Levy board boss Nicholas Saphir says he stands ready to implement government recommendations that will give farmers more say on how their money is spent.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) chairman – who took up the post at the beginning of April – made the comments after Defra finally published its long-awaited response to an 18-month review into the levy board’s funding and activities.
The government says there is strong support for statutory levies to continue.
But it says a ballot of levy payers every five years could provide the farming industry with greater ownership and a bigger say in the future direction of the AHDB.
Under the proposals, levy payers in each agricultural sector would vote on a five-year AHDB programme encompassing both sector-specific activity as well as broader activity across the wider agricultural industry.
Mr Saphir said the AHDB had a significant role to play in meeting the challenges faced by farmers – and he was prepared for the government’s recommendations when he took on the job.
“No-one would have asked me to do it without telling me roughly what was in the response.”
Spend on marketing
The review confirmed strong support among levy payers for more market development, export development and research.
Beef and lamb producers, in particular, were keen for more money to be spent on marketing, while growers were less concerned.
Mr Saphir suggested he agreed with that view, but he also cautioned against overly-simplistic promotional campaigns.
“I think that’s true, but I think we have to be cleverer than just saying please buy British,” he explained.
“It’s not a very productive way of going about actually making things happen.
“We have to make sure that the products we put on the counter are what consumers want and it’s very high in my priorities to get our products on the counter at the right price, both here and overseas.”
The AHDB has long faced calls to be more accountable to levy payers and take on board more of their views.
But Mr Saphir rejected suggestions by the Tenant Farmer Association that the levy board needed a significant shake-up to be fit for purpose.
It was not a good description, he said. The organisation had to adapt to the challenges it faced – but so too did everyone in UK agriculture.
“I have been incredibly impressed by the skills and the work that is going on. I think that maybe we haven’t communicated that in full.”
Defra minister Victoria Prentis has asked her officials and representatives from the devolved administrations to scope out the idea of a five-year ballot further.
What changes farmers want to see
Colin Rowland, sheep farmer
“AHDB sector board members should be elected rather than chosen by government.
“It would make them more accountable to farmers – it would give beef and lamb producers more of a say.”
Robert Craig, dairy producer
“I would more than double the levy and I would ring-fence that extra money for promotional activity.
“They could also try to match that money with other funds from the supply chain.”
Ed Ford, arable grower
“It needs to be a less clunky organisation – as a cereal farmer we have our recommended list and monitor farms but as growers sometimes I am not sure we get value for money.”