we believe Defra will see a low uptake of the ELM scheme resulting in a reduction in the delivery of environmental goods and climate change targets not being met.

This blog post has been produced from extracts taken from a White Paper (Engaging ‘harder to reach’ farmers: the roles and needs of skilled intermediaries), produced by Dr Ruth Little in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Sheffield and the University of Reading.

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