David Handley talks about the industry and why farmers should take part in Wednesday's march
David Handley greeted Farmers Guardian in high spirits as preparations for next week’s Farming to London demonstration took place at his Monmouthshire home in early March.
“You have come on an important day,” he called from the farmhouse kitchen. “The black cabs will be joining the protest. The police told me this morning they expect it to be gridlocked.”
A proportion of London’s minicab drivers, understood to be angered by what they claim is Transport for London’s failure to regulate private hire firms, including online taxi service Uber, are expected to join the Farmers For Action (FFA) march, Mr Handley claimed.
The farming community’s walk to Downing Street will be part of a series of events on March 23 aimed at raising UK farming’s struggles with the Government and demonstrating the industry’s importance to the public.
Mr Handley said the link-up with London taxi drivers would bring greater media attention to the march as a whole.
Mr Handley tells FG about plans for his farming and FFA future
Settling down in his dining room, complete with a pile of papers relating to the organisation of the event, it was apparent a large proportion of Mr Handley’s time would be devoted to the effort until the day.
But he insisted it was not the direct action itself which gave him satisfaction as a founding FFA member and chairman of the farming protest group.
“The satisfaction is when [action] culminates in success for farming. This is where the biggest buzz comes from, when you achieve something,” he said.
Mr Handley has spent about 16 years fighting for UK farming through direct action, although his approach has divided the opinion of many in the industry.
He has been at the helm of FFA during this time, with the group largely attempting to force the hand of other parts of the UK supply chain, notably with blockades of processors and supermarkets.
With agricultural markets facing one of the most severe downturns in recent times, FFA announced its plans in January and February and is calling on farmers to march on Westminster. It aims to get 1,000 farmers on the streets of London.
“It is obvious there is great interest,” Mr Handley said. “The Tenant Farmers Association have been involved from the start, the Livestock Auctioneers Association and Chris Mallon [National Beef Association executive secretary] are supportive, as well as the sponsors.
“Getting farmers and bums on seats is an issue,” added Mr Handley, although he remained confident the march’s attendees would reach the 1,000 originally proposed.
Raised in Camelford, Cornwall, Mr Handley was not born into a farming family and was introduced to the industry through a family friend.
After completing his education he travelled for several years, including to New Zealand and throughout Europe, before managing a farm on the Devon-Cornwall border.
Moving to Monmouthshire in 1978, he worked in the supply chain, in the feed industry and for red meat processor ABP.
“When I was involved with ABP, the red meat industry was a lot more farmer-friendly. It was regular to have farmers in the abattoir to see stock killed,” he said.
Mr Handley said the urge to farm remained and he started his path in the industry on a share farming agreement with British equestrian champion Sir Harry Llewellyn. The agreement was for the Handleys to improve the farm so it could be sold.
He and his wife Marilyn then took a tenancy agreement at their current farm in 1987, converting its use from beef and sheep to a 30-cow dairy unit by 1991 and then building numbers.
Despite remaining prominent in FFA while operating his herd of Jerseys, in recent months Mr Handley has been vocal about potentially quitting milking and stepping away from FFA.
“At the moment we are milking 60 cows and not keeping any youngstock,” he said. “We are just breaking even, if we get another price cut in April that will be it.”
At 64, Mr Handley declared himself ‘fit and healthy’ and said he loved his work, but admitted he had been looking at who may take the FFA reigns.
“Everyday somebody will make me pick up the phone and I think ‘there is a reason to stay another day’.”
But he identified Somerset dairy farmer James Hole as a potential candidate to lead FFA in the future.
While Mr Handley said European and global market factors were currently at play in dairy markets, his frustration lay primarily with the UK supply chain and he drew comparisons with the past in his analysis of the industry’s direction.
“British coal was told to be more efficient, then it was told some of the coal was not [what the country] wanted. British dairy farmers are now being told [the country] needs to import, then they are being told they are not competitive.
“British coal has gone, that is what David Cameron has got to answer for. This Government has got to stand up and tell us what it wants.”
FFA has pointed to a lack of certainty and leadership over the future of the country’s farming community as a central reason for the march.
Mr Handley appeared to understand FFA would never be universally popular in the farming community. The group has faced a backlash at its meetings and online about its tactics with processors and retailers.
A running theme of FFA’s criticism is the way its management handles others’ opinions, reportedly including abusive comments on the group’s Facebook page and other social media sites.
“I have read the stuff about ruling with a sledgehammer and a stick. My view on forums is simple – it is for keyboard warriors. If you want to see changes, get involved and bring about change.”
Mr Handley also pointed his finger at ‘vile’ comments on the group’s Facebook page.
“If you feel passionately [the industry] is all wrong, do something about it,” Mr Handley said.