Opinion: Tall order for AHDB to meet all dairy sector needs

After weeks of build-up, the results of AHDB’s Shape the Future vote finally came in earlier this month.

For the first time since the Defra-mandated Request for Views in 2018, levy payers in the dairy, cereals and oilseeds, pork, beef and lamb sectors were given the chance to vote on the priorities they felt were most important for their businesses.

More than 10,000 levy payers registered to vote and 42% completed the survey and shared their thoughts.

That might sound like a low turnout, but consider that just 34% of voters took part in the recent local elections. (On the other hand, Dairy NZ received votes from 57% of eligible farmers in its 2020 levy vote, so there is room for improvement.)

See also: Meat and dairy reputation is AHDB levy payers’ top priority

About the author

Liz Haines
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Liz Haines and her husband, Nick, milk 320 spring-calving cows in a contract farming arrangement in north Shropshire. She is also an elected member of the AHDB dairy sector council.
Read more articles by Liz Haines

The results for the dairy sector were overwhelmingly positive, with all the priorities listed scoring at least 3.5 out of 5 on average.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular priorities were marketing focused, with “educating consumers of the future”, “protecting and enhancing the reputation of the dairy industry” and the “We eat balanced” campaign all scoring highly.

AHDB has had success in these areas in recent years, but levy payers shouldn’t underestimate the substantial investment required to make significant inroads.

Collaboration with other organisations and different parts of the dairy supply chain will be key to future success, and the existing marketing campaigns should hopefully provide a springboard for this going forward.

I was, however, surprised to see the topic “people working in agriculture and labour supply” receive one of the lowest scores, given that it seems to be one of the biggest challenges on farms today.

Does this reflect the fact that farmers aren’t prioritising workforce development highly enough, or do they feel this issue is better addressed elsewhere?

“Improving animal health and welfare” was also on the low side. Perhaps this is a symptom of farmers feeling fed up with being bombarded with external demands to improve their performance when many already feel like they are doing a good job.

But nonetheless, the more technical areas, be it genetics, health and welfare, or sustainability, will be key to the industry’s success in future, and it is vital that our levy board is at the cutting edge.

This is where there is a possible tension – between providing levy payers with what they want today, but ensuring the industry has the tools it needs for tomorrow.

In some ways, the positive response to the survey presents a challenge – it’s like asking someone whether they would like chocolate cake, trifle or crumble for pudding and they just say “yes”.

All of the priorities outlined are important, but it will be vital to maintain a laser-sharp focus on the areas where AHDB can make the greatest difference, while acknowledging that another party may be better placed to pick up the baton in a particular area.

The most important thing to remember is that the Shape the Future vote was the start of a journey rather than a destination.

Everyone at AHDB is determined to use the results to create a strategy that best meets the needs of levy payers.

I hope the Shape the Future vote will be the first of many, and that it will be the start of an even closer relationship between AHDB and the farmers it serves.

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