It should have been so relaxed. But this year’s NFU conference was anything other than a love-in between farm leaders and politicians.
With no general election on the horizon, a team of DEFRA ministers seen as sympathetic towards agriculture and an NFU president with another year to serve, everyone should have got along swimmingly.
But appearances can be deceptive. High grain prices and food inflation might be making all the headlines – and becoming a real worry for Britain’s families – but they also mask the immediate challenges facing Britain’s farmers.
High grain prices mean high feed prices. Coupled with low meat and milk prices they spell disaster for livestock producers. Britain’s dairy, beef and pig sectors are falling apart. Sheep could follow. And we’ve not even touched on the thorny issue of CAP reform.
In his opening speech, NFU president Peter Kendall wasted no time pinpointing the issues to DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman. The coalition government has been in power for nine months. And Mr Kendall said he was increasingly frustrated at how the solutions to farming’s challenges all too often seem to lie somewhere else.
DEFRA lacked direction, Mr Kendall suggested. True, it had trusted farmers to reduce pollution from pesticides. It was also tackling bovine tuberculosis. And it had invested in agricultural research and development. But the coalition government was in danger of living up to its early promises.
The government’s own Foresight report on food and farming was clear, Mr Kendall said. Self-sufficiency in food was not what individual countries should be aiming for. But Britain’s increasing reliance on food imports was a serious worry.
“You have shouted loud about the government’s environmental credentials,” Mr Kendall told Mrs Spelman, highlighting government white papers on the natural environment and water. “But where’s the food plan, where’s the food white paper that reflects the Foresight challenges?”
It was a speech described by Mr Kendall as one of his hardest. Increased food production wouldn’t happen without support, he warned. To ensure fair play, farmers also needed a supermarket watchdog that would impose fines rather than merely name and shame unscrupulous retailers.
Mr Kendall’s speech was more than a wish-list (see box). It was a devastating critique of Mrs Spelman’s time in office. Farmers remained profoundly worried about her belief that high commodity prices made it possible to plan for the abolition of essential direct payments, he said.
In her keynote address immediately afterwards, Mrs Spelman seemed almost contrite. On CAP reform, the government was opposed to a dogmatic scrapping of subsidies, she insisted. Genuine and enduring reform would help farmers become more market-orientated.
The government wanted to help farmers, Mrs Spelman told delegates. But there was bound to be a smaller CAP budget and any deal would be decided by finance ministers trying to balance the books, rather than farming ministers.
Repeatedly referring to her time as an NFU sugar beet secretary, Mrs Spelman said she understood the challenges faced by farmers. “I’m certainly not saying it’s going to be easy, but I can offer you a new relationship – a new partnership with government.”
But farmers would have to wait for a decision on any badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis in cattle. They would have to wait until spring for a bill to introduce a retail adjudicator. And they would have to wait for another two months for a report on ways of reducing farming red tape.
So is the honeymoon over between the NFU leadership and this Tory-led government? It’s perhaps too soon to say. But unless government action starts to bring rapid results soon, it could certainly mark the turning point.
An edited version of this article was published in Farmers Weekly, 18 February 2011.