Politicians have set out their stalls in a bid to win the farming vote after Gordon Brown finally called the General Election for 6 May.
Candidates from all the main parties claimed to have the best interests of farming and countryside at heart as they embarked on what promises to be the most keenly contested election for years.
With no clear lead in the polls, both Labour and the Conservatives are falling over themselves to woo rural voters. But the real prospect of a hung parliament means the Liberal Democrats could end up holding the balance of power.
Despite the government’s rocky relationship with farmers, a Labour spokesman said the party was committed to a successful, profitable and healthy farming sector that produced more food, nurtured the countryside and enhanced biodiversity.
But shadow DEFRA secretary Nick Herbert insisted the Tories would be best for farmers. “Labour just doesn’t care about the countryside. But we believe in governing for the whole nation – treating city, town and country with equal respect.”
Lib Dem shadow DEFRA secretary Tim Farron went further still. “If we want British farming to continue to be the best and most entrepreneurial in the world, then we must put farmers at the heart of policy decision-making,” he said.
Farm leaders called for strong political backing from the next government if food producers were to increase output while tackling the challenges of a rising world population, dwindling resources and climate change.
NFU president Peter Kendall said: “We need to increase food production and reduce our impact on the environment. Parties and their candidates need to understand how to help farming meet its potential if we are to play our part in global food security.”
Many rural seats were marginal, said Mr Kendall, making it unwise to ignore the farming vote. “We need farming champions in opposition and in the next government to create the right environment for the food producers of this country to flourish.”
The Country Land and Business Association said it was vital for all parliamentary candidates to consider the best way forward for the countryside. Protecting the EU budget was fundamental when it came to agriculture, it added.
CLA president William Worsley said: “The next government must rise to meet the twin challenges of securing both food production and the environmental benefits that land management provide.”
He added: “Protecting the EU budget must be an absolute priority and is the only way to ensure we have food on our tables and the landscape and natural environment that we all want.”
* For a FW comment on the election, see Phil Clarke’s Business Blog