The president of the CAAV (Central Association of Agricultural Valuers) wants more joined up thinking as farmers embrace changes brought about by Brexit and Government demands.

Andrew Thomas, director of South Wales agents Herbert R Thomas, says Brexit has accelerated the process of farmers becoming price makers rather than price takers.

He says the pandemic has also prompted people to shop locally, to question the provenance of food, food miles and carbon footprint.

Andrew’s company Herbert R Thomas, based in Cowbridge just 12 miles from Cardiff, was founded by his grandfather nearly a century ago in the building where he sits today. He is only the fifth Welsh CAAV president in 110 years, a position he says is an honour and an opportunity to give back to the industry.

He says: “The accelerator is, without a doubt, the fact that we’ve left Europe. Farmers are well aware from the transition plan in England, for instance, that things are going to change.

“The pandemic has also probably been an accelerator, because people have had to shop locally. Actually, they have also gone for local provenance returning to high street and online butchers and I think, whilst people will go to supermarkets for a general shop, they have seen and enjoyed the local provenance of food.

“I think there is this general feeling of a change in their desire to look at food from a local perspective and, actually, in terms of miles travelled.”

Andrew feels this has prompted farmers within reach of high earning centres of population to diversify, so that they become price makers rather than takers. He reels off a number of farm shops, restaurants, and a milk hut within a short reach of his Cowbridge office in the Vale of Glamorgan that have suddenly begun to sell directly to the consumer.

His big fear is that a lack of joined up thinking on the part of Welsh Government and local authorities will stifle this progress.

He cites the lack of local abattoirs, especially in the context of Welsh Government transport regulations now out for consultation, and the long distance between livestock markets. That the local authority plan to build a supermarket on the site of his beloved, now closed, Cowbridge livestock market is particularly ironic.

It’s a message he’s determined to get across, although much of the networking that is central to his role as CAAV President has been confined to online events. His knowledge, commitment, charm and sense of fun do though shine through, even in a virtual world.

He stresses that the CAAV is not a lobbying organisation: “We advise Government of the likely outcomes of their policies and that’s apolitical.

“I have my personal views. I would love to see a good quality local abattoir alongside a new livestock market facility in south Wales to help us meet increasing demand and I think there will be increasing demand. If you look at the big picture, veganism and vegetarianism are growing, so meat is likely to become a high end value product and therefore it’s about provenance.”

And he feels that recent government consultations and directives give the industry an opportunity to tell a more rounded view of the meat story, to correct misinformation.

While there is so much talk of cattle producing methane, the argument needs to be made that locally produced food is low on food miles, farming locks up carbon in the soil, creating a circular route and a range of other benefits.

Andrew stresses: “If we are going to be encouraged to farm more sustainably, then we are going to be custodians of the countryside, land managers, until perhaps food is really badly needed and then things might change.

“But that’s what we’re being told. Public money for public goods, rewarding farmers for the provision of public goods.”

He sees the role of his profession as supporting and advising clients through the process of finding alternative income generation to replace the area payment.

The Agriculture in Wales White Paper, replacing the Basic Payment Scheme with a single direct support scheme, means looking at the farm as a whole: what is there in terms of ecological and environmental benefit for society; can we lock up carbon; have we got plenty of water; can we encourage people to come and walk and will we be paid for that; woodland creation?

Farmers will need a twin track approach, balancing income against costs and meeting big government challenges in terms of public money for public goods. In Wales these include a drive under the Wellbeing for Future Generations Act, where the aim is to plant 30,000 hectares a massive amount of woodland and part of their climate change agenda for Net Zero 2050.

Andrew is optimistic: “I think in the main farmers will rise to the challenge, although I think it’s going to be a much bigger challenge for lowland farmers.

“Common sense tells me that you are more likely to grow trees on marginal land, on the side of the hills which may have a value of £2,000 to £3,000 an acre land, but surely not £10,000 an acre land? And we will still need good farmers producing commodities

“I would have thought that the greatest opportunity for the lowlands depends upon the recognition or otherwise of the value of soil.

“Soil will, if managed properly with a greater organic content, lock up carbon. Will farming revert to where we were 60 years ago?”

In terms of concerns over lamb production, so crucial to Wales, Andrew is also very confident. His company remains heavily involved in the traditional store lamb sales at Penderyn, with the market just a few hundred yards from the now world famous whisky.

He explains: “I still think we will win markets in Asia Pacific, mainly because of the rapidly expanding middle class who want better access to quality food. I think we will win new markets, because our animal welfare is excellent.

I can see the uplands, the Penderyn area, for instance, returning to a traditional extensive sheep rearing system possibly with greater stocking levels, and strict cost controls, selling store lambs for finishing on the lowlands..

Changes are coming and Andrew Thomas is proud and happy to be at the helm in the CAAV and also steering his company into a future that fits the times, but that his late father and grandfather would still recognise.