Bad time to do a super job
HELEN SWIERS says that being county chairman of the NFU would be "an absolutely super job" – in reasonable times. But the past year has seen some of the worst problems the industry has had to endure, and even this highly positive woman concedes that at times it has been hard to be positive, and she is only half way through her term of office, because the York County Branch elects its leader for a two year term.
The effort Helen puts in has now been recognised by her peers by naming her as the North East Farming Woman of the Year in the NFU Presidents Awards 2000.
She is the first woman to be chairman of the York NFU holding the post her husband Chris occupied for just a few weeks before his death 10 years ago at the age of 42. Helen then took over the running of the farm at Broxa in the North York Moors National Park, a few miles north of Scarborough
Broxa Farms runs a dairy herd of 280 cows plus followers, in two units three miles apart. There is also a flock of 550 ewes and 150 gimmer lambs, plus 162ha (400 acres) of cereals leading to the employment of five members of staff. Helen, 50, is in partnership with her son John, 23, while 26-year-old Elizabeth is studying to be an occupational therapist in York.
The workload for a county chairman can be quite daunting, and Helen says that in the late autumn "meetings season" she has been doing three or four meetings a day!
"Its the paperwork that is the problem, endless paperwork. We have form-filling on the farm, like every farmer, and whenever something new comes along its an extra, not a substitute for something else.
"We now have dairy farm assurance coming along, but we will still have to have dairy inspections, and pay for them. Our movement book must have been checked a dozen times this year where in the previous 20 years I doubt if it was checked once."
On top of the form-filling which MAFF generates for all farmers the NFU is masterly at producing paperwork, the trick for an office-holder is keeping on top of the flow of information and setting priorities so that key pieces are not swamped by the flood.
With local, regional and national media all campaigning on behalf of farmers Helen has been called upon to do numerous press and broadcast interviews. The judges noted her work in promoting farming to the general public in making the award, although typically, Helen herself is quick to praise the efforts the farm staff put in to enable her to carry out her hectic schedule.
However, when it comes to farm open days such as Welcome To The Countryside Helen concedes that with modern health and safety regulations these events are increasingly difficult to organise on normal working farms. When organising such events for the general public she has turned to farms which have already diversified into being visitor attractions and so have adequate facilities.
Looking to the year ahead she sees the work load of the NFU as undiminished, however she turns a familiar question on its head. "When people ask what is the NFU doing for us? I say what are you doing for the NFU?
"The members need to tell us what is going on, what problems they have, and what ideas they have for solving them. The strength of the NFU is in its members, and the more involved the members are the stronger it will be."