He spent 15 years at the Soil Association, but new National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker says it's time organic and conventional sectors set aside their differences to build a stronger UK sheep industry. He talks to Caroline Stocks
How did you get involved in agriculture?
I grew up in urban Bristol, but I had farming family in Wales and spent a lot of time there. I knew from an early age that farming was what I wanted to do, so I got an agricultural apprenticeship and went to Lackham College in Wiltshire. From there I eventually went to work as a farm manager on an arable and beef farm. I had an interest in sheep, though, so I set up my own flock on the estate. Soon after my wife and I accepted a farming partnership in Somerset, running 120 acres of arable and a flock of 500 breeding ewes. Over my career I've spent 24 years in practical agriculture.
So your career hasn't always been in active farming?
No, we share-farmed for eight years, then I had a short spell working for the RSPB organising its livestock grazing agreements in East Anglia. It gave me a taste of integrating farming practices with environmental objectives. I missed commercial agriculture though, so we went back to an estate in Gloucestershire before eventually moving to the Soil Association. I was there for 15 years and was responsible for knowledge transfer and helping conventional farmers convert to organic.
Phil Stocker in a minute:
Where do you live?
In Gloucestershire with my wife. We have a daughter and a son and our first grandchild is due in June.
Favourite place in the country:
The Quantock Hills in Somerset. It's a forgotten landscape, as people pass through them to go to Devon or Cornwall, but there are some amazing views over the Bristol Channel over to Wales.
Tell us something not many people know about you:
I keep bees.
Last book you read:
Probably the instruction book for our wood gasification boiler. I'm part of a local scheme that helps manage 750 acres of ancient woodland near our house and we have installed a boiler to produce our own power.
How do you relax?
I own poultry and grow my own vegetables and I have also been rebuilding an old house. I enjoy DIY - doing practical things keeps me relaxed.
What radio station is your car tuned to?
Five Live so I can listen to the football and the rugby. I also love tennis and like to play it regularly.
Why did you leave?
I reached a point where I wanted to achieve more. My interest was about supporting the agricultural community and best practice between farmers. Organic had gone through a tough 18 months and I felt like I was talking to the same people. The whole agricultural industry is facing big changes and I want to be involved on a wider stage - I thought I could do more with the NSA.
How does your organic background fit with your role at the NSA?
There was definitely some nervousness when I came into the role in November last year. But the meetings I have been in show the issues we are talking about are common throughout all sheep farmers, irrespective of production systems - whether that's getting the most out of grassland, efficient feeding or dealing with disease. My interest is in trying to get the community back together and see itself as one. I was aware of the divide between the organic and non-organic sectors when I was at the Soil Association - there wasn't necessarily anyone at fault, but I think the divide was at a higher level rather than at a farming one. When farmers get together there is lot of learning and sharing, irrespective of their production system. People can pick and choose solutions appropriate for them.
How do you see your role at the NSA?
I provide leadership to get the organisation and its members to deal with the challenges we face and make the most of the opportunities available. My role is to identify the opportunities and help producers make the most of them. We want to increase membership and make it stronger and we want to provide services and support that are valuable to members. We also have external targets to get the industry to make the most of technology, to promote best practice and to get young people involved in sheep production and realise the positives of the industry.
What are those positives?
The market is extremely strong at the moment and demand for sheep meat is increasing at a time when production in main producer countries is falling. The global population is also increasing, so the need for agricultural produce is growing. The role of sheep in volatile markets and sustainable systems is growing more important. Sheep contribute to the countryside and are produced from grass, which is a renewable resource. In terms of the environment, sheep are vital.
What challenges does the sheep industry face?
I talk to a lot of people who think sheep pose a risk to their businesses in terms of policy and regulation. There is bureaucracy in electronic identification and zero tolerance on traceability and tagging rules means lots of large farmers risk losing a substantial amount of their Single Farm Payment because of a relatively small sheep flock. It's very off-putting - people don't want to be burdened with red tape. The NSA will be stepping up its efforts to get the zero-tolerance rule overturned and we will be thinking more long-term about future reviews to make sure common sense is built in. When EID was introduced there was an understanding that there would be some leniency from Brussels to allow farmers to get to grips with the technology, but it didn't happen. There's an awful lot of frustration and concern and I think we need to revisit what we are trying to achieve in terms of traceability and disease control and work from there.
How much of an issue is disease to producers?
It's certainly one of the biggest. We will see more diseases like Schmallenberg because of things such as climate change and movement of livestock, so we need DEFRA to maintain good facilities for veterinary surveillance. We also have internal endemic disease issues which are a challenge to the sheep sector, such as sheep scab and lameness. I think we will overcome these problems by individual farmers or groups coming together to take collective action. But at the same time government cannot forget its responsibility when it comes to disease - it's all very well 90% of producers doing the right thing without regulation, but if 10% are impacting on everyone that raises questions over whether the government should take responsibility.
What does the sheep industry need to do to progress?
We need to continue to strive for efficiency and reduce waste. My vision is to find ways to celebrate diversity in the industry and not consolidate it. It would be a failure if the industry went further down the road of vertical integration in the way pig and poultry producers have done. Sheep production brings a lot to our landscape - we have so many different breeds and we should be celebrating that.
Is enough being done to introduce young people to the indsutry?
We have come a long way in improving the image of agriculture and there is much more positivity in the industry, but we have got to work at making it an attractive business option to young people. We need to get parents and careers advisors to understand it's a hi-tech, challenging and scientific industry. We don't do enough to showcase the opportunities for young people to have a career in agriculture. When they come to us for work we just give them task-based jobs and that doesn't attract the high-calibre people the industry needs. It goes back to the way society sees farming. A lot of work has been done, but we need to do more to connect people with food and agriculture. We need to start at primary school level so people think of farming as a career from an early age. Sheep farmers should also do more to get kids on their farms, but it also needs to be easier to get children on farms without all the red tape and rules that entails.
How can consumers be encouraged to eat more lamb?
Consumption has decreased over the past year and lamb is being seen as a premium meat. The better price means producers can be successful and profitable, so we need to get consumers to recognise that we need these prices and that lamb is a premium, high-value product that has contributed to the countryside. I think we will see people eat less meat, but the meat they do eat will be of a higher quality and better value. Lamb shouldn't be compared with cheaper meats, it should be compared with top-end stuff.
Sheep Event 2012
Why not attend this year's NSA Sheep Event on 4 July at the Three Counties Showground, Malvern? For more information about the event visit our dedicated NSA Sheep 2012 page.