As Farmers Guardian’s Farming: The Backbone of Britain campaign gathers pace, NFU president Minette Batters tells Olivia Midgley why it is essential for the country’s agricultural industry to present a united front.
Showcasing the lengths farmers go to in producing healthy and nutritious food while nurturing Britain’s extensive landscapes has never been more important as the country prepares to take back sovereign control of its agricultural affairs.
Adding her name to the list of big-hitting supporters of Farmers Guardian’s Farming: The Backbone of Britain campaign, NFU president Minette Batters said the industry was gaining more public support year-on-year, but it was ‘absolutely crucial to promote the industry with a united message’.
Ms Batters said: “If we look back, I think we can all say we should have done so much more.
“Farmers are valued for the work they do, but we are an industry which is often under attack.
“We have been very reactive in the past and we need to be far more proactive, so this sort of campaign is very important.”
While the industry was sometimes maligned, despite farmers’ efforts to communicate with the public, she said it was ‘the minority who were most critical’ and it was important not to engage in online vitriol which gave the anti-farming brigade ‘oxygen’.
Ms Batters said: “I was speaking to a farmer who said she had put a video of her son on Twitter putting some sheep out in a little trailer and she had about one million likes, then six people went for her and told her children should rot in hell, so she took the video down.
“We have to be careful not to let a few people undermine our image because we have a very good image and should keep pushing those positive messages. It is all about showcasing what we are doing on-farm.”
Ms Batters said ensuring the message landed with policymakers was also vital.
Speaking as the deadline for Defra’s Health and Harmony future of farming consultation passed, she said it was crucial for the industry to reposition itself in the eyes of policymakers, adding there had been little focus on food.
“If we are not producing food, we are not farmers,” said Ms Batters.
“This has to be better understood across Government. We have to have a thriving, profitable, agricultural sector if we are going to do any of the environmental work.”
She called on Defra to see agricultural policy reform as a ‘commercial business opportunity’ to deliver its ‘Green Brexit’, with farmers being trusted to deliver key aims.
Failing to keep the farming industry’s role at the forefront of Ministers’ minds would risk financial support being swallowed up by other public sector priorities, such as the NHS, infrastructure and housing.
Ms Batters said: “My plea to [Defra Secretary] Michael Gove is to take a commercial look at this and view it as a business proposition, because it has to be, otherwise you are not doing justice to the environment, farmers, consumers, Britain and the Government. We are all losers if you do not have a commercial business focus to deliver this ‘Green Brexit’.”
The Wiltshire beef and sheep farmer said the sector needed to be ‘far more joined up on the image of rural Britain’, adding: “You have a Government consultation at the moment where they refer to ‘rural’ as ‘upland’.
“Rural Britain is 70 per cent of the UK and it is not just about the uplands. We have to make the case for the whole country and not allow this division of ‘upland is rural and lowland is not’.”
She said the industry was guilty of ‘talking a lot of jargon no-one understands’ and there was a need for ‘slightly softer’ messaging around the work farmers do, but with the power of a weighty non-governmental organisation.
She said: “Farming is well understood by farmers, but not by other people. This matters when it comes down to talking about what we are delivering.
“Most people have no idea about the 30,000km of new hedgerows we have planted; the 27,000km of grass margins we have created; the 2,700km of actively maintained stone walls.
“When I speak to members of the Cabinet, they do not know that.”
Vocalising British farming values, including high quality and standards, was also critical in negotiations around trade deals and organisations, including the NFU and AHDB, must show a united front.
She said: “We need to get behind one British brand identity. We cannot keep on with these little ad-hoc messages which are competing.
“There is a lot to be learned from the Republic of Ireland where retailers will tell you they get one message, but out of the UK, they get various messages because it is so fragmented.
“UK sovereignty means we must have a British brand identity which I believe must be underpinned by British farm assurance. This will be our unique selling point.”
Addressing recent criticism of AHDB by farmers speaking to FG, she added: “If we got rid of it [AHDB] today, we would be reinventing it tomorrow.
“It is about making sure it is fit for purpose and ready for new challenges. It is an arm’s length Government body, so everybody is slightly constrained by the framework they have found themselves working in.
“I think we need a real ambitious look at what it is going to be doing in future.”
Mudslinging within the industry also had to stop, said Ms Batters, highlighting calls from some corners to end the use of chemical fertilisers.
She said: “We would have our production. I think it is a sad state of affairs when others [in the industry] come along and try to rubbish conventional farming. Throwing other farmers under the bus is something I find abhorrent.”
Going forward, she urged the Government to allow farmers to be empowered to design and deliver agricultural reform.
“I do not think farmers are focused on the money. The issue is having an enabling environment in which to run a business and a Government which is ambitious about having an enhanced reputation for British food at home and abroad.
“We have every think tank in London wanting to engage with us and most will never have even set foot on a farm. Trust farmers; work with farmers. See farmers as the solution and it will drive the change.”