Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Doing porridge for a farm photo

When I was on holiday in Florida a couple of years ago, I managed to convince my friends to pull our hire car over so I could stop off to take some photos of an orange grove.

Not being farmer-types, they had a bit of a whinge about the delay. They couldn’t have cared less about orange harvesting and just wanted to hot-foot it to our hotel so they could kick back on a lilo with a mojito and a slab of key-lime pie.

Turns out if I did the same thing this year, they might well have had a valid reason for moaning – I could’ve got us locked up.

This bill has just been introduced by the Florida senate. You can read all detail if you click the link, but in essence it says:

  • A person who enters a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative), commits a felony of the first degree
  • A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative) commits a felony of the first degree

So that’s a first degree felony for photographing a farm, regardless of whether you’re actually trespassing or standing on a road peering over a fence.

A first degree felony which, as helpfully defined by law blog  The Volokh Conspiracy, is the highest degree felony other than capital crimes and ‘life felonies’, which carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.

The terms of imprisonment would be dictated by the Florida Sentencing Guidelines, but the maximum would be 30 years.

Farmers in the UK often complain about rights of access and people wandering across their land, but this seems a tad extreme to me.

Anyway, being too scared  to share the offending orange grove photo with you in fear of being banged up, I’ve had to illustrate this post with a different picture of my Florida trip. Just be thankful it wasn’t me in a bikini.

me and pluto


The EU reporter’s job is safe in my hands…

Today I had to write a story about Mercosur.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered it’s actually a group of South American countries who want a trade agreement with the European Union and not what I thought it was….



A possible hairy situation for the NFU

Dear oh dear. I can’t image the NFU team are a bunch of happy bunnies at the moment.

Having given DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman a telling off this week for not taking farming seriously enough, this morning it’s emerged government plans for a badger cull to tackle bovine TB are being delayed.


The setback until May is supposedly so the DEFRA team can make doubly-sure the plans would stand up to any legal challenges (though it would handily coincide with the end of the local elections). But the delay means this year’s culling window will probably be missed, pushing a possible badger-cull programme back to spring 2012.

To potentially add to the DEFRA woes, Cazza Spelman’s decision to backtrack on plans to sell off England’s woodlands after Middle England threw its toys out of its pram means the department will lose out on about £80m it had expected to pocket from the scheme.

While nothing has been announced yet, there’s already chatter amongst government mandarins over where DEFRA will look to to fill the budget hole. NFU president Peter Kendall must be glad he really gave Cazza a good talking to over the importance of agricultural expenditure on Tuesday.

But while things are looking dodgy for the NFU on the DEFRA front, things are looking even worse on its own doorstep

Gwyn Jones NFU

It turns out that Gwyn Jones, the union’s vice president, is facing criminal charges over claims he used an unlicensed labour provider to employ migrant farm workers.

Whether Gwyn will feel he’s able to stick it out in the position while he’s going through a legal battle remains to be seen.

The situation throws up some real conundrums for the union. I spoke to several farmers at the conference this week who were concerned about the future of the NFU’s senior team.

With no obvious high-fliers coming up through the ranks, who is most likely to take over from Peter when his current term comes to an end?

Gwyn was named as a potential candidate, but if things go wrong there the NFU faces going into one of the most important periods of its history – CAP reform, badger culls, agriculture spending cuts and so on – without the kind of statesman it needs.

So does that mean Peter’s going to have no choice but to hang around a bit longer? Would he even get the necessary 75% of votes he’d need to keep the top spot?

Most importantly, is Mrs Kendall going to let him stand again? Something tells me he’s going to have some buttering-up to do…


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?


Democrats doubly disappointed

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Lib Dem Andrew George is disappointed the Lib Dems don’t have anyone DEFRA, as covered by Farmers Weekly and Western Morning News.

Spot the difference, anyone?


Liberally lovin’ Liverpool

I’m in Liverpool at the mo for the Lib Dem party conference.

Being a geek, I love party conference season, but so far this one hasn’t really lived up to much.

It didn’t help that it took bloomin’ hours to get here and I seem to have booked into a hotel run by the offspring of Basil Fawlty, but the fringe events just haven’t been inspiring in the slightest.

One of them involved a bizarre line-up of an MEP, a nutritionist, a woman who worked for a random local food charity thing and the lovely Julian Hunt from the Food and Drink Federeation. The conversation flailed wildly from food labelling, EU legislation, health, nutrition, farming’s carbon footprint and whether people should eat less meat to save the planet. Scarily, I think Julian was the only one on the panel who really knew anything about the food chain, which was a terrifying thought considering the other panelists were the ones creating policy and informing the public. As a certain audience member was herd to mutter: “What a load of b*llocks”.

Another was a rather bizarre affair where the panelists were introduced by their green credentials, rather than their names and where the main speaker, energy and climate change minister Chris Huhne, turned up late. The panel chairwoman had to freestyle until he arrived – it was like watching a bunny being caught in car headlights.

On the plus side, Chris did have some interesting things to say about green energy. For one, he thought wind turbines were “beautiful” (obviously he was trying to win me over) and the government had to work on making people recognise how smashing they were if it was going to meet its targets of producing 20% of renewable energy by 2020. Anaerobic digestion plants also needed to be given more of a push. I s’pose we’ll have to see what happens in the comprehensive spending review later this month to see whether he’s really serious.

Having been talked at about green energy for a couple of hours, as I was leaving the conference centre at the Albert Docks I had to wonder how Liverpool’s big wheel was powered. If I was the kind of person to take a cheap shot, I’d say there’s so much hot air around the place at the moment that it could probably be run on renewables.

liverpool wheel
Like I’d be that cheap though….


The age of austerity

Mr News Editor, Mr Chief Reporter and I went into London on Tuesday to have lunch with DEFRA farm minister Jim Paice.

We were meeting him ahead of his official announcement about the possibility of allowing farmers to cull badgers to help combat bovine tuberculosis. The idea was we’d get the low-down on the consultation plans so we could get cracking on covering the story as soon as the embargo was lifted, and also have a bit of a catch-up with Jim about upcoming farm politics stuff.

While I might not agree with some of his or his party’s politics, I do like Jim. I’ve dealt with him for five years now and I’m not sure he ever really thought he’d get the senior role he’s been handed. Which is which I like the fact that his position of authority hasn’t changed him, or the down-the-line way he speaks.

Yes, other ministers thought he was “bonkers” for taking on responsibility for sorting out the RPA.

Yes, he’d be an idiot to think he wasn’t going to face a legal challenge over any badger cull plans he might give the go-ahead.

No, we weren’t going to trick him into giving us any clue where DEFRA plans on making budget cuts.

My favourite line though was when we were getting ready to leave:

“I assume you’re paying for this. The taxpayer doesn’t pick up lunch bills.”

Without waiting for a reply, he got up, swept past the maitre d, and left the restaurant.

If this is what politics is in the age of austerity, I love it.


Bitter, much?

I’ve just seen Lembit Opik – the asteroid-fearing former weather forecaster fiance, Cheeky Girl squeeze and Lib Dem MP – speak at a debate at the CLA Game Fair in Warwickshire.

“With a CV like that,” you’re no doubt thinking, “it’s perfectly obvious why the CLA keep wheeling him out to talk at these things”.

Funny, that’s what I was thinking too.


To be fair he obviously knows his stuff about farming and in the past I’ve been quite impressed with the way he’s argued for his rural constituents and promoted agriculture.

Sadly I don’t think I’m going to be quite as impressed with his foray into stand-up and his brand of self-pitying comedy.

“Every time I see a friend do well, something inside me dies,” he told the audience. “It happens every time I see Nick Clegg.

“I’m sure he’ll think the same thing when he sees me on Celebrity Come Dine With Me though.”



Backing farming’s boffins

I wrote a few articles last year about agricultural research in the UK. I was looking at funding sources, the decline in spend on R&D and the kinds of things research institutes in Britain are looking at.

As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, I’m a bit of a geek, so I got very interested in it. I would’ve probably done a few more articles had it not been for angry researchers ringing me afterwards complaining that I hadn’t written about them and accusing me of research institute bias. (Note to scientists: I love you all as much as each other. Unless you have mad scientist hair comme ca:


In which case I probably do love you a little bit more. Ssshhh, don’t tell the others.)

Anyway, from doing these articles I got chatting to some lovely people at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and got invited to go along there on Friday to go and have a look at what they get up to.

Let me tell you, it’s bloomin’ awesome there. Did you know they have an experiment there that’s been running for more than 150 years? They’ve been trialling wheat since 1843:

Broadbalk experiment, Rothamsted

They have some amazing rooms to cultivate plants in too, allowing them to adjust the light to create really sunny conditions. I’d never really realised how those light boxes worked to alleviate seasonal affective disorder, but a couple of minutes in this room and I was grinning like an idiot, thinking that spending an hour in a trial field learning about Take-all disease was the best thing ever.
Continue reading “Backing farming’s boffins” »


Trouble already in DEFRA’s paradise…

Oh dear, things aren’t looking so good for DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman – and she hasn’t even been in the job a week.

There were rumblings of discontent at the weekend over possible conflicts of interest between Cazza’s new post and her links to food and bio-tech lobbying company Spelman, Cormack and Associates, which she ran with her hubby, Mark, until last year.

While she signed over her share of the business, the firm’s bio-tech and GM food clients are working in the sector she’s now in charge of regulating.

A bit of digging around in Farmers Weekly Towers yesterday afternoon, however, seemed to uncover that the conflicts of interest don’t stop there.

It turns out that Mark is a managing director at Accenture – the IT company responsible for the widely-derided computer system used by the Rural Payments Agency to hand out subsidies to farmers.

Accenture was given the seven-year, £35m contract in 2003, but since then costs have spiralled to £350m. The system’s been given a kicking by MPs, who reckon the only way to sort out the mess is to scrap it and start again.

There’s been a lot of interest over how a new government would deal with the mess of the RPA and its software, and with Accenture’s contract up for renewal next year there’s  going to be even more attention paid to whether it gets renewed.

An RPA mole told me a few months ago that he reckoned the agency’s in a “stranglehold” with the IT companies it works with – apparently the software’s so complicated and designed in such a way that only the IT firms know how it works. If that is the case and DEFRA has no choice but to renew the contract then it’s going to be interesting to see how Cazza and the department bats down any accusations of nepotism.

I’m starting to wonder if it might be worth having a flutter here

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