Unions huge task is to change farmer mindset

6 July 2001

Unions huge task is to change farmer mindset

By Alistair Driver

NFU leader Ben Gill is adamant: Farmers will only make a profit again by getting get closer to the marketplace. They must form co-operatives and work more closely with processors to create high-value niche products – such as specialist foods – as well as supplying larger buyers with lower-priced bulk commodities.

True, the union has been talking along these lines for some time. But NFU deputy director general Ian Gardiner acknowledges that persuading farmers of the need to change has so far proved difficult. "The problems we have been experiencing mean the need for reform is more obvious than ever before," he says.

Rural experts agree. The union is right to encourage co-operation and local marketing initiatives, says Michael Winter, professor of rural economy at Cheltenham and Gloucester College. A smaller industry could prosper if properly rewarded for making the right products for the right market. But he warns that there is no point trying to compete on the international commodity market.

Habits instilled in the 1930s when national marketing schemes encouraged farmers to pump out lots of food without thinking about who was going to buy it will be difficult to shed, says Prof Winter. "Farmers have not a got a great track record of co-operation. But things are changing and more farmers are now co-operating and doing their own marketing."

Former NFU chief economist Sean Rickard believes the union faces a huge task to change its members mindset. Many farmers have never bothered to look at the market because they have been kept afloat farm subsidies, he adds. Instead, they evaluate the NFU in terms of how much money it gets from the government.

"For too long farmers have believed people ought to be grateful for them producing food," says Mr Rickard, who is now a senior lecturer at Cranfield University. "Shock treatment is the only solution. Minds would be quickly focused if the government said it was removing subsidies in 10 years time."

Some farmers are bound to go under, predicts Mr Rickard, who has been one of the NFUs most outspoken critics since he left the union. "The ones that survive will be those that add-value to their farm by finding niche markets," But, he warns, there is limited potential and many farmers are simply not good enough to diversify successfully. &#42

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