Topic: Establishing and maintaining farmer cooperation for environmental benefits
Keywords: farmer cooperation, farmer groups, farm biodiversity, agri-environmental management
This paper explores a state-funded intervention to establish farmer cooperation for agri-environmental benefits in England. The Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund provides funding for facilitators to develop cooperation amongst a new or existing group of land managers (e.g. farmers, foresters) and agree the agri-environmental management priorities that they plan to take forward across their holdings, with a view to achieve landscape scale management. Facilitators are expected to maintain links with local partnerships, initiatives, and government authorities to ensure the group’s work complements other actions. Facilitators come from National Park Authorities, river trusts, wildlife trusts, conservation organisations and private consultancies. In 2018, there was a total of 98 groups (>2400 members), selected for funding through 4 competitive rounds since 2015.
The study investigated 6 farmer groups in Cumbria and East Anglia in terms of how they were established, how they work together, and what objectives were set and achieved. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 32 farmers and with the various facilitators across both regions between June 2018 and February 2019. Results showed a varied understanding of what the group and its purpose is, which influenced the motivations of farmers to join and ultimately differing levels of group cohesion between groups. There were also examples of farmers who declined joining a formal cooperation effort because they were convinced they could achieve more if they maintained their flexibility. The notion of restrictions was linked to the government funding that the groups benefited from, as well as the perception that cooperation would limit the individuals decision making. The facilitators played a crucial role in setting up the groups and maintaining momentum, but they also felt restricted by the funding rules that exclude follow up one-to-one advice that is often needed for successful implementation of particular measures.
Findings show that government policies can help with some of the ground work for encouraging farmer cooperation. In areas that have no prior history of farmers working together, the Facilitation Fund helped to farmers to get to know each other, start building trust and explore members’ interest in environmental and biodiversity objectives. In areas where farmers have previous working relationships or even pre-existing groups, the Fund makes it possible to expand the group’s reach and members’ knowledge, trigger interest and even ‘friendly competition’ around achieving farm biodiversity outcomes. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve wider landscape scale management, and a state-funded scheme faces serious limitations in supporting genuine farmer-led cooperation for agri-environmental benefits.