16 January 1998

A DAY IN THE LIFE: AN

NFU GROUP SECRETARY

An NFU group secretarys job is rarely a simple one:

As well as the insurance side, there is a constant flow of

farmers needing help and advice on milk quotas, planning

applications, road transport regs… the list is almost

endless. Helen Lewis found out when she spent a

day with a Cumbrian group secretary

THERES more to an NFU group secretarys job than selling farm insurance and making loud noises at the government, as I found when I spent a day with Derek Lomax, one of three NFU group secretaries based in the Lake district town of Kendal in Cumbria.

9.30am. By the time I arrive at the office Derek had already waded through a two inch stack of paper (the result of a fortnights leave) and was concluding what appeared to be a lengthy telephone conversation:

"That was a call from a local farmer who wants his son to become a business partner and needed to know which time of the year would be best to form the partnership," said Derek handing me a welcome cup of tea:

"I explained it needed to be looked at very carefully because a partnership formed at the wrong time could not only prejudice this years sheep annual premium claim but also last years HLCA claim and the farmer could stand to lose a great deal of money."

Typically, the staff of the Kendal NFU office spend the mornings at their desks going through mail, answering phone calls from farmers with queries and dealing with ongoing NFU correspondence. The branch covers an area of about 500sq miles in south Cumbria with currently 500 full farming members and 150 countryside members (non-farmers but with an interest in the countryside).

With the livestock market operating across the road today, there is a steady flow of farmers coming through the door. One needs an insurance cover note for a new Land Rover, another has a query about insuring a bull. And so it goes on.

Before joining the NFU as group secretary five years ago, Derek was a farmer. Without any agricultural background he started the hard way – as a tenant on a 14ha (34-acre) dairy unit just before the advent of milk quotas. Between lack of quota and the need for substantial investment to comply with pollution regulations, he eventually decided to sell up and began a career with the NFU. What attracted him to this type of work, I wondered?

"There is plenty of variety and no two days are the same. About half my time is spent solving problems on the NFU side – which pays a mere £190 a year – and the other half selling insurance for the Mutual.

"Only farmers could possibly think up a system where an idiot like me works for them for only £190, hopefully deals with all their problems but at the same time leaves me to generate my own income. The foresight of the farmers who set up the NFU and the Mutual insurance was brilliant."

11am. Before we can discuss anything further the telephone rings. A local dairy farmer needs advice on the correct procedure when buying milk quota and whether he should occupy the land to which the quota is attached:

"The only safe advice I could give is yes, he must put some livestock on that land because at a later date it may be possible for someone to claim back the quota if it wasnt occupied," explained Derek.

However, he doesnt always have the answers to everything at hand. The frequent legislation changes and the complex nature of some agricultural matters often means he has to direct the farmer to a specialist:

"The range of problems farmers come to us with is so diverse a group secretary could not possibly know everything," he says. "For instance, a farmer recently came to me to discuss a traffic offence. It turned out the policeman was unaware that towing a forage harvester with a trailer behind it came under an agricultural exemption.

"I also had a member come to me when the RSPCA prosecuted him for cruelty after a lamb had been discovered lame at a market. Both these cases I had to refer to the NFU legal team for help."

At the end of the day though, Derek has to earn his crust by selling insurance for the Mutual – livestock, machinery, vehicles, house and contents, buildings, personal accident, liabilities, loss of income and travel insurance are his domain. Also, he is expected to get introductions for NFU financial consultants to advise farmers on pensions, life assurance, and general finance for machinery and buildings.

12.30pm. After a discussion with a member regarding livestock transportation regulations we leave the office and head for the first of two afternoon appointments with George Hayton and Sarah Callister at Brow Top Farm, a 120ha (300-acre) dairy and sheep holding near Kentmere.

The meeting turns out to be a straightforward farm insurance renewal involving a few minor adjustments to livestock numbers. Within an hour we are on the road for the tedious journey through holiday traffic to the next visit, Roy and Paula Parkinsons Round Hill Farm at Kirkstone near Ambleside.

After increasing their sheep flock to 1500 Herdwick and Swaledale ewes, Roy and Paula decided a new 18m x 14m (60ft x 45ft) building to house the sheep in winter was needed. However getting planning permission for a new agricultural building in a National Park is no mean feat.

The main concern for the planning authority is visibility, especially as a much-used footpath crosses the hillside opposite the farmyard. The last thing a National park Planning Authority wants is a modern concrete and galvanised tin eyesore on an otherwise unblemished landscape.

As a result Derek has been asked by the Parkinsons to attend a meeting with the planning officer at the site of the proposed construction.

3pm. As the meeting progresses, Derek, there basically as a mediator, suggests a compromise for both parties and eventually an agreement is reached. As long as none of the existing mature oak trees which screen the building are removed and the roof and side cladding painted dark grey then Roy and Paula can erect the building.

5pm. As I leave Derek at his office writing his report, a thought occurs to me. Every farmer complains about the single IACS form he completes each year, but spare a thought for an NFU group secretary like Derek Lomax – he may have several hundred to do!

Derek Lomax says about half his time is spent on the insurance side and the other half on solving farmer members problems

Derek Lomax (far left) acts as mediator in a planning dispute between Roy and Paula Parkinson and the planning officer from the National Park Planning Authority.