With agriculture the lifeblood of many communities in Wales, NFU Cymru president John Davies said the industry must be bold in its messaging to Government and ambitious for future.
Ensuring farming communities remain vibrant in uncertain times is a key objective for NFU Cymru president John Davies and the wider union.
Enthused by the people he meets in his role, Mr Davies is well aware of the challenges posed by Brexit, for the industry as a whole and for individual farmers.
With NFU Cymru’s ‘We are Welsh Farming’ campaign seeking to highlight the wider social and economic benefits of agriculture, its goals chime with those of Farmers Guardian’s own Farming: The Backbone of Britain initiative, which showcases the communities and characters which make the industry tick.
And with the political agenda in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland having moved on to agricultural policy creation, as opposed to policy implementation, Mr Davies believed such campaigns were vital when it came to enthusing the wider farming community and ensuring farming’s viewpoint was heard.
“Our message must be about the environment, production and stability,” he said. “We used to rely on France and Germany to provide the negotiating power in Common Agricultural Policy negotiations, but with Brexit those days are over.
“We all have to engage with this [Welsh Government consultation] because Welsh agricultural policy is a whole new ball game which is about [policy] creation, and we therefore have to win hearts and minds.”
With the Welsh Government paper – Brexit and Our Land – now out for consultation, Mr Davies said the fact farming mixed business concerns so intrinsically with social and cultural issues needed reinforcing to Ministers.
That core theme of people and place is one which runs through Mr Davies’ view of the industry.
Spending time with him at his farm in the hamlet of Merthry Cynog, Powys, he is clearly relishing his role as president of the union.
With his family having farmed in Merthyr Cynog for centuries, Mr Davies said achieving frictionless trade post-Brexit was essential to the future economic and social health of communities such as his, especially as farming employed more than 20 per cent of the local population in certain parts of Wales.
He said: “54 farms were cleared from Merthyr Cynog when the Ministry of Defence took over [Mynnyd] Epynt [common] at the start of World War II to use as a firing range for the army.
“This had a massive impact on the community in terms of its people and culture and I do not want to see that happen with Brexit. We have to ensure our communities and farms are allowed to prosper as they are the glue which binds rural areas together.”
This was an issue which personally resonated with Mr Davies who supported his chief farm worker, Alun Morgan, as he fought a five-year planning battle with local authorities to build a new home and machinery workshop in the hamlet.
Ensuring Mr Morgan and wife Gaynor could live locally – something they finally managed to achieve in 2012 – was an uphill battle and Mr Davies believed Wales was in need of a planning policy which was fit for purpose.
With Mr Morgan having worked for Mr Davies for more than 18 years and their professional relationship being a key reason the latter could leave the farm for sustained periods in his NFU Cymru role, both had good reason to stand up to planners in the way they did.
Mr Morgan also runs a contracting business which is of key importance to local farmers.
Mr Davies said: “Acres are important but neighbours are more so because if you do not have people around you, what do you have?”
Yet, despite his clear focus, having confidence Government understands how important people are to rural areas is a different matter altogether. With Defra Secretary Michael Gove an ardent free marketer, does the direction of legislative travel jar with the realities of what makes Welsh farming tick?
Mr Davies said: “It is not only the sheep which are hefted to these hills, the people are too. If you lose this skill base from an area [because people are forced off the land] then it is gone forever.
“If we get a bad Brexit deal for sheep when 30 per cent of lambs are exported, with 95 per cent going to Europe, then it poses huge problems. It is vital we get frictionless trade and when politicians promise something that is what they have to deliver.
“You do not go back on your word and we are reaching a point where we will have to hold people’s feet to the fire to ensure they stick to their promises.”
While welcoming Lesley Griffiths’ five commitments announced at the NFU conference in Birmingham in November, Mr Davies was concerned the final consultation did not acknowledge the role of food production and how vital this was for the country as a whole.
He was also frustrated some politicians seemed to think there could be good environmental outcomes without a profitable and productive farming sector there to implement them.
“I cannot farm in a green way if my business is in the red,” he said.
“If we move to purely environmental payments and focus on knowledge transfer and take away the underlying support which recognises the regulatory burden we farm under, then our business is not feasible.
“If we get Brexit wrong it will be very bad. We have an ideological viewpoint being taken [by the likes of Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson] when it comes to negotiations and it could be very damaging.
“We need to underpin the Welsh farming brand with the right standards and support it properly.”
Excited by the new wave of youngsters coming in to the industry and the technological revolution agriculture was witnessing, Mr Davies believed building the Welsh farming brand along ‘clean and green’ lines, as New Zealand was doing, offered huge opportunities.
“Wales is not home to monocultures of maize or wheat as seen in the US. We have a rich diversity of flora and fauna and we have to capitalise on it.
“Welsh farming is about community, language and heritage and we are in danger of losing them in this Brexit process.”
And while he has taken the farm on from his father, Elwyn, 88, with whom he checks the cattle every morning at 5am when not on the road, he was clear his challenge now was to ensure the farm was in a positive state when it came time for him to hand it on.
“Despite how much I love and respect my father and grandfather and what they did here, I have a responsibility to hand this farm on [to the next generation] in a better condition than I found it,” he said.
“Farmers are the glue of rural communities and we mould a landscape which people widely appreciate. That should not be underestimated by politicians.”