Long-term relationships key to farming success, new minister says

Food and farming minister Jane Kennedy had a whistle-stop tour of some of the most innovative collaborations in the supply chain last week when she visited Camgrain in Cambridge and Milk Link’s Tuxford & Tebbutt stilton cheese plant at Melton Mowbray.

The day was organised by English Farming and Food Partnerships to show the new minister how advances in sharing risk within the supply chain were delivering real commercial solutions for farmers and others.

Mrs Kennedy said the day was critical to her and the government’s understanding about the industry and she was convinced that partnership was one of the most reliable ways of sustaining and growing businesses in an uncertain world.

In a lunchtime debate with her, Neil Kennedy, chief executive of Milk Link, highlighted that one of the biggest issues was farmer confidence. “We still have farmers exiting dairy at an alarming rate and yet demand for dairy products continues to grow. It’s inevitable we could end up with more imports,” he said.

Mr Kennedy urged the minister to help improve farmer confidence because he said issues like bovine TB and the additional burden of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones did quite the opposite.

Roly Taplin, business director of DHL Excel Supply Chain, was worried about the degree of farmer ignorance about how supply chains work and what’s changing within the industry. “The first stage manufacturers (ie. producers) are not engaged enough,” he said.

Government response

Mrs Kennedy agreed that confidence was a problem, particularly in the dairy sector where two farmers were going out of business each day. She wanted to avoid a situation where there was more dependence on imports and less food safety assurance for consumers.

One area where government was responding positively, she said, was in the area of sustaining farmer markets by encouraging local authorities through changes to planning regulation. However, many attending the meeting told her there were more urgent planning matters to address such as allowing planners to approve more development in the countryside.

Former Farmers Weekly Farmer of the Year Andy Guy questioned the minister on public procurement of food. “Public sector purchasing is a great opportunity to show a big lead on British produce,” he said.

Mrs Kennedy responded by stating that this was well under way with hospitals and schools around the country embracing the philosophy already. She added that it was now compulsory for all primary schoolchildren to be taught to cook and that by 2011 this requirement would be part of the new curriculum for secondary schools.

Training needed

More skills training and a greater focus on research and development were also widely discussed. Too much emphasis was placed on environmental research and not enough on production, the minister was told, and the general view was that work undertaken by the Environment Agency, Natural England, the RSPB and Rothamstead was not freely available to farmers and not well connected with farming practice.

Mrs Kennedy said she felt more could be done on skills and knowledge transfer using the Rural Development Agencies, but Mick Stubbs, of the East Midlands Development Agency, had a counter argument.

“You are right, RDAs do need to be challenged by DEFRA but we want more leadership from DEFRA. Over the last 20 years, food has not been an issue for government and that’s not the case any more. We need leadership at national level to meet the needs of the sector going forward,” he said.

Mr Stubbs urged government to take the longer view and not look simply to political cycles to make easy wins. He said the decisions of today should be having a positive impact in the next 20-30 years. “We need the brightest, best thinkers in the industry and I don’t think we have got that at the moment,” he said.

The minister agreed and said: “It was interesting to hear young people at the NFU conference express frustrations in working with their parents. There is an appetite for agriculture as a business that has a future but we have to continue to promote the positives and fix the problems.”

Sion Roberts, EFFP chief executive, explained his disappointment that DEFRA was no longer actively involved in helping the industry find supply chain solutions to its problems.

As ministerial visits go, this was another constructive attempt to draw Jane Kennedy’s attention to the big issues that government can influence. She came across as warm, friendly and open about the different challenges facing each sector but was unable to promise any change in DEFRA direction.