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Guest of Honour and Speaker at the Club’s Luncheon following the AGM was NFU Director General Terry Jones, who provided a fascinating insight into the industry’s current challenges, and how the NFU is tackling them.
Mr Jones, who lives in Cheshire with his dairy-farmer wife Emma, drew strongly on his period away from the NFU, when he worked with the Food and Drink Federation. “The lessons from downstream in the food chain are clear, especially around the power of the NGO lobby groups. If you think environmental NGOs are tough they’re nothing compared with those around health.
“I was also struck by how envious other industries and trade associations are of what we at the NFU have, in terms of financial stability, 109 years of partnership between members and staff, giving us a truly authentic voice, and our unprecedented access [to politicians], which believe me we really do have.”
He was under no illusion that the next ‘2000 days’ would be critical for farming. “Between now and 2022 we need to grow our representative power, develop more services for members, grow our non-subscription income (currently 47% of income), grow agriculture’s share of voice in discussions – and it was very gratifying to see the CBI arguing for finance and farming to be put on an equal footing, which doesn’t happen by accident – and grow the knowledge and skills of the NFU, so we have the best experts and best spokesmen, because others are catching us up.”
Pivotal to the policy debate, particularly during Mr Gove’s first two months in office, was the ability of farming to offer solutions, not problems. To that end he encouraged farmers to be the industry’s voice, lobbying MPs and Ministers, with positive, can-do messages, seeking Defra’s help with delivery. “It works best when it comes from ‘real’ people at the heart of the matter.”
He also urged more mature relationships with the supply chain and retailers, so NFU office-holders could show greater thought-leadership within the sector.
On plant health challenges, such as glyphosate and neonicotinoid use on non-flowering crops, he warned that the UK’s influence on European decision-making had diminished considerably since the Brexit vote. “Thankfully on TB we have a 25 year strategy, although the churn of Ministers has been a challenge.”
Rising rural crime was a growing problem, and an indication of things to come, so the NFU was creating a rural crime manifesto, since the issue was hitting business competitiveness.
On Brexit he acknowledged agriculture was set to be more impacted than any other industry, with a plethora of unanswered questions. Uncertainty, especially around migrant labour and future UK farm policy, were hampering investment decisions, which needed certainty in the short-term, and confidence in the long-term.
Free and frictionless trade with the EU market and a competent, reliable workforce were issues that higher level discussions had frustratingly subsumed, so far. But he felt future Domestic Agricultural Policy (DAP) could be influenced, since Defra was more in control of that.
Compared with the ‘citrus-to-reindeer’ CAP, a DAP could be more bespoke. “We see scope for a 3-Dimensional UK policy, compared with today’s largely 2-Dimensional CAP, which allocates 76% of farm spending to pillar 1, most of the rest to pillar 2, and only a very small amount to productivity and competitiveness.” That could change to three cornerstones – enhancing productivity, mitigating against volatility, and looking after the environment and wildlife.
Farming needed to apply the tried and tested partnership of NFU staff and farmer members collaborating, so authentic people made the most of direct access to politicians to talk about industry solutions, such as the positive environmental track record, contribution to the national well-being and economic merit of supporting 3.9 million food sector jobs and £108bn gross value added to the national economy.
“For every £1 invested in farming, the sector returns £7 of value, which compares very favourably with the £2 to be had back for every £1 spent on the HS2 train link,” Mr Jones concluded.