Enjoying the industry’s most exciting times

Faces of the Future highlights dynamic young people in farming. Carol McLaren talked to James Withers.

An unflappable ability to rise to any challenge has contributed to the rapid career progression of James Withers, NFU Scotland’s 31-year-old head of communications and deputy chief executive.

From tackling a queue of satellite TV vans full of reporters desperate for interviews during a Foot and Mouth outbreak to tracking down a sheep shearer willing to work in a glitzy London salon for a TV show – James relishes the fact no two days are the same.

Originally from Colchester, James studied politics and international relations at Aberdeen University, joining NFUS as a graduate trainee parliamentary adviser in 1999, the year the Scottish Parliament opened.

“I came into an industry so full of jargon and acronyms it was quite daunting. But I think the fact I had no farming background worked to my advantage when talking to politicians and news journalists with very little knowledge of agriculture. I was able to speak to them in a way they could understand,” said James.

Foot and Mouth disease in 2001 changed James’ priorities from political to 24/7media work and a wider public affairs role. He is now responsible for a membership team of seven and a communications team of four.

“The great thing about this job is most days I come into work and I have absolutely no idea how the day will go. Doing a nine-to-five job knowing exactly what will happen every hour would drive me crazy.”

The media team typically handles up to 50 press enquiries daily (rising to 150 during pressure times such as Foot and Mouth) plus three or four radio and TV interviews a week, predominantly from consumer and environmental correspondents.

The NFUS campaign to tackle the major retailers is the project which has given James the greatest pride. It is an example of the “behind the scenes” work, often very sensitive, of which media and members are often unaware.

“In 2004 we decided we would take on the ‘big four’ and ask questions about how they treated suppliers. At the time we were told we were crazy, that they were our best customers and we shouldn’t rock the boat.

“But now, suddenly, people are asking questions and it’s front page news. I’m proud to have played a part in that,” said James.

The job also means being a right hand man for the Union president and he has worked with three very different presidents.

“Jim McLaren has unbelievable energy, is very single-minded about where he wants to go but brings the members along with him. He’s only a few months into the job but he has brought new energy into the organisation and the potential to do something really significant is huge.”

Married to Joanna with two children, Ben (1) and Amy (3), family remains James’ top priority. He is also a huge sport fan and plays golf and football. 

“I’m not good at letting go of work, partly because I love the job. But I am disciplined about taking holidays when my mobile and Blackberry get locked away for two weeks,” he said.

And his plans for the future? “I don’t know what’s going to happen next week, never mind in five years time! When I started at 23 if someone had said I’d be deputy chief executive by 29, I’d have said ‘no way’.  But it doesn’t feel like any kind of meteoric rise, it’s just the way the job has evolved.

“I’m enjoying one of the industry’s most exciting times. Today’s big issues are climate change, food miles and the environment and this industry is at the heart of those. It feels great to be making a difference.”

James Withers (31)

* Politics and international relations at Aberdeen University
* NFUS trainee parliamentary adviser
* NFUS heady of communications and deputy chief executive
* Responsible for a membership team of seven and a communications team of four.
* Being part of an NFUS campaign to quiz the big four retailers on how they treated suppliers.
* Enjoying one of the agricultural industry’s most exciting times

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