Archive for the 'NFU' Category

The language of the CAP

I can’t remember any German when I need it, but every time I come to French-speaking  Brussels it seems to be the only language that leaves my mouth.

Having got off the Eurostar I couldn’t even seem to remember how to ask where the taxi rank was in English.

Instead I frightened a poor, unsuspecting woman with a series of windmill movements and random, broken (and entirely useless) German words.

“Zug nach centrum! Nein, taxi nach centrum! Wo! Canst du ihren helfen? Wohnwagon! Ich decke den tisch!”

It’s no wonder she edged away from me with a look of panic on her face.

Luckily I’m not the only British person who seems to have linguistic issues when in Belgium.


I’m here for a meeting between international farming journalists and the European Commission to talk about reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

As well as having a chin-wag with farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos, we’re going to talk about how to set up a communication network so the Commission can let us know what’s going on between now and the policy being reformed in 2013.

The main meetings don’t start until tomorrow though, so today I met Will, who’s an ex-journalist friend from London who has come over to Brussels to work for the NFU.

Will’s worked over here before so I expected his French to be impeccable, but he made me feel so much better about my earlier language disaster when he tried to order his lunch in Spanish.

Luckily, Will’s day job of dealing with MEPs and other Euro big-wigs is entirely English-based. He’s part of a team of five people the NFU has permanently based here in Brussels as part of a lobbying and communications team.

Basically their job is to let farmers back in the UK know what’s going on over here and how European policy decisions will affect them.

But they also have the rather unenviable job of trying to encourage politicians to listen to them over farm policy in the hope that they’ll support British farmers when it comes to policy discussions and votes.

The idea is through building relationships with MEPs, the NFU and in turn farmers can have a direct impact on the rules and regulations that are made here.

I doubt many farmers realise they have an effect on the content and wording of European policy, but it’s something the NFU is taking even more seriously in the run-up to CAP reform proposals being published in October.

Anyway, just be thankful us farm journos won’t be asked for our views on the policy’s wording. If I have anything to do with it there could be some very random German chucked in there for good measure….


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.


Liar, liar, non-organic pants on fire

Since I started working in agricultural media, I’ve never been particularly impressed with the Soil Association’s often simplistic arguments that organic farming is superior to conventional food production.

I had wondered whether the organisation had grown up a bit when, at its annual conference in February, policy director Peter Melchett finally admitted that both systems had benefits and that they could both learn from each other.

It seems the Association’s sophisticated, mature line of debate was short-lived though, as the title of its latest report, which dispels UN claims the world needs to double food production by 2050, shows:

“Telling porkies: The big fat lie about doubling food production.”

It may just be me, but that line conjures the mental image of Lord Melchie waggling his hands aside his his head, doing a little jig around his organic allotment as he gleefully calls the NFU, DEFRA and the UN big fat liars.

What makes me more irritated by the line though, is that despite the silly name-calling,  I actually agree with the sentiments of the report.

There’s no scientific evidence that says we need to double production – in fact the EFRA committee admitted last year that it’s ‘more of a guideline’ rather than a definite figure we need to aim for.

I’m not saying increasing food production and securing domestic supplies isn’t something we need to do, but with 40% of food being wasted from when it leaves the farm and reaches consumers’ homes, tackling waste seems a more sensible first step.

If I remember rightly (I’m sure someone will correct me if not), South America’s growing agricultural output alone is bolstering global food supplies by 4% a year – meaning in 10 years time we’ll have hit the 40% growth mark.

All of this will be done with less inputs (sorry Melchie, that’s what GMs do for you) and with min-til systems – much greener than peddling the UK’s soils like mad and pumping them full of expensive, oil-based fertilisers.

Running the risk of making myself unpopular here, to me food security seems to be an issue of distribution, rather than one of production.

I’m starting to wonder whether I’m bonkers for writing this in public. Please try not to be too rude and sweary if you want to leave a comment at the bottom to shout at me – my mum reads this…


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…


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.


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.


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:


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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