WFU president speaks out ahead of conference

Browse any WFU literature since January 2006 and you will see photographs of Ionwen Lewis meeting leading politicians, top food industry executives and, in one case, the Princess Royal.

The cover of the latest issue of WFU Update shows her flanked – and towered over – by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn. The two politicians are smiling broadly, possibly because the union’s president had yet to lobby them in her characteristically direct way.

Next week in Bridgend she will make her forthright views clear to EU agricultural commissioner Mariann Fischer-Boel, Welsh assembly rural affairs minister Elin Jones and Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King.

But she believes polite, well-reasoned debate rather than browbeating is the lynchpin of effective lobbying. She prefers people to remember her for expressing knowledgeable arguments rather than for rude aggression.

Ionwen Lewis

Few who meet her get the chance to visit Wervil Grange Farm at Pentre Gat, her livestock unit located a few fields inland from the broad sweep of Cardigan Bay. Those that do will learn few details about her farming business, not even the size of the unit or the number of Texel sheep and Welsh Black cattle she runs.

She describes herself as a very private person whose commitment to farming and British food has thrust her into the limelight.

“All people need to know is that I am a hands-on commercial farmer with sizable sheep and beef enterprises,” she insists.

But talk to her in general about agriculture and her passion for livestock is soon obvious – a passion that dictates she plans her diary to be at home at lambing time, and is ready to get up in the middle of the night to calve a cow after returning from doing WFU business in London or Cardiff.

“I absolutely love farming and I am totally committed to fighting for its survival in changing and challenging times. I am proud to call myself a farmer and to be president of WFU, which has been lobbying since 1979 and is dedicated linking producers and consumers.”

Ionwen Lewis

Back in 1979, the principal issue was the illegal dumping of French Golden Delicious apples in the UK.

Since then the union has tackled dozens of important topics, working alone or with other organisations as diverse as other farming unions, the Townswomen’s Guild, conservation organisations and the English Beef and Lamb Executive.

“We have a fantastic industry – perhaps the best in the world – but nobody owes farmers a living. I believe we need to reconnect farmers, processors, retailers and consumers.”

In her view it is vital to dispel the myth that support payments mean that farmers are featherbedded, and to convince the public of the safety and quality of home produced foods.

Ionwen is particularly keen on WFU’s education programme, which has taken members into hundreds of schools to teach children about food and the way it is produced.

Honest food labelling is another priority and she is leading WFU’s opposition to moves to impose “made in the EU” labels on food and drink, which she insists would disadvantage producers and limit consumer choice.

Membership of other bodies also provides opportunities for her to express her strong views and influence policy making.

She is a member of NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales and serves on the latter’s headquarters tourism committee. Recently she was appointed on to the Welsh forum that advises policy makers on the challenges facing upland farmers.

Given her reputation it was no surprise when she was invited to join the stakeholder group set up by the Welsh assembly to assist in the development of a new farming strategy for Wales.

After years of frustrating meetings, Ionwen believes that politicians are beginning to listen and appreciate the importance of UK farming.

“Food security has been off the agenda far too long, but things are changing for the better. Now, on occasions, we can find ourselves pushing against an open door.”

She hopes that current global food shortages will make more UK politicians realise that they cannot rely on imports if their policies destroy domestic agriculture.

Ionwen Lewis

Ionwen joined WFU members from Cheshire when they handed the prime minister a 4000-signature petition calling for a fair price for milk producers, and the union’s Save our Moos campaign left government ministers in no doubt that fresh British milk could disappear from supermarket shelves.

When she is not lobbying and farming, Ionwen runs an upmarket farmhouse bed and breakfast business and rents out eight small business units in converted farm buildings.

These are occupied by small companies, including one that packs and wholesales 20 types of Welsh farmhouse cheese and another that is a micro brewery. A carpenter, an electrician and a sculptress occupy other units.

“It is very satisfying to think that over the years I have helped more than 100 people to find work to be able to stay in Wales.”

So how does a woman in her late 60s cope with so many activities? “It takes a bit of juggling, but I have been blessed with enormous energy and good health.”

Ionwen Lewis

Living in south-west Wales does present travel problems and she admits she drives more miles than she would like. “But whenever possible I use train travel to meetings in Cardiff, London and FWU headquarters at Stoneleigh.”

Even that is daunting, when after driving to Carmarthen the journey to London takes almost four hours, even when trains are on time. But at least she is able to use her laptop to work on train trips.

Fortunately she is seldom away from the farm for more than three days at a time, and whenever she is absent she is able to relax knowing that she has first-class part-time cover.

When she is really tired she has the consolation of knowing she is doing all she can to help fellow farmers through tough times.

“If we want things to get better every one of us has to make an effort to promote farmers and the wonderful food they put on the market.”

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