Analysis: Do Welsh farmers need two unions?

The Farmers Union of Wales and NFU Cymru both fight for a fair deal on Welsh farms, but a recent call for a single “strong” union two be formed has raised the question, do Welsh farmers need to unions? Debbie James reports.

Why two unions? It has been a topic of much contemplation since Wales’ farm minister lit the touchpaper during a radio interview over Christmas.

Alun Davies told listeners it was a “nonsense” to have two unions and that it was time for NFU Cymru and the Farmers’ Union of Wales to consider joining forces to create a single “strong’’ union.

To the outsider, this might seem a logical and sensible progression. After all, why create duplication? To quote Alun Davies, one union could “speak strongly for the industry”.

Would it not be better to have a single organisation that has only the interests of Welsh farmers to promote?

Not so according to some farmers in Wales. Two voices speak louder than one, they say, and keeping the two unions separate puts them in a powerful position. They see both unions as valuable guardians of farming’s interests.

Beef and sheep producer William Evans, whose family has a long association with NFU Cymru, said two lobbying bodies were better placed to get Welsh farming’s voice heard in the often intimidating corridors of power.

“If there was a single organisation with one leader to lobby government, I think it would be easier for politicians to fob them off. There is a better chance of success if there are two organisations arguing for the same cause,” said Mr Evans, of Hendreseifion Farm, near Machynlleth.

“It doesn’t cost farmers any more money whether there are one or two unions; they choose which union they want to join and pay the appropriate membership fee.”

Mr Evans insisted the government would be the only beneficiary of a merger. “I think the Welsh government would be happier if there was just one organisation as I believe one organisation would have less of an influence than the structure we currently have here in Wales.”

But would a merger not be a show of strength in helping the industry put up a more effective fight? “There is unity in the industry now but we are fortunate to have two unions representing different types of farms. There are many systems reflected in the membership of both organisations, but there is a general acceptance that one is there to cover the broader type of farm and the other is a strong voice for the uplands and the family farm. It’s a combination that seems to work,’’ Mr Evans added.

The FUW was established in 1955 after some farmers complained that the interests of big producers in England dominated the NFU. Next year the FUW will celebrate its 60th anniversary.

But over the years there have been talks on unity. The stumbling block had always been the NFU’s reluctance to give its Welsh members autonomy from England and place them on the same federated footing as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In recent years, however, NFU Cymru has increasingly operated on an independent basis and a barrier was removed in 2007 when the NFU Cymru Council voted to adopt a federated structure.

Some view Alun Davies’ push for unity as an attack on Welsh farmers in general. They say he is simply trying to reduce the number of people who disagree with him; the fewer unions he has to deal with, the better.

Gently scratch away at the surface and it is apparent the unions have fundamentally different views on many issues. A case in point was as recent as last year with the eventual abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.

NFU Cymru agreed with the NFU HQ’s view that the board was outdated and should be scrapped, while the FUW strongly opposed abolition.

However, despite the thinly veiled rivalry between these two organisations, when unity is needed, the unions come together. Both fiercely opposed the Welsh government’s decision to siphon 15% from direct payments under CAP reform.

It is this issue that the unions reckon is behind the farm minister’s recent comments on unity, that by stirring up a debate on the issue it would deflect some of the flack from his decision to modulate at the maximum rate.

Ed Bailey, the immediate past president of NFU Cymru, suggested: “I think it is a bit of a smokescreen to take away the pressure from the poor decision the minister made on the Pillar transfer fund, a decision that is wholly unpopular in Wales. If there is to be a merger of the unions it can’t be forced by the minister.’’

The fact that there is now only one position for a representative of the farming industry on some Welsh government committees could be seen by some as nudging that process along.

Mr Bailey said the unions already work closely together but this might not always be obvious to the minister or the membership. “We are in contact with each other but it is no secret that we do disagree on some issues,” he added.

As William Evans touched on, it could be said that the unions represent different people. The FUW was set up to protect the interests of traditional family farms, while there is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that NFU Cymru draws its membership from larger businesses.

It is well known that the FUW’s concerns lie with issues that affect Welsh farmers only while NFU Cymru believes there are some matters, such as the eradication of bovine TB and last year’s Dairy SOS campaign, which require unity with the rest of the UK.

In fact the FUW’s belief that Welsh farming must have a strong voice of its own is a reason why previous attempts to form a single union have failed.

Carmarthenshire dairy farmer Myrddin Evans, a long-serving FUW president until 1984, had been keen to get the two unions to join forces and put a lot of effort into this cause, but to no avail. And a succession of NFU Cymru presidents, including Hugh Richards and Peredur Hughes, also called for unity.

The merger issue was last raised in 2007. The NFU Cymru president then was Dai Davies and he admitted that in his heart he believed there should be one union in Wales. “But there’s no point marching forward unless our members are prepared to follow,” he said at the time.

Pembrokeshire dairy farmer Stephen Alderman, a former NFU Cymru county chairman, has suggested there could be logic in taking the merger issue a step further by incorporating other organisations representing farmers in one body. These could include the CLA and the National Sheep Association.

“With more issues related to farming devolved to the Welsh government and Brussels having a major influence on how we run our businesses it may be of benefit to approach government as a powerful group of people from the rural community,” said Mr Alderman.

But he too believes merger speculation is an unnecessary distraction when there are many more important issues on farmers’ minds.

“I’m sure there would be some benefit if there was one person to represent farmers in talks but in the great scheme of things I don’t think the unions would want to come together. The FUW kicked it into touch long ago.”

FUW president Emyr Jones believes his union’s approach is the right one. “As a union we can stand independently, totally democratically and fight for agriculture in Wales,” he said.

When the merger issue was first raised in 2007, the NFU Cymru membership was 15,000. The union won’t discuss current membership figures and neither will the FUW. But what an FUW spokesman did make clear was that the union operated from a “position of strength’’ and continued to recruit new members on a regular basis.

Could there not be a cost-benefit to farmers in having a single farming union? A larger membership would dilute administration costs and this could influence membership fees. But Welsh farmer and NFU leadership contender Meurig Raymond said what must not be overlooked is the financial advantage of NFU Cymru’s close association with insurer NFU Mutual.

“NFU Mutual is the 10th largest insurance company and the strong network of group secretaries is hugely beneficial, financially and otherwise, to the NFU Cymru membership,” he said.

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