22 March 2002

Growers need better PR to put their case across

Why do arable farmers

need an arable association

to promote their affairs?

Andrew Swallow asks

Norfolk farmer Teddy Maufe

THE ship is sinking. What do you do? Ask for more ice in your gin and tonic and slide quietly under with it? Or man the pumps and try to keep the vessel afloat?

That is the situation facing most arable farmers in the UK today, says Norfolk grower Teddy Maufe.

The ships crew, competent enough in calmer waters, maintains that it is still in control and can navigate its way through the storm. Yet it is clear to a rising number of the passengers that the crew is overwhelmed by the crisis.

It is time to put all hands on deck, with or without the crews assistance, and raise the alarm ashore that most of the UKs arable farms are sinking.

"How can the NFU claim it has all the industrys problems covered? So many arable farm businesses are haemorrhaging money yet the public perception is still that we are fat cats and barley barons," says Mr Maufe.

A straw poll of guests in his own farmhouse bed and breakfast over the past year reveals the extent of the problem. "They come from a wide cross-section of society and 75% are still under the impression that there is no financial problem in UK arable farming. They say to my wife how lucky you are to be arable farmers."

Clearly, the real problems the industry faces, and the quality goods and services it provides, need to be promoted in a new, more forceful manner, he says.

"This must not be a whinge. We must tell them how it is, what we already do for them in terms of countryside management and food production, and what more we could do with the right guidance. The problem is no one seems to realise bankrupt farmers do not make good environmentalists."

Such is the scale of the promotional exercise required that at least one paid professional PR person is needed, he says. Simply paying current politically motivated arable farmers to do the job will not work.

"We need a high calibre professional public relations executive who could put the industry on the front foot when it comes to PR, not a glorious amateur farmer. History has shown how damaging that can be."

The executive would be answerable to a panel or working committee of arable farmers elected by an arable industry association. That association would be the framework for funding such an executive and its campaigns.

"Whether this association would work more effectively inside or outside the NFU must be thoroughly examined," says Mr Maufe.

It would not be cheap, but, levied on an area basis, 10p/arable hectare from all in the industry could give such an executive substantial clout.

"What price do you put on survival? Farmers are notorious for penny pinching. In the end you get what you pay for."

All angles of public relations need addressing, from broadsheet newspapers to womens magazines and school curricula.

"We need to blitz it. If we do that then pennies just might start to drop with the public, and when that happens politicians will start to sit up and take notice.

"If the nation is behind us and believes that we are worth saving then the government will have a hard job suffocating us." &#42

Ostrich or activist?

Arable farmers generally fall into three groups in their reaction to the current crisis, believes Mr Maufe. The "ostriches" hope that when they next look up the k will be worth over 70p and the government will have miraculously fallen in love with farming. The "fortunate few" believe they can rise above it all, growing 11t/ha of wheat with less than a man/600ha and boasting about production costs of under £50/t. "These people play into the hands of DEFRA. In the real world few can aspire to such levels of productivity because of rents, smaller units, poorer soils, and a whole host of other constraints." Then there are the "activists", an increasing number of proactive growers who realise that without drastic action they, and the ostriches, will all be history. "Which group are you in?" asks Mr Maufe. If you think you may be an activist e-mail branthill.farms@appleonline.net or fax 01328-711524.