The Government’s recent review of AHDB called for a change in direction, placing emphasis on market development and productivity as key priorities going forward. But what do levy payers think about proposed plans for the organisation’s future governance? Hannah Binns reports.
Giving levy payers more say in how AHDB is run, including votes every five years on each sector’s direction of travel, has received a mixed reaction from the farming community.
The suggestion was met warmly by some in the industry, with NFU president Minette Batters stating the vote would enable the board to become more ‘agile, responsive and transparent’.
But while some believe it will offer democratic accountability, other farmers remain wary about the level of levy payer buy-in.
Gavin Lane, an arable farmer from West Norfolk, said: “The number of responses to the review was pretty woeful and I think having a five-yearly review will achieve very little if most farmers are so disengaged with the process already.
“We all want change which offers value for money and a better system of accountability, but there is also a danger everyone will become an expert since there is such a diverse range of opinions within each sector.”
James Wilde, a livestock farmer from West Sussex, also highlighted his concerns the vote may be ‘populist’ and take a lot of resource to implement.
Levy payers speaking to Farmers Guardian also gave mixed reactions to AHDB’s knowledge exchange initiatives, which was reflected in the review responses.
Some expressed information provided by the board was incorrect, out of date, too simplistic or delivered by people without necessary expertise, whereas others found the service invaluable.
Tony Ball, a dairy farmer from Uttoxeter, said knowledge exchange had been ‘unfairly slated’ by levy payers.
He said: “AHDB provides useful information presented without a commercial slant and the Strategic Dairy Farms offer an invaluable opportunity for farmers to have an open dialogue with industry experts and see for themselves different ideas put into practice.”
Others also agreed farmer-to-farmer learning through monitor farms had been successful.
But some sheep sector representatives called for the board to be agile enough to react to changing market circumstances rather than placing emphasis on knowledge exchange.
National Sheep Association chairman Bryan Griffiths, who farms in Devon, said: “Mother Nature has given sheep farmers a bumper crop of lambs this year, which has trumped all AHDB knowledge exchange initiatives.
“Now is the time for the organisation to creatively think about market development opportunities and turn its efforts towards selling our products.”
Colin Rowland, who also farms in Devon, added: “I am very much a supporter of AHDB, but not in its present form.
“We need farmers/business personnel making the day-to-day decisions. We need them voted on to the boards, so if they do not deliver for the levy payers, they can easily be voted off again.
“I would like to see it adopt a similar approach to its New Zealand counter body and reduce Government involvement in favour of further collaboration with grassroots farmers.
“There is not an abundance of sheep meat out there in the world and AHDB needs to go out and secure markets for our product.”
AHDB recently launched a £1.2 million beef promotional campaign in response to industry’s alarm at the carcase imbalance issue, brought as a result of the closure of the food service sector.
But one reoccurring complaint from levy payers is AHDB does not spend enough money on marketing and promoting British food.
Simon Bainbridge, who farms beef, sheep and laying poultry in Northumberland, wants to see further promotion of British beef and lamb.
He said: “While I understand it is very much a team effort across the supply chain rather than solely down to one organisation, the vast amount of money funding AHDB comes from livestock levy payers, so in theory they should have more say.
Mr Bainbridge also called for AHDB to help expand demand for British products and a move away from the continental measuring systems of the EUROP grid to one which measures eating quality.
He added: "This would ensure customer satisfaction and therefore more value from the carcase. Farmers’ ownership of this part of the supply chain will be vital to take the beef and lamb industry forward.”
Jim Beary, a mixed farmer from Yorkshire, also called for AHDB to adopt better marketing on the quality of British food to consumers.
He said: “There is a need for good healthy food at the moment and the organisation must do a better job at pointing that out.”
Yorkshire mixed farmer Paul Temple said the review had highlighted the importance of skills and development within the agriculture sector.
He said: "With an EU Commission report highlighting the average of those under 40 as less than 10 per cent, it is important the organisation helps attract and retain farmers in the industry.
"We have an ageing workforce and we are not aware of the scale of the problem yet.”