James Hill, land agent and associate at Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural, speaks about the importance of soil and land drainage.

As with any business, neglecting long-term investment in favour of short-term savings is rarely a good idea in agriculture.

This of course applies to machinery, technology and buildings, but above all it should apply to the most valuable commodity on any farm: the soil.

Eastern Daily Press: James Hill, land agent and associate at Arnolds Keys - Irelands AgriculturalJames Hill, land agent and associate at Arnolds Keys - Irelands Agricultural (Image: Arnolds Keys)

That investment shouldn’t just be on an individual farm basis. If as a country we are to reap the benefit of a vibrant agricultural sector, then that investment sometimes needs to be public, and at national level.

When it comes to soil health, one of the most important investments that has been made is in land drainage.

Centuries of hard work and forward-thinking have enabled our fundamentally wet land to be productive, from the enormous task of digging ditches, through laborious installation of underground field drains, to the deep drains invented by John Elkington at the end of the 18th century.

The importance of this has been reflected down the years by public policy. Clay pipes used for field drainage were exempted from tax as early as 1826; government loans backed this up.

Then after the First World War when food security was paramount, more proactive government involvement included work on arterial drainage and the formation of public drainage bodies. Similar security fears after the Second World War led to substantial grant aid that lasted until the early 1980s.

But since then: nothing. Perhaps we thought that all the work had been done, and we could live off the benefits in perpetuity.

But any farmer will tell you that investing in the future of your soil is an ongoing priority.

With climate change bringing more frequent extreme weather events, our ageing drainage infrastructure is being shown up as inadequate, with many flooded fields this year.

The difference between a field with good drainage and one without becomes obvious, with the implications not just for this year’s crops, but with reduced nutrient retention, the future too.

The current focus on short-term financial support, rather than investment for the long-term, is building up a problem for the future, both for the prosperity of agriculture, but also the nation’s food security and the countryside itself.

Drainage needs to be a higher priority issue, with government help through grants, capital allowances or other tax reliefs, just as more enlightened administrations down the centuries have demonstrated.

It is as true today as it was in the Middle Ages – you can’t farm without soil.

For more information, visit arnoldskeys.com