He was “Tarzan”, the 1980s cabinet minister who was regularly interviewed in a flak jacket, oversaw unprecedented urban regeneration following Liverpool’s Toxteth riots and dramatically resigned from Thatcher’s cabinet over the Westland helicopter affair.

So what could Lord Michael Heseltine, chairman of the Haymarket publishing, possibly know about farming? Well, as owner of Europe’s premier arable farming event, he knows quite a bit, actually – and not just about the Cereals event. Climate change, environmental protection, government lobbying and Eastern Europe all featured when he talked exclusively to Farmers Weekly.

Lord Heseltine

Does farming get listened to by government?
“I have always believed the NFU is one of the most effective pressure groups in the UK. As an MP in the West Country [Tavistock, Devon] I was only too well aware of how organised it was and how well it represented its members. It could change government policy over a weekend. Certainly that was when farming accounted for more of the national economy it has a smaller share now. But I think it still gets listened to more than its scale necessarily justifies. And that is for very understandable reasons, because individual farmers, with their livelihoods at stake, are very effective at making a very direct approach to their MP.”

How do you think society views farming?
“Generally I think it has a pretty benign perception of it. It has a love of the countryside and a respect for farmers, but not for farmers who show no respect for the countryside, who only think of the task of the day, and don’t take account of proper waste disposal, for example. Nobody would support that and I know it is a very small part of farmers that have anything to do with that sort of thing. Considering the scale involved I think the industry comes out pretty well. But in an increasingly affluent society the pressures on intensive farming will become greater.”

What is farming’s role in climate change?
“The scrutiny of how we use the planet will intensify and so it should. No industry is immune. Avoidable waste is unacceptable and we are all guilty of it. We can each do something more to reduce it, and farmers are no exception. They should not want to be immune from it. There are many solutions they can offer.”

Many think farming is over-regulated. Is it?
“There are no simple answers, and I don’t want to make simplistic points, but raised standards, and environmental protection, are things society demands. Regulations can be irritating, and goodness knows we have our fair share in my industry, but I know full well that intensive farming needs to do its bit. I believe farmers would not want it any other way, really.”

Why is Cereals so important?
“The Cereals Event is a very attractive concept, with a formidable reputation amongst cereal growing farmers. It’s the practical nature of the demonstrations, and the interplay between farmers and the experts, to improve their understanding of the latest agronomic, market and environmental changes that makes it successful. We know the content must be excellent – farmers would not come if it was not. And today it is a very buoyant economic sector. It wasn’t always so, but it is now.”

Will Cereals change?
“If it works, why would we change the basic formula? The demonstration of sound science through crop plots lies at the heart of the event and should continue to do so. It’s not about talking first, but about seeing practical things demonstrated. We have to see it that way round. It’s the Haymarket philosophy: The content of the event is king.”

Do the plots really demonstrate practical farming?
“I’m very keen on horticulture, it is a personal hobby, so I know there is only so far you can go with manicuring what has been planted in the ground. You can’t replace it. And we would have no interest in producing anything other than the best package of practical plots. The visitors, exhibitors and advisers we employ all ensure we get the right standard.”

How important do you believe the event is to arable farmers?
“The best test is the numbers attending and all the evidence is that it is the focal event for farmers, manufacturers and advisers, because of the content.” Last year attracted 360 exhibitors and 22,875 visitors, one in four of which made a purchase on the day.

And what of the future?
“Farmers are not going to risk their livelihoods. They want to know what is going on and what may be coming. But our first responsibility is to help them improve the bottom line of their business, and we can’t forget that. So it is a balance, the bedrock of which is what can a farmer plant and what profit can he make from that.”

What about non-food crops?
“Cereals is the event’s name and cereals are the central theme. I don’t see that changing. This year Cereals introduces Arable Outlook – a new markets area to profile new and existing crops and their non-food uses. It is a little ahead of its time, but we do need to recognise that alternative crops and alternative uses are around, and if we don’t keep farmers informed about those, then others will.”

Can Cereals learn from other Haymarket events?
“Yes, we can bring value from our experiences in other markets, where we run events, exhibitions, corporate entertainment, conferences, videos, websites, you name it. The task of our Cereals team is to bring those other experiences to bear on Cereals.”

So will we see more live activities at Cereals, like at Autosport Live?
“In a very real sense Cereals is already a “live” event. Many exhibits are quite literally live. It is the growing plants that are at the heart of the event.” The sprayer demonstration area and cultivations plots further add to the “live” experience.

Can we expect to see Cereals-branded activities throughout the year?
“We will explore the possibilities and see if there is a demand. But our first big opportunity to extend the brand is into Eastern Europe, where we are now making good progress in passing the milestones we set ourselves towards staging a Cereals event there. There is definitely a very positive enthusiasm for such an event.”

Will you develop other events in the UK?
“When we acquired The Grower magazine, to complement Horticulture Week, we acquired some events in that sector, and we have added others. That is not the end of it. Haymarket is a company that expands.”

Could Cereals be staged on your Northamptonshire farm?
“We do farm 1200 acres near Banbury, with 700 acres of cereals, but that is managed by a professional company and we would not stage Cereals there.”

Could forestry be the next sector you target?
“It is true that I am restoring a 70-acre 18th century woodland, and we have now have more than 3000 different trees and shrubs. But that is a personal interest. What the business does is quite separate.”

And what of the livestock farming sector?
“We have no immediate plans. But we are a dynamic company.”

Heseltine on:

  • Farming: “Society has a love of the countryside and a respect for farmers, but not for farmers who show no respect for the countryside.”
  • NFU: “I have always believed the NFU is one of the most effective pressure groups in the UK.”
  • A livestock event: “We have no immediate plans. But we are a dynamic company.” Tarzan: “Being called Tarzan does you no harm at all Even today, I will walk past a building site and get called Tarzan. I wave.”
  • Leadership: “What I saw clearly again and again was a dearth of leadership that was making Britain crumble.”
  • Politics: “You can’t go back. I had a good run.”
  • Labour: “The problem with New Labour is that they don’t get things done. I did. You see it again and again in the way money is poured into the health service, but services don’t improve”

Sources: Guardian Unlimited interview 2008 + Farmers Weekly interview 2008

Cereals Events

Cereals 2008 takes place on June 11 and 12 at Leadenham, near Lincoln, Lincolnshire. The official event guide is published in Farmers Weekly on 30 May. More info at www.fwi.co.uk/cereals