Forget the safe option, the NFU’s new leadership team is radical and exciting – so strap yourself in and prepare for the ride.
Meurig Raymond was always odds-on favourite to become NFU president following the departure of Peter Kendall as farm leader. But the NFU’s choice of deputy and vice-presidents is as inspired as it was unexpected.
Wiltshire beef farmer Minette Batters, who has been elected NFU deputy president, is the first female office-holder in the union’s 106-year history. And no-one was more surprised than Essex farmer Guy Smith who admitted he was shocked, stunned and humbled to find himself elected NFU vice-president.
Few people predicted all three winners in what was a wide open race. But the result is a new NFU leadership team with a canny mix of different yet complementary attributes.
The new team balances not only male and female, but also diplomacy and drive, youth and experience, east and west, and livestock and arable – with an edgy sense of humour to boot.
A fifth generation farmer who went into agriculture against the wishes of her own father, if anyone has the determination to succeed it is Ms Batters.
A tenant farmer, she created her own career path and has built a profitable and thriving business from nothing – as well as being a co-founder of Ladies in Beef.
But the election of Mr Smith is an even greater surprise – not least to the man himself.
The most media-savvy member of the new leadership team, Mr Smith already has numerous TV appearances under his belt, including last autumn’s BBC series Harvest.
Outspoken and entertaining, he’s also unafraid to speak his mind.
In a well-timed intervention from the balcony at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference debate, Mr Smith upbraided UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew, calling him “a poultry farmer, not a politician”.
And just this week he took DEFRA minister George Eustice to task on Twitter during the NFU annual conference, urging him to “give me some farmer passion”.
Although some believe an NFU vice-president should adopt a more diplomatic approach, others will hope Mr Smith continues saying it like it is.
So how did we get here?
NFU officeholders are elected by the union’s ruling council – about 80 farmer representatives from the counties of England and Wales.
For the first time, this year’s election introduced a system which weighted votes according to the number of NFU members in each county.
At the same time, NFU council members were determined that the overall election result would also be balanced in terms of farming interests and personalities.
Respected as a successful livestock producer, Ms Batters is from the NFU’s south-west region, which includes Devon – the county with most votes.
Meanwhile, Mr Smith’s election ensures that East Anglian arable farmers continue to feel well represented following the departure of outgoing NFU president Peter Kendall.
But let’s delve deeper.
There are three NFU officeholder roles: the top job of president is followed in rank order by deputy president and then vice-president.
After serving as Mr Kendall’s deputy for eight years, Mr Raymond was duly elected NFU president in the leadership contest on Wednesday (26 February).
Adam Quinney, who ended up being ousted as an officeholder altogether after just two years as vice-president, should be praised for challenging Mr Raymond for the top job.
He is a personable and excellent speaker but was a victim of circumstance – and the desire of many NFU council members who wanted more of a team player as deputy president.
Electing Mr Raymond as leader will ensure some continuity following Mr Kendall’s departure – and give Ms Batters and Mr Smith time to grow into their new roles.
The post of vice-president was much more closely fought than the deputy position – although Mr Smith’s star was in the ascendency as soon as Ms Batters was elected.
Why? Because Mr Smith was the only arable farming candidate from the eastern region – and NFU council was determined to elect a balanced team.
With the exception of Lincolnshire farmer Jonathan Brant, other election candidates were perceived either as livestock producers or from the west of the country – or, in some cases, both.
Having elected Ms Batters, council was unlikely to vote in another candidate from the same region, which effectively ruled out Dorset farmer Robert Lasseter.
Meanwhile, Thomas Binns (Lancashire), David Brookes (Staffordshire), and Rosey Dunn (Yorkshire) were all livestock farmers.
With candidates dropping out after each round of voting, Mr Smith found himself in an increasingly strong position until he was finally named NFU vice-president.
Despite the shock, it looks like his sense of humour has survived intact.
“To all who have raised concerns, just to reassure you it won’t go to my head and I will do my utmost to wave to you all from the Royal box,” he tweeted on Thursday (27 February).
It promises to be an interesting ride.
An edited version of this article appeared in Farmers Weekly magazine on Friday, 7 March 2014. Photo above (by Johann Tasker) shows Minette Batters (left), Meurig Raymond (centre) and Guy Smith (right).