At nine events across England and Wales over four exhausting days, the seven candidates for the three NFU officeholder positions have been making their pitches to members.
Members have turned up in good numbers to hear what the candidates will bring to the NFU and to ask their own pertinent questions.
With a format throughout of three-minute presentations followed by seven minutes of questions, candidates have had to demonstrate their knowledge across the sectors, their presentational skills and, when things got heated, how they respond under pressure.
For the three incumbent officeholders, the task was to defend their record in office while offering a fresh vision for the future. For the challengers, it was all about making the case for positive change and why they could do the job better.
The NFU’s 90 or so-strong council will elect the three officeholders at the end of the NFU conference and AGM in Birmingham on February 24.
The council is made up mainly of county delegates and chairs.
While members do not have a vote, they can state their preference to their county representatives.
We report from a packed hustings in Taunton, in Somerset, where NFU members gave the candidates a good grilling.
First up of the presidential candidates, Mr Raymond began his pitch by reassuring members the NFU was in ‘excellent heart’ with a good financial base and growing membership.
His vision, he said, was to grow the NFU’s membership over the next two years, building on the county structure the union has invested heavily in.
The Pembrokeshire farmer said: “I believe I have the passion, the enthusiasm, the motivation and the knowledge to lead this organisation.”
He was challenged by farmers on his record as president and an officeholder before that, facing criticism the NFU was not tough enough on Defra.
He responded by listing NFU successes, including negotiating modulation down from 15 to 12 per cent, securing five-year tax averaging, retaining the £250,000 machinery allowance, and retailer commitments on British lamb and the supplementary milk payment.
“That has not come about by chance. It was good hard grind from the NFU and, as president, I take some of that credit,” he said.
Deputy president Minette Batters impressed her home audience with a wide-ranging vision of where British farming’s focus should be in future.
The Wiltshire beef farmer, who is challenging Mr Raymond, said: “The NFU is a game-changer. If we are going to change farming, the NFU is the only one who is going to do it.
“But to do so, it will need to move with times and change, too. We must become more commercial and business-focused and 100 per cent focused on adding value. For too long, this industry has focused on farm efficiencies.”
Promising to be a ‘strong and tenacious’ leader, she stressed the need for a new ‘targeted direction of travel for the NFU’.
With the increasing importance of issues such as health, nutrition, environment and education, this included the need to reach out more widely to other Government departments.
“We will not change the future unless we engage with the bigger picture,” she said.
Mr Mackintosh promised action and leadership. “All great leaders need a great team behind them. I see every member in this room as being part of that team,” the Cumbrian hill farmer said.
Highlighting his 35 years in the industry and work in Brussels and London for farmers as a former livestock chairman, the surprise leadership challenger said: “I know I can do the job.
“The key to NFU success is all about being able to evolve and change and adapt to the circumstances. We have to be more proactive than we have been in the past,” he said.
Mr Mackintosh insisted he did not want to criticise the current leadership team but said: “I genuinely believe we can show more leadership. It is about teamwork and being prepared to take tough decisions.”
He added: “One ounce of action is worth a tonne of theory. That is what I will bring to this organisation – action.”
Mr Smith, current vice-president, pledged to be tougher on Government and retailers, if elected back into the officeholder team.
The Essex farmer began by highlighting his record over the past two years in areas such as the NFU’s Healthy Harvest campaign and challenging Defra and the Rural Payments Agency over the Basic Payment Scheme.
But he said: “I don’t think we have been tough enough on the top of Government. In Liz Truss, the Secretary of State, we have someone who likes to tell us what we want to hear but doesn’t always make it when it comes to delivery. At times I think we have had our tummies tickled.”
The NFU needed to be ‘embarrassing the hell out of retailers’ who fail to live up to their promises to support British beef and lamb, he added.
Mrs Dunn said the NFU needed to ‘step up’ and be more on the ‘front foot’ when it comes to addressing the difficult situation the industry finds itself in.
Pointing to her ‘quiet drive, determination and passion’, she highlighted her experience as a ‘busy’ farmer and as the NFU’s North East’s regional board chairman and governance board member.
Central to her pitch was the need for the industry to build better relationships with the supply chain to address the current imbalance which sees farmers take most of the risk without seeing the reward.
“We have to be a bit more on the front foot because there are going to be some phenomenal challenges over the next few years.”
Mr Sercombe promised to ‘listen and engage with members’ and incorporate their views in NFU policy if elected as deputy or vice-president.
The Leicestershire farmer highlighted his four years of experience as current livestock chairman and his ability to find ‘sensible, pragmatic solutions’ to challenging situations.
He said NFU officeholders needed to adopt a more proactive approach and ‘engage more closely with Europe’ to influence EU policy and ‘counter the growing threat of NGOs’.
He emphasised the importance of promoting the benefits of agriculture to the wider world and of improving membership communications, a major ‘failing’ over the years, despite recent improvements in the communications team.
“We need to strike the right balance between communication, co-operation and at times confrontation to make our point,” he said.
Mr Rew, a Devon farmer, said, in these challenging times for the industry, the NFU needed to develop a strategy to exploit the opportunities out there in the global and domestic markets.
“We need a strong brand to market British agriculture. We need a big conversation with all those involved in the agriculture industry about preparing an agreed vision and strategy for the future.”
He said this should include an ‘immediate review of the supply chain from consumer to producer’.
“We need a fair price for the goods we supply and we need to see a return of profit in farming. It is our duty to fight for and protect our industry, not to roll over and cosy up to Government and supermarkets.”