Neil Heseltine, a hill farmer from Malham in the North Yorkshire National Park

North Yorkshire Rural Commission kicks off with voices from the community. 

A Dales hill farmer, the first person to give evidence to North Yorkshire’s Rural Commission, says the county’s most rural farming communities will need to ‘shift’ their ‘mindset’ and be brave in the face of significant challenges if they are to survive and thrive in the future, FERN has learned.

Neil Heseltine, a hill farmer from Malham in the North Yorkshire National Park, told commissioners: “We must shift our emphasis to reflect the benefits from the change that is necessary for farming to play its role in the county’s economy in the future.

“For example, the part agriculture can play in delivering a carbon-neutral economy needs to be front and centre. We can reduce our emissions, and we can make adjustments to capture carbon while supporting biodiversity – as long as we are prepared to shift our mindset and take responsibility.

“Since the Second World War food production has risen by nearly 50 per cent, but profits have reduced. The financial pressures and hours farmers work take a toll on family life and their mental health. Traditional farming is simply not profitable so we need new business models and to take a new approach.”

Environmental Challenges

Hearing evidence on Farming, Food and the Environment yesterday (December 18th) the independent Rural Commission, supported by North Yorkshire County Council, listened to calls for farming to become part of the national curriculum. They were told there needs to be a far greater emphasis put on education so the public understands where their food comes from and how it’s produced alongside a greater knowledge of the science of farming.

Rural Commissioner, Dr Debbie Trebilco, said: “The importance of North Yorkshire’s natural assets including its landscapes, culture and heritage have been the subject of much debate including whether we should lobby to protect our natural assets as we do other national treasures – such as paintings and buildings.

“How can it be right that we produce 65 per cent of the food the nation needs but many farmers don’t make a profit?”

Chair of the Rural Commission, The Very Rev John Dobson DL, Dean of Ripon, said: “There’s a huge question about how to make the industry self-supporting and profitable and how best to capitalise on the power and value of ‘brand North Yorkshire’ in marketing agricultural products locally, nationally and internationally.

“We have heard about the potential for big opportunities around food tourism and innovations in technology that help farmers get the best from their land, crops and herds to maximise profitability while protecting and enhancing the environment. We have heard about what balanced rewilding projects may be able to achieve as well as the importance of business support and investment in education and training.”

There was evidence from individual farmers as well as big organisations including the NFU and Country Landowner’s Association, Local Enterprise Partnership, the Esk Valley Camphill Community, HSBC and the Tenant Farmers Association.

Also giving evidence was Dr Carmen Hubbard, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University and an expert in rural economics. She said: “Each individual farmer needs to be looking hard at how they can adapt their business model so they can make the most of their assets. We need much greater integration of farms into the supply chain and farmers need to think in detail about how they can do this.

“It’s all about building on a rural image around the quality of life and the value of health and wellbeing that North Yorkshire can offer beyond food and farming and being smart about how we market that.”

The Rural Commission – the first of its kind – is tasked with hearing evidence on a broad range of the challenges faced by the county’s most rural communities to update the evidence base and establish a number of recommendations for the council and its partners to consider next summer.

Further information on the commission’s updates can be found on the North Yorkshire County Council website.