Farmers Focus Group with David Miliband

David Miliband – Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs invited a several farmers and thought leaders including Sir Don Curry along for a meeting today, and I was very pleased to be one of them. The meeting took place under Chatham House Rules which means I can share with you what was said but not who said what.

The subject matter darted all over the place in the allocated hour given.

Every farmer there was given a chance to speak and just some of the subjects raised were:

How difficult it is in many areas to actually get through the planning legislation despite encouragement to diversify and not rely on subsidies.

Gold Plating European Directives:
Concerns were raised about the fact that there is no level playing field in Europe. Particular reference was given to the pig industry where farmers were expected to compete with other European countries despite having to implement expensive new rules as directed by the UK government only.

Diversification and conventional farming:
One farmer had two successful diversifications and despite investing in the best facilities, the best practise and having a fantastic product his dairy herd of 200 cattle were losing money. He described it as giving away his milk every day while we as a country import masses of milk from France!

A great strength was recognised in farmers’ stories and it was discussed how to communicate these stories direct to the end consumer from the farm.

Delivering what the market demands:
A lot of discussion focussed on ensuring that what the consumer wants is delivered. This ranged from the environment, through to health and wellbeing and the social role some farms can play. A farmer expressed concerns about the power of supermarkets and another was quick to point out how Waitrose and Marks and Spencer were promoting good quality British Food. The question is how to find out what the customer wants as well as how to deliver it.

Efficiency and profitability is gained on commodities when farmers expand and produce huge quantities of one crop. The question was posed: Is this actually what the consumer wants for the British countryside? On the other hand organics and niche markets were discussed and although these areas are growing only 4% of sales are organic and specialist niche products will not provide efficient commodities like the larger enterprises mentioned.

Self Esteem.
We discussed how government talk for farming at the moment is pretty good. There will be a Year of Farming, School children will be encouraged out to farms, One planet farming etc etc, However the real story was questioned. Government actions have been pretty negative towards farming and the countryside, For example if you look at the forms that need to be filled in you would swear the government is dealing with hardened criminals; the foot and mouth fiasco was mentioned, the hunting ban; and now the TB and Badger issue. All of it has made many farmers feel like criminals. Yesterday Phil saw the Single Farm Payment envelope and was expecting his balance of app £30k as owed by the CAP only to receive a remittance advice of nil! We asked that the first step needed to be to rationalise the payment system so that at least farmers were paid what they are owed on time, not years later. That would show a little respect and regain some trust which has been eroded over the years.

Several farmers spoke about LEAF and how this should be encouraged as the best all encompassing model for farming, with training for farmers.

The average age of a farmer in the UK is 58 and there were concerns raised that young people need to be encouraged into the industry.

All the points were certainly absorbed by the ministers and the key points they took away I thought were:

Reduce the legislation and the red tape.
Sort out the problems that you are actually causing on the ground.
Pay the monies that you owe and build up trust from there.
Decide with collaberation between all the stakeholders how you would like to see farming to fit into the economy and the environment for the whole country.
Engage with farmers and help us to promote this industry.

There was a great buzz in the room and a real optimism for the future tempered with a fear of the present.

I think most folk agreed that it was a really big thank you to David Miliband for inviting a cross section of farmers and landowners, who relished the opportunity to listen to the views in the room and contribute to the discussion.

Its going to happen again they said.

If you were there and I've missed any points please do comment - this blog is my take on what was said and I will have missed lots I'm sure. And if you weren't there what do you think?

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