One of the most intriguing NFU leadership elections in recent memory lies ahead at the union’s conference in Birmingham this week.
Meurig Raymond, president for the last two years having previously been deputy for eight, is seeking another two-year term but appears to face a serious challenge from his current deputy, Minette Batters, bidding to become the union’s first female president in its 107-year history.
Also in the mix is Alistair Mackintosh, a Cumbrian hill farmer and former livestock chairman. While he is unlikely to land the top job, his presence could influence proceedings.
The electorate is the NFU’s 90-strong council, comprising mainly county chairmen and delegates, who, in most cases, will bring the recommendations of members to next Wednesday’s election.
Their decisions will define the immediate future direction of the NFU.
The headline choice appears to be a simple.
Does the NFU maintain the status quo and embrace Mr Raymond’s immense experience and knowledge ahead of the huge challenges, such as Europe, looming for the farming industry over the next two years?
The NFU is in ’excellent heart’ under his leadership, so why change a winning formula? was the thrust of the Pembrokeshire farmer’s hustings message.
Or will it seek a new direction in the form of the relatively inexperienced Mrs Batters, on the basis of her fresh thinking on the NFU’s priorities and her superior presentation skills.
She outlined her vision for a more outward looking NFU during hustings, telling members the NFU cannot change farmers’ future unless it ’engages with the bigger picture’, including the health and education agendas.
NFU council appears to be genuinely divided with some adamant there is no need to change a successful team, which also includes vice president Guy Smith.
One member said: “I think Meurig has done a good job and all three officeholders will be re-elected.
Another said: “My gut feeling is the most likely outcome will be a return to the status quo, but it will be close and it could depend on how people perform at conference next week. People could lose it as well as win it.”
Others, particularly in the South West where Wiltshire farmer Mrs Batters has strong support - potentially significant with a weighted voting system that gives her region significantly more clout than any other (see below) - believe change could be coming.
One said: “We are teetering neck-and-neck between the status quo and some major change, which could see Meurig struggle. Minette has a lot of support.”
Another predicted the ‘most closely-fought contest for many years’ and predicted the outcome could come down to how much support Mrs Batters has picked up outside the South West.
Mr Mackintosh, whose pitch to members was all about a more ’proactive’ proactive leadership style and the willingness to take ’tough decisions’, will expect support in the North.
As an hill farmer outspoken hill, who also stressed the merits of building a team incorporating grassroots members, might reach parts the other two candidates cannot.
And while few expect him to emerge as leader, any votes he picks up could affect the other candidates’ chances, particularly if he takes first round votes off Mr Raymond.
There is intrigue, too, in the races for the deputy and vice-president posts.
Mr Smith and Mr Mackintosh are both standing for the deputy role alongside Mrs Batters, if she is not elected president, and Yorkshire farmer Rosey Dunn and livestock chair Charles Sercombe, of Leicestershire.
Mr Smith, unlike many of his predecessors, has managed to maintain a high profile on issues like BPS and pesticides as vice president. It will be interesting to see how this translates if he goes head to head with rs Batters, who has also made an impact in key policy, such as TB, over the past two years.
If Mrs Batters was to unseat Mr Raymond, it becomes a different contest again, with Mr Smith the likely frontrunner and Mr Mackintosh likely to be his main challenger.
Mrs Dunn and Mr Sercombe and Devon farmer Anthony Rew are also standing for the vice president roles, alongside Mr Smith if he does not land the deputy role.
He would start as favourite in that contest but, if he was to land the deputy role, a new face would be added to the NFU’s top table.
All to play for in Birmingham, then.
Some counties hold a lot more sway than others.
For example, Devon with 18 votes, Cumbria 14 and Berks Bucks & Oxon, Leics Northants & Rutland, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire with 13 carry the most.
At the other end of the scale, all the Welsh counties carry six or less votes, the Isle of Wight is worth just one, Surrey has two and East Sussex and West Sussex have three each.
Arguably more tellingly in terms of the candidates' chances, this is how the votes pan out by region. By some distance, the South West has the biggest say, with Wales and the North West the smallest.
South East - 39
South West - 60
East Anglia - 48
East Midlands - 42
West Midlands - 37
North East - 41
North West - 30
Wales - 30.
Click here for FG Insight's report on the South West hustings
See below for NFU videos of each of the candidates at the hustings:
For their election statements on the NFU website, click on the candidates' names below.