As NFU president Peter Kendall takes the reins for a third consecutive term in office, Johann Tasker outlines five priorities for the union over the next two years.
Reform of Europe’s cumbersome Common Agricultural Policy promises to be a major feature of 2010 and beyond, with Brussels set to engage in a wide debate about how the EU budget should be divvied up post-2013.
Talks will be heated – not least because the global economic downturn has fuelled the need for massive cost savings. Agricultural spending is likely to bear the brunt of efforts to ease budgetary pressure.
Direct payments have meant stability for farmers, but the view is strengthening – including within DEFRA – that financial support must do more to protect the environment, or be transferred into rural development policies.
The NFU might find an unlikely ally in EU commissioner Dacian Ciolos. But the tri-lingual Romanian faces an uphill battle to defend the scale of the CAP budget and to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of taxpayers.
At the same time, adoption of the Lisbon Treaty means the European parliament now has a full say on agricultural matters, so the NFU must persuade MEPs as well as the EU Commission of the best way to support farmers.
The most emotive issue facing farmers will continue to generate headlines – as will the government’s ongoing refusal to sanction a badger cull to combat the spread of the disease in England.
Failure to tackle bovine TB has seen up to 40,000 cattle slaughtered a year. Herds and livelihoods established over generations have been destroyed at a cost to the taxpayer approaching £100m a year.
While preparations for a badger cull are stepped up in Wales, English farmers are forced look on powerless as ministers pin their hopes on badger vaccine trials due to start this summer.
While continuing to press the case for a cull now, NFU insiders privately acknowledge that a change in government offers the best chance of a change in policy. Both the Tories and Lib Dems support a reduction in badger numbers.
Behind the scenes, the NFU has prepared proposals for a cull following the general election. It will face an almost certain legal challenge from animal welfare groups, so it is vital that those plans are watertight.
A skills shortage means Britain’s agricultural sector must recruit more than 60,000 new entrants over the next decade. Yet most youngsters continue to view the industry as an unattractive career choice.
The situation is so bad that it threatens the nation’s ability to feed itself, according to Lantra, the skills council for the land-based sector – let alone meet the challenge of producing more food for a growing world population.
Almost one third of employers find it difficult to replace staff, with vacancies for farm managers particularly hard to fill. At the same time, an ageing workforce means one in four employees is over 55.
Traditionally, farmworkers learnt on the job gaining few formal qualifications. Today, farming is increasingly technical and science driven, requiring proper investment in vital skills and training.
An industry-led AgriSkills Strategy launched in response to the crisis paints a vision of highly skilled and knowledgeable sector. It is an ambitious target, but the hard work to achieve it must start now.
A general election is just weeks away but a new government won’t necessarily mean a new beginning. Nor will it mean an end to unpopular and controversial government policies affecting farming.
The very real possibility of a hung parliament, and the likelihood that no single party will win a convincing mandate to form the next government, means the NFU can ill afford to ignore any of the mainstream manifestos.
Despite a fragile recovery from the recession, whoever gains power will face intense budgetary pressures. Treasury purse strings will be tighter than ever, making it vital the NFU fights hard for every penny for farming.
Ministers will seek to slash public expenditure. Pressing ahead with plans to offload the cost of combating animal disease on to farmers, for example, will look increasingly attractive to civil servants.
The silver lining behind this cloud is that all three political parties have pledged a better deal for farmers through a supermarket ombudsman. But there, too, farm leaders will have to fight to ensure politicians keep pre-election promises.
The re-election of NFU president Peter Kendall by an overwhelming 80-3 vote majority from the union’s council members is a tribute to his leadership. But the union cannot afford to ignore its grassroots members.
All candidates for the role of vice-president – including eventual winner Gwyn Jones – spoke of the need to improve the way that the NFU communicates with ordinary farmers and revitalise the union at a local branch level.
This year provides a major opportunity to do just that. A new director general takes up his post, a new director of communications will be appointed and member services company Associa will join the main HQ at Stoneleigh.
Having relaunched its website, the NFU must now fully exploit the benefits of technology, such as social media, to reach out to disenfranchised farmers who often work long hours with little time to attend branch meetings.
By bringing on board more members, the union will go a long way to dispelling the myth that it is run by barley barons – as well as demonstrating that it has the interests of all farmers at heart.