Monday, April 23, 2018

Fighting for the future of farming

April 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

If we want a better future, we have to engage with change – rather than resist it, says Clodhopper.

We have a female monarch and a female prime minister. Now we have the welcome appointment of the first female NFU president.

Minette Batters runs a successful family farm in Wiltshire – and has the support of grassroots farmers as well as the backing of the union’s ruling council. Elected in February, she is the first female NFU leader in the union’s 110-year history.

During her election campaign, Ms Batters outlined four priorities. These were: growing the NFU membership, a series of campaigns to promote farming, UK fair trade for producers, and lobbying for a British agriculture trade policy manifesto.

These priorities seem something of a mouthful – and in some cases it is hard to pin down exactly what they mean. But there is little doubt that in recent years the large majority of farmers have lost touch with the NFU and a big recruitment drive is long overdue.

Bogged down

If the NFU really is to represent the breadth of producers at one of the most important times in the union’s history, then it needs more members. And it needs to listen to them too. Otherwise policies that start with good intentions risk becoming bogged down.

Ms Batters must also re-connect the public with agriculture. Too many people these days take farmers for granted. Shoppers who think food will always appear on supermarket shelves no matter what happens or how little farmers are paid spare little thought for those who produce it.

Similarly, most people aren’t bothered about where their food comes from – so long as it is cheap.  There is no doubt that the food produced by us British farmers is good quality, very safe and most of all is traceable – something that cannot always be said of cut-price imports.

But how many people look at the origin of their food? A very small number I wager. With post-Brexit Britain fast approaching, Ms Batters must convince the global economy that British food is among the best in the world – and worth paying for at home and aboard.

Golden age

It is no easy job. British farming is facing one of its most challenging periods. It is tempting to look back in the hope of finding and returning to a golden age when things were better. Whether a golden age of farming really existed is debatable. No industry can afford to stand still – even when the future is as uncertain as it is now.

Farming is no longer about simply producing food. Farmers cannot survive on food production alone. Most have been forced to diversify into other income streams. Dragging the union and farmers alongside into the new farming age is going to be a mighty challenge for everyone.

Simply making speeches and agreeing or otherwise with Defra secretary Michael Gove is never going to be enough. But at the same time, if we want to shape a better future for farming, we have to engage with change – rather than resist it at all costs.

Perhaps, though, we should take a leaf out of the French farmers’ survival book. Our neighbours across the water believe their lifestyle is worth fighting for – and when it is under threat then fight for it they literally do.

Battle harder

Now, I am not suggesting we riot on the streets. But I do believe that we as farmers and the NFU should battle a lot harder for what we believe in. Rather than standing by and accepting our fate, we need to work harder to get our message across.

Rather than being on the back foot all the time, and being the brunt of other people’s misguided ideas, we should go forward and express concerns – and explain to anyone who will listen why the industry is on its knees and why the traditional family farm is struggling.

We must take the fight to the big corporations too. We shouldn’t be so particular about who we sit around the table with. We should not judge on past performances and we must not be fooled by swanky jackets and smooth talk either.

The trouble is farming is a long term business suffering from short term problems. To invest, we need certainty – certainty that the family farm can survive and money can be invested so we can secure our future.

What we require from Minette Batters is strong leadership to battle our cause. If she is able to deliver that, Ms Batters will succeed where, in some cases, past male presidents have failed.

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