Candidates make their case in the race to become National Farmers’ Union president
PUBLISHED: 20:02 25 January 2018 | UPDATED: 20:02 25 January 2018
Brian Finnerty / NFU
The runners and riders in the race to become the farming industry’s most senior national representative were put through their paces at an election hustings in Newmarket.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is due to elect its top three officeholder positions later this month, so the organisation’s East Anglian members were given the chance to quiz the candidates in one of a series of events being held across the country.
In all, seven farmers standing for the positions of president, deputy president and vice president made the case for their campaign, and fielded questions on issues ranging from combating rural crime and livestock diseases to putting agriculture at the heart of government policy and improving the public perception of farming.
They included the two contenders for the union’s presidency – Minette Batters and Guy Smith, who run diversified mixed farming business in Wiltshire and Essex respectively.
• Minette Batters began by setting out four “priority areas” for the union. “First are you, our farmer members,” she said. “The NFU is nothing without its members. I want the new office-holder team to be bold and ambitious. But above more we need them to be relevant. I know there are massive issues in this region of rural crime, crop protection, the digital connection, all sorts of things, and it is all about being relevant to each and every business.
“My second point is around bigger, bolder, more ambitious campaigns. Campaigns are how you shape the world, and we have a great opportunity now to reach out to our consumer, to really show what we as an industry has to offer, rather than what we want, which is how we have been prone to operating in the past.
“My third point is around exposing the malfunctioning of the supply chain, what I’ve referred to as ‘UK fair trade’. I really believe this is a hugely important area. Farmers are doing the bulk of the work and taking the majority of the risk, but they are one of a very few sectors who cannot push those costs up-line.
“My fourth point is around prioritising all our Brexit policy asks. We are working on regulation, on labour policy but what we are really prioritising in the next few months is what we want on trade. It is trade that will shape the landscape for years and years to come.
“The priority for me is making sure that this new office-holder team can hit the ground running. Michael Gove (the environment secretary) is a big-hitting politician. He doesn’t hang around. The prime minister has already launched his environment plan and we can expect a command paper in the next couple of months and that will pave the way for a future Agriculture Act.
“I think its a great opportunity for us to have policies in place that will ensure that our farmers and growers are able to be the first supplier of choice for retail, for food service and for export, allowing farmers and growers to hit every price point – so buying into Michael Gove’s gold standard, but it’s important that we focus on the market and allow the market to drive our future.”
• Guy Smith began by explaining some of the experiences he had gained during four years as NFU vice president. “As vice chair of the plant health committee in Brussels, I’ve learned a fair bit about the way NGOs operate and that’s been useful in constructing our own campaigns, like “Glyphosate is Vital”, when we used members’ social media and broadcast media with some success,” he said. “I haven’t avoided the difficult roles. When the RPA’s (Rural Payments Agency’s) IT went into catastrophic meltdown in 2015 I asked Meurig (retiring NFU president Meurig Raymond) to put it in my portfolio because I felt it needed more of a focus.
“To be clear, while I think its only right that I challenge Minette for the presidency – you need two candidates for an election – I would be more than happy to serve as her deputy for the next two years.
As an office-holder, you must always try to find out the everyday concerns of our members, whether its fly-tipping, hare-coursing, rural crime, or broadband – it’s always those everyday issues that concern our members the most and we should always cover them.
“But on the big issue of Brexit we need to step up and convince both public and government alike that a secure supply of home-grown food produced to high standard is a ‘public good’. Secondly, that environmental goods are best delivered by active working farmers managing their land on a day-to-day basis.
“And finally, no matter how we felt about the referendum at the time, we must now see this more as opportunity than threat. This is no time for self-doubt or fatalism. I am convinced that with a strong NFU we can convince government that we are an important industry and set up a political framework where we can build ourselves up to be a more robust industry going forward. But I have no doubt the next two years are going to be about sheer hard graft.”
FULL LIST OF NFU ELECTION CANDIDATES:
President: Minette Batters, Guy Smith.
Deputy president: Michael Oakes, Stuart Roberts, Charles Sercombe, Guy Smith.
Vice president: Richard Bower, Michael Oakes, Stuart Roberts, Charles Sercombe, James Small.