11 February 2000

Task new challenge & not a poisoned chalice

At 36 the new NFU vice-

president Richard Watson

Jones is one of the youngest

senior office holders in the

NFUs history.

Robert Davies visited him and

found a man willing to take a

fresh approach to the job

WITH farming in deep crisis Richard Watson Jones has arguably been handed a poisoned chalice in his new role as NFU vice president. But he sees the task as a welcome challenge and hopes that his efforts will be good enough to one day land him the top job at the union.

"I entered farming politics in the late 80s because I wanted to have an influence and to make a difference. If I did not think that I could help all farmers through the NFU I would not have gone for this job."

He is a director of Watson Jones, a 414.51ha (1100 acres) family business based at Fern Hill Farm, Sutton, Shropshire. Enterprises include 150 dairy cows, 161ha (400 acres) of cereals, 105ha (260 acres) of potatoes and 48.49ha (120 acres) of sugar beet.

"I suppose I am an arable man by inclination, but I fully understand the inter relationship between different enterprises. When I joined the business after college my father insisted that I spent time as an ordinary member of the labour force to learn how to do all the jobs."

But to keep his feet on the ground, and to help him succeed as vice president, he wants members to keep him informed of their views by talking to him face to face, or through the structure he helped to create when he chaired the membership working group that reported in 1998.

"Members told us that they would become more involved in branch meetings if they felt their opinions reached headquarters. Of 42 headline recommendations we made 36 were accepted outright, and I believe that those who still claim that the union does not listen to members are really saying that their views are not the majority view."

He has an unshakeable belief that the union is fully democratic, and that it is the only organisation that can focus political and public attention on the real issues, and develop a strategy for the industry to move forward.

"It has all the relevant contacts in the UK and Brussels. I have pledged to throw all my energies into being part of the team trying to capitalise on the unions strengths to get a better deal for farmers. The PM talks about a long term strategy, I say that there will not be many farmers around to benefit from it unless agriculture gets some help with crisis management."

Mr Watson Jones says that factors such over regulation of domestic production and not imposing the same standards on imports give competitors an unfair advantage. But, unlike the impact of currency rates, these could be put right immediately.

While he insists that that the NFU must continue to hold robust, intelligent negotiations with government to achieve this, he feels that direct action by members can strengthen the case.

"Governments do not respond favourably to a confrontational or aggressive approach at talks, but separate lawful over spilling of emotion by members who feel unfairly treated helps to get the message across."

In recent years chairing the NFUs potato committee and other union responsibilities have increasingly taken him away from the farm. This was made possible by support from his wife Helen, who is company secretary, and his brother Stephen.

He admits that he has been working towards high NFU office for a decade, and that his ambition is to lead the union.

A century ago his family were tenant farmers at Llanerfyl in Powys and he still feels a strong affinity with Wales, where the NFU competes for members with the Farmers Union of Wales.

"There is strength in unity, and it is right to explore how the two unions can help each other. But I have a completely open mind on the possibility of a long term resolution of the two union situation in Wales."

Richard Watson Jones has an unshakeable belief in the NFU and wants to capitalise on its strengths.