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Phil Latham: NFU conference provides food for thought but ignores fundamental weaknesses

At the end of February I was delighted to attend the NFU conference in Birmingham for my second time. I realise now this is a poor effort given Lord Plumb has attended 61 consecutive conferences and I shall have to keep going till I am 106 if I am to match his record.

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It was a fascinating couple of days listening to a spectrum of politicians and a range of informed speakers talking about managing volatility. I was deeply disappointed with Huw Irranca Davies’ response to my question about TB and that the science-led Labour policy would not change even if the Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer suggests his analysis of data from the cull zones supports culling.

 

Capturing green votes appears to be more of a priority than disease control and we know who will pay the price.

 

We were informed how to reduce risk with multiple customers and there was talk of new fiscal tools to hedge risk by forward selling of milk. We were told in today’s world there are those which have not, those which have lots and those which have yachts and that the gap was widening. This is true for many dairy farmers, who by luck rather than judgement find themselves either benefiting or suffering due to the current market dynamics which rewards some at the expense of others.

 

I wonder how much we will learn from these wise words. I thought the dairy breakout session revealed just how far we have yet to go to come to terms with why we are where we are. The Dutch and German union representatives confirmed while their prices had fallen they

were not feeling the pinch like some of our farmers.

 

There was talk from our NFU of a need to be positive, to sell to China and to become more efficient. However, it reminded me of the story of the emperor’s new clothes and all I saw was an audience willing itself to believe the illusion somehow things will just get better, while knowing some well-invested dairy businesses will fail as their contracts are being terminated. We are a union of fragmented producers, proud of our hard-working heritage, who seem to be ignoring our fundamental weaknesses.

 

Phil Latham, Cheshire

Phil Latham farms 385ha (950 acres) in Cheshire, split between the family farm on Lord Cholmondeley's estate and Organsdale Farm near Tarporley. He milks 300 cows, mainly pedigree Brown Swiss, as well as diversifying into business units and an equestrian facility. He is also a Nuffield Scholar.

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