2012 Farming Champion of the Year: Jim Paice

The 2012 Farming Champion is ex-DEFRA farm minister Jim Paice. He’s a politician who has worked tirelessly to find practical solutions for British farming. Some of his decisions have not always found favour in the traditional heartland of farming, but few can doubt his intention to do his best for the industry that he has worked, and lived, in all his life.

He tackled the Rural Payments Agency debacle, the market imbalance in the dairy industry, a badger cull to control bovine tuberculosis, red tape, and has been at the heart of Common Agricultural Policy negotiations.

All have been thorns in the sides of previous farm ministers who either ducked these tough issues or failed to understand their significance.

Farming was all too often fobbed-off with political platitudes and left with no voice.

But Mr Paice’s approach has been different. His knowledge of the industry as a working farmer has ensured that issues at the grass roots of farming have been championed at the highest of negotiating tables and tackled with guts and determination.

His empathy with the industry was demonstrated when he initiated the drive to cut red tape which has, this year, helped to reduce onerous regulation on slurry storage, saving farmers tens of thousands of pounds.

But his willingness to roll up his sleeves and meet challenges head on was best shown this summer when swingeing milk price cuts left farmers fighting for their survival. In stark contrast to his predecessors, the farm minister stood up and threatened to “bang heads together” across the entire chain in the search for a long-term solution.

The result has been the dairy code of practice, hailed by Mr Paice’s fellow MP Neil Parish as a move that would “prevent producers from being trapped in unfavourable contracts and add much-needed transparency”. He added: “Mr Paice worked absolutely tirelessly with all parties to reach that agreement.”

Champion Facts
  • Born in Suffolk
  • Studied at Writtle Agricultural College
  • Spent 17 years in farming
  • Entered politics in 1987 winning South East Cambridgeshire seat
  • Appointed shadow agriculture minister in 2004
  • Made DEFRA farm minister in May 2010
  • Returned to the backbenches in summer reshuffle, September 2012

His central role in unravelling the milk price crisis was a typical approach first seen in what he called his toughest challenge – the Rural Payments Agency.

Most politicians would have avoided the RPA, which had become synonymous with failure. But Mr Paice did the opposite and appointed himself chairman of a board to drive change at the agency.

Another characteristic of his style – to never pull punches – emerged in this role. He told farmers exactly the way it was: “horrendous”. And he added that progress would take time. Nevertheless, the turnaround in the agency’s performance has begun.

The dogged pursuit of a badger cull to help cut bovine TB further showed his tenacity and determination in the face of huge opposition.

On bovine TB, he also delivered a tough message to farming in the form of stricter cattle movement measures. Knowing it would prove unpopular with farmers he explained farming had to do more to tackle the disease.

Likewise in CAP reform talks, in which he has been central to negotiations on the UK’s behalf, he has spelled out that farming should look to reducing its reliance on support payments.

The toughest message of all, though, was delivered at the London Dairy Summit in July when he urged farmers to ensure they were keeping costs down. He was roundly booed at the fever-pitch gathering.

Poignantly he responded by saying, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” A month later, with the ink barely dry on the dairy code of practice, Mr Paice was moved from his post and returned to the backbenches for the first time in 23 years.

A hard act to follow, Mr Paice has set a standard for other MPs, showing how a minister can work with an industry, challenge it, negotiate with it, but ultimately, move it forward to help it achieve its potential.

He has proved to be farming’s Right Honourable (critical) friend.

Sponsor’s view

Peter Kendall“The NFU is delighted to sponsor this award which highlights the individuals who have made significant positive impact to agriculture and farming.

This year the award goes to a man who has taken farming to the heart of government and helped achieve many key policies and agreements which will place farmers in a better place in the future.

Jim Paice is one of few MPs with practical farming experience, and one of even fewer who have achieved ministerial rank. He still is very much hands-on with farming and looks after a small herd of Highland cattle.

Jim has always shown a deep knowledge and empathy for farming and has never been easily fooled. He was a keen and leading young farmer in his day and continually championed “young farmers”.

Being a “true countryman at heart” meant he really believed in the value of farmers and farming. But Jim has never been an uncritical friend and was prepared to say unpopular things, as demonstrated at the London dairy summit in July.

However most people would agree with his own claim at that meeting that he was farming’s biggest ally in Parliament.”

Peter Kendall
President, NFU

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