Liz Truss’ address to the Tory faithful at the Conservative Party conference this year was an improvement on last year’s widely lampooned “British cheese” speech – which became a viral hit on the internet – but the Defra secretary has a long way to go to convince farmers she has their best interests at heart.
In her speech, she claimed farmers will be able to boost crop yield and improve productivity using 8,000 publicly available datasets – news that was first announced earlier this year.
She said publishing the data would help to “turbocharge” the rural economy and encourage a new generation of pioneers in the countryside.
In her speech, Ms Truss spoke of her ambition to make food and farming a top destination for high-flying graduates, and as “cutting-edge as Tech City”.
She said while rural areas generated large numbers of start-ups and accounted for one-quarter of all firms, they were home to only one-fifth of the population.
Working with business
The government wants to make it easier for start-up businesses to enter the market and for new and exciting ideas to take root, she said.
She pledged to work with business to treble the number of apprentices in food and farming over the next five years.
She also claimed Defra would challenge “pointless” regulation and the organisation.
She said the government had already reduced regulations for farmers and would reduce another £500m of red tape during the current parliament.
Truss needs to win farmers’ respect
So, an improvement on last year’s speech, but Ms Truss needs a better grip of the minutiae of agricultural policy if she is to win farmers’ respect.
There is a growing realisation that junior Defra minister George Eustice is far better informed than his Defra secretary boss when it comes to farming matters.
That is perhaps understandable – the senior Defra brief is broader-ranging and encompasses issues far beyond the farm gate.
Liz Truss does not have a natural affinity with the industry and must start delivering on a range of issues if growers and livestock producers are to see her as a person they can really do business with.
Trotting out lines about food and farming being a £100bn industry “bigger than cars and aerospace combined” is increasingly wearisome when Defra refuses to advance support payments to producers who face a mounting cashflow crisis this autumn.
Yes, this was a speech for Conservative Party delegates rather than for farmers. But it was also a missed opportunity for Ms Truss to outline in depth how the government will address the big issues affecting farming – including pitifully slow progress in the fight against bovine TB.
Phrases such as “turbocharging the rural economy” might make a catchy soundbite – but this speech lacked detail about how that might be achieved.
As a result, Ms Truss appears to be dreaming about the future while failing to address the here-and-now challenges facing the industry.