Just about everyone in the food and farming industry appears to have a view on the AHDB – but not so many, it seems, want to express it.
That can be the only conclusion from the fact that, with less than a week to go before the 31 March deadline for registering to have a say on how their money is spent, only one-quarter of levy payers have signed up to the process.
Beef and sheep producers seem the most reluctant to get involved, with just 12% of payers in those sectors having registered.
Why this might be is open to question. Could it be that they already value the work the AHDB does on their behalf so much they see no reason to rock the boat?
Or maybe they’re just too damn busy with lambing, calving, cleaning out, and land work that registering to vote has slipped off the radar?
Whatever the reason, AHDB chairman Nicholas Saphir has been sufficiently concerned to publish an “open letter” this week about the organisation’s Shape The Future initiative.
In it, he speaks of the “significant change” the industry is facing, suggesting the AHDB is the “only large-scale, well-resourced, truly independent organisation capable of delivering our collective needs”.
That is open to challenge, of course – and there is no doubt that the AHDB has taken a few blows in recent times, not least with the two ballots last year which culminated in the horticulture and potato sectors electing to scrap the levy altogether.
More recently, the organisation has been told by HMRC that it will no longer be exempt from paying VAT on levies collected – putting an estimated £4m dent in its annual budget.
This depleted resource makes it even more important that the money is spent wisely – and emphasises the need for as many levy payers as possible to register on the AHDB website to be part of the Shape The Future process.
Doing so will give them the opportunity to comment on three areas next month: what they think the AHDB should focus on, what the AHDB does that they value, and how they would like their money invested.
It will be interesting to see where levy payers place their priorities this time around, for in Defra’s 2018 Request For Views exercise, it was clear that different sectors had different priorities.
Beef and lamb producers at the time were the most keen on extra marketing spend, while cereal growers wanted more near-market research and development.
Potato growers were the least concerned about market intelligence and communication, though pig producers wanted more.
There was more general support for activities to defend the industry from criticism, provide more skills training and improve on-farm efficiency.
These priorities will need to be teased out again, and acted upon.
For there is no doubt that the next few years are going to be incredibly challenging – particularly given the continued rollout of post-Brexit policies and the fallout from the war in Ukraine, which are already undermining farm profitability and creating unprecedented volatility.
To survive, let alone thrive, farmers will need the best market intelligence, the latest technical support, the widest market access, and the strongest advocacy with consumers.
Whatever its faults, the AHDB is still the primary industry body to deliver all this, but farmers need to get involved now, to help shape an organisation that is up to the task.