HELPING GROWERS cope in turbulent times is what the Home-Grown Cereals Authority is there for. Risk management in volatile markets, squeezing more from levy funds and co-ordinating industry messages are all ways it can make a difference.

Unsurprising goals for a new chief executive with deep roots in the commercial world of grain trading. But that is Jonathan Cowens” vision of the HGCA’s immediate future.

Two weeks into the position, and after a month shadowing former chief executive Paul Biscoe, his goal is largely more of the same, at least until the NFU-backed Cereals Industry Review reports later this month.

“There will be no changes for change’s sake,” he says. “We have a good platform that has been built up over the past five years. But we do need to change in response to the marketplace and the industry.”

The ability of UK growers to cope with volatile markets is a key concern. “We are seeing market fluctuations people have never experienced before and we need to ensure the industry understands how it can offset those risks.”

Experience with RHM, ABF Export, Allied, Lingrain and more latterly Centaur leave him convinced market information is a priority. “Unless we know what is happening people can’t make informed decisions.”

However, research and development is also important. “Research organisations can pre-empt market changes and investing in their future is investing in our ability to compete on the world market,” he says.

But piecemeal funding is not favoured. “We need to focus on specific initiatives.” Non-food use is a prime example. HGCA support for a carbon accreditation scheme, underpinned by an environmental footprint for crop production, will help UK producers prove their ability to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding public. Co-ordinating such cross-industry efforts is a key role for the HGCA, Mr Cowens believes.

Back at the authority’s HQ in north London balancing the budget is a challenge, particularly since thin crops in 2003 cut income just as DEFRA insisted reserves be run down.

maximise opportunities

Increasingly dynamic decisions on funding will be the answer. “We need to maximise the opportunities from what we have. Value is the issue,” Mr Cowens insists.

The next worry is how reduced cropping under the single farm payment will hit tonnage-based levy income. “Everyone is concerned about harvest 2006 and 2007. It is a problem for the whole industry,” Mr Cowens admits. “I think it will become clearer between now and next harvest, which will allow us to budget accordingly.”

Ensuring extra funds partner HGCA spending helps offset such income fluctuations, he says. Each £1 spent on R&D is matched by a further £2.30 from other sources.

But while efficient operations are key, proposals to merge the HGCA with other levy bodies, as made in the Haskins review, are played down. “We are already collaborating in certain areas. We now need to see what remit any further review is given,” says Mr Cowens.

In the meantime, ever greater contact with growers is sought. “Benchmarking shows we are doing well. But getting that message back to the industry is the key.” In 2003/2004, HGCA staff met over 19,000 people at more than 190 events, ranging from workshops to seminars and topic breakfasts to big conferences.

A host of further meetings is planned for 2005. Whether they will reveal a sharp change of direction for the authority now seems set to hinge around the outcome of the Cereals Industry Review, as much as the arrival of a new chief executive.

COWENS’ WAY

Grain trade background

Volatile market issues

Risk reduction key theme

Market info aids decisions

R&D vital to competitive position

Co-ordinating role in industry

Income fears under sfp

HGCA 03/04 SEASON

Wheat export brands launched

First BCE mission to Egypt

Carbon accreditation scheme

5.5m match funding for R&D

23 soil2crop events, 1155 attendees

Enviro footprint for cereals

28,000 RL-Plus interactive CDs

Improved www.hgca.com website

11 topic sheets, 4 guides

UK Cereals 2004 interactive map on website

Milling wheat e-club

£100,000 saving from R&D axed for not meeting objectives

£120,000 cut to Rec List costs

CAP: Grain trading principles arrive at the HGCA, as Centaur’s Jonathan Cowens takes over as chief executive.