Ammonia and Change Management

Clean air will come at a cost

It is nearly the end of January and although I had hoped that 2019 might embrace a rather more leisurely pace, it seems intent on forging ahead at the break-neck speed with which 2018 departed.  The news, however, has changed little in the last few weeks (and months), with a daily focus on Brexit and the huge challenges faced by Government. Whilst it might seem that the whole of Westminster is singularly fixated on this one, albeit extremely important, issue you can rest assured that in the bowels of the machine other matters are being addressed.  My attention turns to Michael Gove’s Clean Air Strategy due to be published in the next couple of months.  The Times reports that the strategy will include research showing that ammonia is killing wild plants and the animals that depend on them across 84% of England and Northern Ireland and 55% of Wales.  Reports say that whilst there is much attention on diesel emissions, ammonia, which comes from slurry, farm waste and fertiliser, is the ‘forgotten’ air pollutant and is toxic to humans.

The UK produces 295,000 tonnes of ammonia each year and the legal limit, currently at 297,000 tonnes, is due to be reduced to 283,000 tonnes next year.  DEFRA reports that agriculture accounts for 88% of UK ammonia emissions and therefore the new strategy will require farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment needed to reduce emissions in the future.  CLA and NFU agree that ammonia is a serious problem but suggest that many farmers cannot make the necessary investment on their own and that financial support would be needed for the farming industry to effect change.  Such changes might include a reduction in the amount of crude protein fed to livestock (thereby reducing nitrogen excretion and ammonia emissions); improved slurry and soil testing (to ensure more precise fertiliser planning); more rigorous choice of fertiliser products and slurry application and ensuring good housekeeping and husbandry around the farm buildings.
The focus on ammonia could potentially lead to a revision of the NVZ regulations in due course.  Currently farmers are required to have sufficient slurry storage for longer than the ‘closed’ period which effectively means that slurry is sometimes sitting for longer than necessary.  Calls for slurry and manure covers to reduce ammonia emissions were met last year by the provision of grants but the window was short and not all pits are appropriate for covering.

Farming has always been, in at least part, a technical profession, but unlike so many others there is a choice.  Plenty of farmers are still using simple, tried and tested techniques and making a good living.  This has often been a conscious choice of farming method but I fear that the element of choice will soon be removed.  Farmers will have to either embrace a more technical approach or pay someone for technical advice.  Having worked as a ‘change agent’ in a number of different businesses, I know only too well that change can be a difficult subject. It all depends how to look at it.  If you view it as a mountain to be climbed then it can be extremely daunting, a bit like eating an elephant.  But if you see it as a continuous process then business strategy can become a series of mini-changes that are easier to swallow.  In change management terms we often use the analogy of a saucepan of toffee – it takes a while to warm up the toffee and get it moving but once you have it more malleable you can keep making small changes.  So many things inhibit change – fear of the unknown; fear of falling out with business partners or family members; fear of failing and lack of confidence.  Often we don’t even know which questions to ask let alone where to find the answer.

Farming is unique due the inextricable link between the farming business and the family assets but that does not preclude it from needing to develop in order to face the challenges of the future.  There are a great many challenges to face this year – Brexit being only one of many – but the wise farmer will focus on his core competency and look to outsource the skill and experience he lacks. I’m afraid that the days of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ are gone forever and whilst ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ has merit, that doesn’t prevent us from examining our working practices and focusing on building for the future.

Louise Taylor MA, MSc, Dip HRD is Managing Director of Taylor Millbrook Ltd and Partner in Barbers Rural Consultancy LLP. She is an RICS Accredited Mediator and specialises in Succession Planning and Change Management. Contact Louise on 01630 692500 or l.taylor@barbers-rural.co.uk