Speaking to you this evening, I must say, I am greatly encouraged and indeed grateful that you all believe, I think as I do, that a living, working and sustainable rural economy depends on a thriving farming sector and strong communities. And at the heart of those communities we almost always find the smaller family farm, which a lot of people forget about. We all know from experience what an essential contribution they make, not just on the farm itself but also in all the other activities that make up a flourishing, viable community. Yet it is these small farm businesses that are most vulnerable to all the difficulties being faced by the whole sector.
In recent research commissioned by my Countryside Fund, Professor Michael Winter (who is here this evening) and his team at the University of Exeter explored if there was, indeed, a future for the small family farm. I am delighted to say that the research highlighted at the end of the day the value of small family farms in both economic and environmental as well as social and cultural terms. It also showed how some families were achieving remarkable things through creativity, innovation and as we all know sheer hard work!
The research also pointed out that although change is inevitable, and difficult decisions might be needed in the coming months and years, these small farm businesses can continue to succeed if they have access to the right advice, information and support when they need it – services that tend to be sadly absent in today's world. Success, however, is rarely achieved alone. This, of course, is where you can all help, Ladies and Gentlemen, as I know many of you already do on a daily basis, and where the impact of my Countryside Fund in building support networks can be so readily seen.
Now I am extremely proud that through our grant programme, via such organizations such as Farm Cornwall C.I.C., the Dartmoor Hill Farming Project and Tir Dewi – who are also here this evening – we have been able to support all sorts of farmers in recent years. In addition, I would particularly like to thank all those organizations and their volunteers who worked so heroically to help farms to recover following the devastating floods this Winter. I cannot possibly mention everyone, but you know who you are, and so do I!
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, you don't really need me to tell you these really are anxious and challenging times. When my Dairy Initiative began some four years ago – and I can see many people here with us whose generous and important contributions made that possible – none of us could have foreseen that the personal support it offered to 300 farming families would still be so desperately needed, or that the need would extend right across the sector to include beef and sheep farmers in our highland and lowland areas.
Well, the small farms which have been such an integral part of Britain’s landscape for thousands of years are under threat. My Farm Resilience Programme, which we are launching today, is designed to respond to those threats by helping up to 300 hard-to-reach, vulnerable farm businesses. It is being offered, I'm glad to say, nationwide in 15 locations in the first year. Designed to build on recent experience and to run for five years, it is the most far-reaching programme ever offered by my Countryside Fund.
I just want to say a very quick word about the Steering Group which has guided this project. It is chaired by the remarkable Allan Wilkinson, who of course is the Head of Agriculture and Food for the HSBC bank - and it is a very caring bank indeed! And I am enormously grateful to him – and of course all the members of the Group – for all their ceaseless dedication and wise advice. I am, of course, equally grateful to Claire Saunders and her team from my Countryside Fund, who have worked tirelessly to launch this programme, as has the Chairman of the Fund.
Now Ladies and Gentlemen, no-one can predict the long term effects of the continued volatility in farm-gate prices, the many other uncertainties in the sector, or for that matter the depth of the crisis that is looming over many farming families. However, we can be certain that the sector is going to have to respond and that farm businesses of all sizes will need to be more efficient and resilient and improve their productivity and competiveness, through diversification and added value enterprises. This is why, if I may say so, my Farm Resilience Programme is so vitally important and I can only pray that it will give as much hope and confidence as possible to farmers during these uncertain and difficult times.
Well, needless to say, I cannot thank you all enough for your unswerving support and commitment to my Countryside Fund. As you can imagine, you're only as good as the sponsorship and support you get from this cause related marketing exercise. I hope you realise that Duchy Originals also plays its part in contributing. So I can only urge you to do whatever you can to promote and support this essential programme, making sure that the farmers who really need help find out about it and are encouraged to sign up and take part so they can benefit from the many ways in which it can – and it will – improve their lives. Thank you Ladies and Gentlemen.