Archive for the 'Conference' Category

The DEFRA love-in turns sour

After the glamour of the Soil Association conference in Manchester last week, this week I’m at the NEC in Birmingham for the National Farmers Union’s annual meeting.

With no general election on the immediate horizon, union president Peter Kendall in the hot seat for another year and a DEFRA team widely seen as sympathetic towards farming, I was all prepared for a Caroline Spelman/NFU love-in.

Only it didn’t quite work out like that.

With his sleeves rolled-up to show he really meant business, Peter took to the conference stage and spent a couple of minutes praising Cazza and her team’s efforts to cut agricultural red tape, tackle bovine TB and protect research and development from budgets cuts.

Peter Kendall

But like a cat playing with a mouse before chomping its head off, Peter swiftly launched into attack over DEFRA’s lack of direction and it’s failure to have a proper plan for the future of food production in the UK.

Rising grain costs, low meat and milk prices, CAP reform and the country’s increasing reliance on food imports meant agriculture was facing huge challenges which needed urgent and immediate action, he said.

Cazza got up and tried to ease the tension, pleading the ‘I’m one of you’ line by mentioning her NFU credentials no less than three times. NFU credentials, I might add, that reach back to the year I was born.

Like a school girl who’d had a telling off, she attempted to coyly tilt her head and smile her way out of the situation, claiming the government had its head screwed on over farming and had got a food plan in the shape of the Food 2030 strategy.

So that’ll be the same Food 2030 strategy that was written by the Labour government then, Cazza? The same strategy that features your predecessor?

Hilary Benn Food 2030

Oh, and Gordon Brown?

Gordon Brown Food 2030

Something tells me we won’t be seeing any of the current DEFRA lot brandishing a copy of that any time soon.

Cazza may have expected the honeymoon period with the industry to continue for a bit longer, but after nine months in office, farmers are expecting to see some action pretty soon. Let’s just hope her department’s upcoming TB and red tape announcements don’t give them grounds for divorce.

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Reports of a tiff are greatly exaggerated

Mark Twain, in the title there. Not sure it worked, but it’s made me feel a bit cultured.

Poor old Andrew George though, eh? And I’m not just pitying him for this terrible photo we keep wheeling out on FWi:

Andrew George
Having spent years helping the NFU thrash out arguments advocating a supermarket ombudsman to protect farmers from dodgy retailers, he probably thought he was a shoe-in for a DEFRA role once the coalition agreement was signed.

To the surprise of many (myself included), the department’s top job was handed to Conservative Caroline Spelman while the other posts were given to other Tory ministers, making DEFRA one of three government departments without a Lib Dem representative.

Perhaps keen to show they really do have an interest in farming , the Lib Dem’s decided to hand Andy the role of the party’s agricultural spokesman. A token role? I s’pose we’ll have to wait and see.

Speak to anyone at DEFRA, and they’d have you believe it’s a situation everyone’s happy about. Farm minister Jim Paice has scoffed at the idea that he would be making decisions without consulting his Liberal chums, or that they weren’t all in complete agreement over farm policy.

That’s not quite the idea Andy is putting across though.  At the Lib Dem conference he made a series of statements which certainly didn’t give the idea all was well at the ranch.

Abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board is is a huge mistake, he reckoned, while he’s yet to be convinced behind the science of a badger cull to tackle bovine TB.

And the fact there are no Lib Dems in DEFRA? Well apparently that’s a disappointing situation that “you have to ask questions about”.

He didn’t just say these things once either. I caught up with him later and he repeated those lines again while I scribbled away in my notebook.

Andy is an experienced politician – he’d know that saying those things to a journalist meant they were going to get published. That’s why I cringed when I read the statement he put out at the end of last week.

Apparently, reports of any policy rifts were rubbish. Everything’s just fine and dandy, he reckoned, it’s just “misleading reports in the press” that made suggestions to the contrary.

DEFRA big cheeses have also been swift to come out and insist everything’s okay between the two parties. That’s all smashing on the surface, but you get the sneaking suspicion Jim and Andy will be having a few meetings this week to try and iron things out.

A cyncic might suggest that was what Andy was after in the first place and reports of him having a bit of a whinge have won him the ear of the ministers. If that’s the case, I’m happy to have done him a bit of a favour. Maybe I ought to be misleading a bit more often, eh?

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Decorating tips

Another interesting day, this time at the Pennsylvania farm centre for a conference. Most of the speakers talked about US farm policy and the States’ perspective on food production. It was good to see that despite what we might think in Europe, they are taking serious steps to cut emissions and produce food more sustainably.

In the evening we headed over to the Penn State assembly buildings. Coming from titchy Britain, trying to get my head around the scale of US states is proving a bit difficult, so I really wasn’t expecting a building quite like this – even if the state is nearly as big as the UK:

Pennsylvania Assembly buildings

Inside the assembly

Penn general assembly

Afterwards we were invited to the governor’s residence for can-apes and locally-produced tipples (I can whole-heartedly recommend the local beer – if anyone knows where I can buy this when I get back to the UK, let me know). The welcome and hospitality we are receiving over here is just phenomenal – I hadn’t realised quite how well-regarded Nuffield Scholars were until we got here, it’s actually very humbling. We’ve been escorted all week by the state’s secretary for Agriculture, Russell Redding. I can’t ever imagine our equivalent at DEFRA ever being so generous with his time or so genuinely interested in our views about the industry.

Anyway, if I thought the parliament buildings were swanky, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Check out the wallpaper in the governor’s living room. I’m definitely taking notes for Stocks Towers:

Crazy wallpaper

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Packing it all in

So tomorrow my Nuffield Adventure begins. I’m heading the whole mile and a half down the road from Chez Stocks to the Farmers Club, where I’ll meet the 20 or so other people from the UK who have been selected as Nuffield Scholars and spend the next three days getting to know them.

I’m excited, but also nervous. While I’d like to think I know a fair bit about the industry and I can’t wait to get going with my study, I’m not a proper farmer – I know I’m going to be in awe of all the people I’m about to meet who run great businesses while I sit in an office trying to write sentences that sound lovely and nice and have no speeling misteaks in them and have all the right grammar and punctuation and stuff like that,

I think my nerves have transferred themselves to my packing – I’ve repacked my suitcase more times than I’d care to remember over the last couple of days. It’s not just that I enjoy folding socks and trying to crease my clothes as much as is humanly possible, I  haven’t got clue what to shove in there either.

You see after the London leg of the Nuffield gathering, we’re off to Washington DC to meet scholars from around the world, attend a conference on global agriculture and generally have a smashing time. Having pored over the week’s jam-packed itinerary, its obvious we’re going to be doing some great things. The problem is trying to find a wardrobe which’ll see me through, amongst other things, an ice hockey match, a trip to an Amish farm and dinner at a governor’s residence.

With a bit of luck I’ll be blogging about my escapades over the next ten days so you’ll get to hear about all my wardrobe dilemmas. I’m joking, of course – I’ll just keep it to the shoe issues and maybe I’ll try to squeeze a bit of farming in there if I get time. Bet you’re excited too now, aren’t you…

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Hair’s apparent

You haven’t been waiting here since Wednesday night to find out who was crowned NFU vice president have you? Oh dear, I should’ve directed you to NayLo’s website – after all, he’s the place for breaking news, hey Kit Papworth?

In case you don’t know, Gwyn Jones got the nod for the job. Gwyn’s a former NFU dairy board chairman and seems like a good chap – whenever I’ve interviewed him I’ve found him clued-up on his subject and passionate about the industry.

While I like him and I think he’ll be great at the job, I was a little surprised he won. He had some stiff competition, and a few farmers I spoke to at the conference had expressed doubts over whether Gwyn would be a good person to stand in front of a camera and promote farming to the public. This wasn’t because he isn’t intelligent or eloquent, but because (and I quote) “his hair quivers in the wind”.

After he’d been voted in, one mean photographer in the press room was overheard lamenting  that he hadn’t brought his wide-angled lens with him to fit the whole of Gwyn’s magnificent mane in shot. Even Gob of the Wash has got in on the act, teasing Gwyn’s peachy ‘do.

It’s got me wondering how important appearances are if you’re trying to get a message across. I think part of Peter Kendall’s success at communicating with the public is because he looks like a normal bloke – he doesn’t really fit the stereotype of a farmer so the public ‘gets’ him. Uncle Meurig always looks dapper in a suit and is quite statesman-like, which gives him an automatic air of authority. There’s nothing about either of them which distracts you when they’re speaking.

Having said that, I like that Gwyn’s got something a bit quirky about him. It’s getting people to talk about him, which can only be a good thing. Would NayLo have blogged about him twice this week if he only had a crew cut? And anyway, if he didn’t have a spectacular hairdo, some meany would only find something else to take the mickey out of…

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Bursting with excitement

Oooh the drama – it was just like something from the West Wing.

We followed the ballot boxes to the council room. We stood outside the meeting room’s door to see if we could hear any of the goings on inside. We paced the corridors eagerly waiting for the NFU council member to emerge with the news of who was the union’s new president.

Then I nipped to the toilet and managed to miss everything.

I have a horrible feeling that something very similar happened in a Bridget Jones film. For the record, I’d just like to say I’m not as clueless as her, nor am I wearing giant pants.

Anyway, I managed to keep my legs crossed for the vice president announcement and even won the press room race to be the first to tweet the news *punches air and does little dance* (I realise that’s a sad thing to be excited about, but not seeing daylight for two days does strange things to you…).

In case you missed the news (what do you mean, you don’t spend your entire life watching my Twitter stream?) Peter Kendall and Uncle Meurig have been reappointed as president and deputy.

I think it’s the right move – Peter’s a great face for agriculture, he can speak eloquently and passionately about the industry and gets messages across to the wider public well. Meurig is a good, steady side-kick too – he’s John Prescott to Peter’s Tony Blair (without the philandering and punching of journalists, I hope).

Just the vice post to fill now. I may burst with excitement.

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Picking a leader

This must be how catholics felt when they were waiting for the next Pope to be announced after John Paul II popped his clogs.

Not that NFU president Peter Kendall has keeled over or anything, but the union’s AGM is underway, which means in about half an hour the vote to elect a new president will begin.

I won’t go into the whole intricacies of how the voting works – you can read about that here – but we could be in for a long night. NFU conference gossip over the past couple of days suggests Peter is going to keep his title, but the jury’s out over whether Uncle Meurig Raymond will lose his deputy president post to Gwyn ‘the hair’ Jones.

There are so many people going for the vice presidency job that I wouldn’t even like to take a punt. I’m too much of a wimp for that.

I’m not sure how the vote’s going to be announced – I’m hoping there’s going to be some smoke signals coming from the AGM room once the decision’s been made.

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Standing by your convictions, even if you’re upstaged by a sausage

Who’d be a politician, eh?

Day one of the NFU conference in Birmingham and DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn is welcomed to the stage. From the off Hils looked like he knew he was going to be in for a hard time, so he switched on the charm. He said farmers had done a super job in looking after the environment and insisted it was farmers’ clever ideas which had shaped agricultural policy.

He made it through his speech in one piece and even got a smattering of applause, but then the audience questions started. I’ve heard his response to criticism of his bovine TB policy so many times I can recite it in my sleep. But this time he seemed a bit sharper in his defence – he quickly slipped from charmer to politician mode as he picked apart one farmer’s claims about TB eradication and left the poor chap fumbling for words and red in the face.

Hils must know he’s lost the vote of farmers. This was no doubt the last time he’ll address the NFU conference and he’s probably in the twilight of his DEFRA career before he’s shuffled elsewhere post-general election. But he clearly thinks he made a right and balanced decision. He could’ve just stuck to being charming in an attempt to win round a few voters, but he wanted to argue his case to show he hadn’t just taken the easy route during his time at DEFRA and pandered to the public. Whether I agree with him on TB or not, I think better of him for it.

If the response to the speakers who followed Hils is anything to go by though, I can make a pretty good guess of who’s going to come out on top at the general election.

Shadow farm minister Nick Herbert’s crappy opening joke actually got laughed at, while his speech was twice interrupted with applause.

Meanwhile during his speech, poor old Tim Farron from the Lib Dems got upstaged in the press room by some idle chat over a few sandwiches and sausages on sticks:

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Reasons not to be healthy

I’m at the Hilton hotel in Birmingham at the moment for the NFU conference. It’s the third time I’ve been to it and I’m wondering if this year is proof I’ve finally made it in the world.

For the first time ever my hotel room is actually in the main hotel block, is bigger than a postage stamp and is overlooking the car park (I realise this doesn’t sound exciting, but compared to previous views, it’s amazing).

car park

Unfortunately, being in the main block means to get to the hotel’s gym you have to cross the main foyer and walk right past the bar. I didn’t realise this until I had got downstairs, clad entirely in Lycra, looking like a cross between Rosemary Connelly and Vanessa Feltz.

Sadly, despite attempts at stealth, I timed my dash across the reception area with the arrival of a busload of NFU members from Wales. My efforts at dashing were obviously pretty rubbish too – I was still in earshot when the sniggering started.

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Throwing insults to spread the message

I was in Birmingham today,  the (current) home of Cadbury’s chocolate, one of my favourite modern buildings in the country:

Bullring

and the location of this year’s Soil Association conference.

There’s been a few articles in the press over the past few days accusing the organic lobby of being elitist and expensive, so to counter the claim the Soil Association spared no expense and made us gather in a pig shed beneath some railway arches.

Conference centre

Despite the crummy location it was an interesting day (sitting on the floor of a nearby cinema to use its wireless internet to file stories added to the interest), which I can’t often say about industry conferences.

While some of it was preaching to the converted – and it’s always a big yawn to hear politicians agreeing with each other – the debate between NFU president Peter Kendall, Cambridgeshire gob Oliver Walston and Patrick Holden from the Soil Association was bloomin’ brilliant.

Only Oliver could come out with the line: “I use fertiliser on my farm, but Patrick uses bullsh*t”, call everyone in the shed “nutcases” and expect to leave without being belted ’round the head with an organically-grown leek.

Gob of the Wash reckons Oliver should play Widow Twanky in a panto, but he’s doing a much better job playing a baddie – and the organic bunch loved everything he said. Interestingly though,  my Tweets about Oliver’s lines got retweeted the most by the non-organic lot, as well as by non-farming types too.

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