Farmers Weekly chief reporter Johann Tasker gives his opinion on whether there is room for another farming body.
Is there room for another farming body? After all, the list of groups is already as long as your arm. There’s the NFU, the CLA, the Tenant Farmers Association – not to mention the plethora of acronym-laden bodies covering almost every aspect of agriculture.
Farm minister Jim Paice believes there is room for one more group. At this month’s Oxford Farming Conference, he revealed he had asked the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board to investigate the possibility of creating a “new professional body for agriculture”.
It’s early days and Mr Paice admitted as much when Farmers Weekly asked him to elaborate on the idea. In a nutshell, the body could promote innovation within the industry, while helping to encourage and spread best practice among farmers, he said. But it was a personal view.
To a certain extent, we’ve been here before. Professional bodies such as a Chartered Institute of Agriculture that could issue professional qualifications have in the past been mooted as a way of raising farming to a level alongside careers such as surveying, law or even medicine.
True, many groups already consider themselves professional agricultural bodies. They include the Institute of Agricultural Management, the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers and the Institution of Agricultural Engineers, among others.
This time, though, it’s different. Details are scant. But Mr Paice is looking at something different again. “I have for a long time believed that as farming moves nearer the market and out of the shelter of government, it needs its own professional body,” he said.
In a world where technical advice is as important as business advice, Mr Paice believes the AHDB is the ideal candidate to have a wider role within the industry. And he has asked AHDB chairman John Godfrey to see how such a professional body can be established.
How much input DEFRA civil servants have had is uncertain. Ditto other DEFRA ministers. But Mr Paice’s “personal idea” certainly fits in well with the austerity drive that has seen cutbacks across government departments and agencies. There is less money within government and a requirement for agencies to do more with it. Mr Paice will be well aware of this – and well aware that AHDB already works in partnership with other public and private bodies involved in knowledge transfer to farmers.
That said, there is scope in any organisation to “do things better”. And there is indeed scope for greater co-ordination of knowledge transfer across the range of agricultural sectors that AHDB represents on behalf of its levy payers.
Dealing with commercial interests and third parties means this plan won’t be as straightforward as it might first appear. But by taking what has already been achieved since the AHDB was set up as an umbrella body to the old levy boards, it might just be possible.
More coherent messages to farmers and better co-ordination when it comes to spreading innovation and best practice could deliver better value for money. The trick will be to achieve it without turning AHDB into a delivery body for the government’s agricultural policies – and to do so while keeping existing professional farming bodies on side.
See all the news and views from the Oxford Farming Conference 2012 on our dedicated page.