The appointment of Lesley Griffiths as Wales’s first “dedicated” farm minister for several years comes at a challenging time for farmers. We ask how she plans to deal with some of the key issues in Welsh agriculture
Lesley Griffiths has no background or expertise in farming and she is happy to admit this. Her honesty is refreshing in a political world where ministers dig deep for a tenuous link to give gravitas to their cabinet portfolio.
Lesley Griffiths in a minute
- How do you relax? Walking and spending time with family and friends, especially my two daughters.
- Favourite food Chilli con carne and rice with freshly baked bread and homemade coleslaw.
- Last book read Zombie Nation Awakes by Bryn Law
- Favourite holiday destination France. I have enjoyed many lovely camping holidays in France with my daughters.
- Favourite film Dead Poets’ Society.
- Favourite sport Football. I have been a fanatical Wrexham City supporter since I was 12 and am a season ticket holder. I don’t play any sport myself, but I enjoy walking.
Ms Griffiths points to a large bag in the corner of her new office in Cardiff Bay that bulges under the weight of its contents. This is just some of the reading material that the new minister is wading through three weeks into her new job, racing to get up to speed on the issues central to Wales’s farming and rural sectors.
She is unfazed by the challenge and knows that further gaps in her knowledge will be plugged when she engages with grassroots farmers now that the show season is under way.
What is guaranteed is that farmers won’t be slow in coming forward to give her their frank views on the Welsh government’s badger vaccination programme and the difficulties many have experienced in securing their Basic Payment Scheme subsidies in a year when they most needed them.
Wrexham AM Ms Griffiths chooses her language carefully when discussing a way forward for bovine TB eradication in Wales.
Wales’s bovine TB vaccination programme cost £825 a badger in 2015, but Ms Griffiths makes no apology for this.
She says the Welsh government has always adopted a science-led approach to tackling this disease and insists there is good evidence that the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine can reduce the progression and severity of TB in badgers.
A keen believer in learning from best practice, she is studying the methods adopted in other parts of the UK and beyond.
So could culling badgers, an approach that the Labour-led administration has always discounted, be an option? “There is a lot of information to analyse and I need to look at all the options.”
Cross-border BPS claims
Many farmers in her Wrexham constituency have land in both Wales and England, so she is well aware of delays cross-border farmers have endured in securing their BPS payments. “It is unfair that they are penalised. I am not blaming Rural Payments Wales or the Rural Payments Agency, but we need to find a solution to this.”
Ms Griffiths is keen to defend the Welsh government’s record on subsidy payments. “By the second week in June, more than 99% of payments have been made. I don’t intend for us to have any late payments,” she insists.
Arguably, the farmers who have experienced the greatest financial pain from payment delays are dairy producers, hit by a volley of milk price cuts.
Does the new minister have any thoughts on how the government could address the decline in the dairy sector?
She admits to being shocked when she learned of the prices farmers are paid for their milk, but says there is nothing the government can do to control either prices or milk supply.
“It is very difficult for us to have any influence on milk prices, but what we can do is to provide, through Farming Connect and other initiatives, the support that farmers need to make the best business decisions.
“I’m also a firm believer in collaboration. Some people don’t believe that best practice travels well, but I do. There is much farmers can learn by sharing ideas and working together.’’
She is also keen to appoint a so-called “dairy champion” at the earliest opportunity.
“One of the recommendations in our review of the dairy sector was the appointment of a dairy champion. We will be giving prominence to this – my hope is that we will have someone young, inspirational and innovative to lead on this.”
Ms Griffiths, who has two daughters, is keen that young people are not denied opportunities to farm. “We are seeing more young people who weren’t raised on a farm going to university to study farming.”
She acknowledges that county council farms have been the route into agriculture for generations of young farmers and she harbours concerns about diminishing opportunities as local authorities sell off farms to pay for other services.
“Local authorities have their own challenges, but I’m keen that we don’t lose this resource. It is really important that there are small tenant farms available for young people to start out in farming.
“I don’t have any influence on the management and funding of these farms, it is up to the individual local authorities, but I will be writing to all 22 to get a clear picture of their intentions for these.’’
Access to the countryside
Access to the countryside is another contentious issue. Last year the Welsh government published a green paper on access. One of the proposals causing concern is would allow access to all land for so-called “responsible recreation”, such as walking.
Ms Griffiths doesn’t dismiss those concerns, but says it is important all can enjoy the countryside.
“It is a way of ensuring that we improve physical activity in Wales, but we do need to strike the right balance between open access and animal health and welfare.”
In fact, she is a keen walker and regularly spends her Sundays on a long walk.
The opportunity for this could be more limited as her time is absorbed with getting to grips with a demanding portfolio, but as the brief also includes responsibility for matters relating to the environment, she just may find a way of combining the two.