Wednesday, 21 February 2018

2018 NFU Conference Highlights - Recipe for Change

Here are my Top Ten highlights of the 2018 NFU Conference at the ICC in Birmingham. The theme was 'Recipe for Change', so lets see what ingredients make up this year's dish. The usual caveats about typos, grammar and spelling apply.

1. There was a rip roaring 'Food Business Session' with Terry Jones, the NFU's Director General, using his retail nous in the hot seat. He drew out 'loss leader' questions but expected 'quality brand' replies. Paul Muphy (Jordans CEO), Jo Whitfield (Co-op Food CEO), David Gunner (Dovecote Park CEO), Derek Wilkinson (Managing Director Sandfields Farm) and Arla's Managing Director Tomas Pietrangeli provided a lot of rat-a-tat-a-tat in this pacey panel debate. They covered food waste, trade, working with universities and farmers, labour, consumer messaging and they even slipped in the West African Trade Agreement. I was only talking about that in the pub the other day !!

Terry Jones was in fine form conducting the Business Panel session

Quotes for consideration " We've got to get the 90% trade with the EU right before we turn to the 10% in the global market." "We're looking at strategic options, rather than strategic decisions." "Turning our worries into meaningful solutions". Great Stuff.

2. The trade session with Shanker Singham (Legatum Institute) and Julian Braithwaite (WTO Ambassador) showed conference that this arena will require serious negotiations. We'll need an 'Enigma Code Machine' just to understand the permutations of WTO rules, food standards, regulations, trade deals, quotas and subsidies. Although David Gunner from Dovecote later picked up that sometimes "Reality is different to making statements". These two speakers were cool, calm, collected, there was something reassuring about their soothing overtures. The official NFU report will give you a far more comprehensive report than I could ever assemble.

3. It's not often Michael Gove gets dropped into the mixing bowl as the third ingredient, but much of his speech's content had been kneaded and rolled out at the recent Oxford Farming Conferences and Government's 25 Year Environment Plan. A coherent food policy, with payment for public goods, review of current inspections, joined a promise to not undercut home market standards in the pursuit of post Brexit trade deals. It was 'all about alliteration' as the Secretary of State acknowledged Meurig's effectiveness as an 'advocate for agriculture'. Other phrases punctuated the prose such as, farm to fork, a consultation not a conclusion, contributions for conversation, future funding, productive and profitable  -were rolled out during the Ministers speech. One tweet made me smile.
lots of announcements about announcements that will be announced very shortly when I do some more announcing

But make no mistake Michael Gove is astute and charismatic, he is moving and shaking whilst whisking up this new agricultural era. He wants people to help him improve the recipe, rather than tell him you can't cook and eat it.

4. Four hundred folk registered for the Environment breakout session, that's a 400% increase from 2 years ago and had it to be housed in the Main Hall. Farmers realise that future support is coming from landscape schemes and public goods. This opportunity has to be grasped with a continued cohesive NFU policy that will recognise the opportunities that exist in both food production and  farmland management. DEFA's Gavin Ross is talking a 'simplification and verification' message, rather than a 'complication and inspection' regime ,which is music to my ears. If farmers are to have a mindset change; others in government, industry, and civil service will have to follow suit, to help us deliver tangible environmental and food production goals.

5. Greg Clarke MP delivered the 'Trade Brief 'and whilst the government's industrial and Agritech strategy got an airing. There did seem to be a message of simplification a call for effective delivery of our R&D programmes and money commitments (£90m) were  also promised. A theme repeated by others was a better pipeline between blue skies and applied research, this really needs to gather some traction - a simple diagram of the process would help the practitioners understand how the system could help agriculture's efficiency and productivity.

6. The 'safeguarding your people breakout session' sent a clear message to the industry, this is one ingredient that you can't substitute for anything else. Well done to the organisers for highlighting the need for improving health and safety on our farms.
Every gathering need a health and safety meeting.
A few of the usual suspects who probably have high viz safety pyjamas. Some of this campaigns great advocates.
7. It's sometimes easy to forget that flour, eggs and butter and key components of your recipe and need paying attention to. Dreaming of jam and honey from policies years away can lead to a 'shoddy show stopper' or a 'saggy signature dish'. With this in mind the NFU's commodity sessions are a reminder that the day to day farming issues still have to be addressed. We almost certainly can mitigate risk, market our produce better, review our machinery, buy energy cheaper or improve our breeding programmes. All of these will continue as the Brexit spaghetti unfolds.

8. Miles Jupp entertained the 1200 guests at dinner with such self- deprecating and understated humour, it had me gently chuckling at such a delivery of witticism. Some of his quickly worded observations about agriculture convinced me they were part of CAP policy. I was delighted for Richard Bramley who received the Meurig Raymond Award for his commitment to the NFU.

9. As I close in on the final few elements of out recipe for change, an emotional Meurig Raymond bowed out of his main stream involvement with the NFU.  Meurig leaves the union in good shape, 14 years as an office holder, but decades of commitment to British agriculture. Words and phrase are sometimes difficult to compose when really you could write a book on his journey to our Farming Statesman. Thank you Meurig.

10. The banquet would not be complete without the conclusion of the officeholder elections. A current (not a currant) of energy, throughout the conference, provided heat for this contest to simmer on the hotplate. Congratulations to Minette Batters, who was elected as the new President with a substantial mandate. Stuart Roberts pushed Guy Smith all the way in the Deputy President race but had to settle for a convincing winning margin as he stepped into the Vice Presidents position.

So as we leave 2018 NFU Conference, thanks to the team that put this event on, it is a mammoth logistical exercise which is expertly put together. It seems food is up the agenda, DEFRA is up the agenda, the environments up the agenda and we don't really need to make it much more complicated than that. 

The ingredients have been marinated, mixed and this 'recipe for change' has been added to the menu.

Your full Conference report has been assembled here by the professional NFU chefs. Bon Appetit.


Sunday, 7 January 2018

A Tale of Two Conferences

Over a thousand participants attended the two Oxford Farming Conferences last week, the GWCT’s Phil Jarvis reports on his highlights from the proceedings.

“I managed to navigate my way through a number of events in Oxford, heard and saw plenty of signs that there is common ground. Several commentators talk about developing an organic fusion in approaches to food production and landscape management. This shared vision was evident in the architecturally stunning quadrangles and courtyards that hosted farming sessions. That is not to say there are different approaches or wide-ranging views in each camp, but the quicker this joined up thinking is presented to government the better the outcome is likely to be for the British countryside. I have highlighted OFC or ORFC initials after each highlight to show where mutual areas are shared.
My first event was the Daylesford Farm Visit which in collaboration with Agricology gave an opportunity for Organic and Conventional Farmers to tour the farm and hear speakers extol the virtues of grass leys, livestock and cover crops in a mixed farming system. Soil health was top of the bill and earthworms, non-grazed leys, sainfoin and cultivations practices all got air time and questions came thick and fast from the assembled audience. Agricology is a great starting place to develop a much more holistic picture of best practice for food production and environmental rejuvenation our farmland. ORFC/OFC

A quick dash to Oxford through a windswept countryside saw me get some top-notch science from the BBSRC Innovation Hub. Sitting on the BBSRC’s Agriculture and Food Security Strategy Advisory Panel I’m always keen to see how are scientists are delivering knowledge and innovation to the practioners. Tackling food waste, in-field herbicide-resistant blackgrass testing and drone technology all came across my radar and some illuminating discussions ensued. OFC

The Great Beer Debate, organised by Innovative Farmers brought together ingredient growers, a maltster, an agronomist, brewers and a thirsty audience. The process from field to firkin was debated over an hour in the delightful St Edmunds Hall. When I say debating, there was discussion from the panel whilst the assembled throng put Marstons and Stroud Brewery’s products through a vigorous series of taste tests. Three of the ales seemed to get the thumbs up whilst the other two were a more acquired taste. Ranking them did get more difficult as the evening progressed!! An enjoyable debate, although when the subject of drinking and glyphosate were mentioned in close proximity, it was time finish the spicy crisps and head into the night. OFC/ORFC



The Oxford Real Farming Conference with its four strands of farm practice, big ideas, growing and supporting a new generation of farmers and Brexit, made its’ way to the centre stage. Kath Dalmeny from Sustain made an admirable job of explaining what is in store and her props kept a complicated subject visually compelling. The Michael Gove Roadshow rolled into the town hall and the question and answer session with Zac Goldsmith was full of semantics which required code breaking to understand their full meaning. It was a championship performance in diplomatic replies from an astute politician. There is changes afoot in agricultural support payments and the ORFC audience certainly applauded the future environmental intentions.

The two other sessions I attended did fill me with some dread, not for the content or the passionate discussion, but the shear complexity of measuring farmland rejuvenation and the infra-structure that will be required to deliver a future environmental and food production policy. The potential for regulatory bedlam looms large. Many farms have small workforces, so collating meaningful measurements for soil health and greenhouse gases or planting millions of trees under a overbearing monitoring regime will cause problems. The plans by academics, politicians and NGO’s have to be practical or the complexity will become counter-productive and the tangible benefits lost. ORFC/OFC

The Oxford Union Debate’s motion that ‘this house believes that by 2100 meat eating will be a thing of the past’ pitched George Monbiot against Gareth Wyn Jones and whilst the result was probably preordained, the motion proposers presented a sound, articulate and humorous argument. I did feel that I might speak from the floor and ask if the same legislation that we could use to increase soil organic matter could be adapted to file down our meat eating incisor teeth by 0.1% per anum. So that by 2100 they would be 8.2% smaller and level with our vegetable chewing molars. OFC/ORFC

The Oxford Farming Comedy Night. Now, farming and stand-up comedy don’t appear to be natural bedfellows, but as business diversifications go Jim Smith’s is one of the more innovative. Farming in the Perth region (That’s Scotland not Australia) he certainly lightened up a late night in Oxford. Back to back shows to over 150 folk was a top effort. Jim’s conversational style certainly engaged the second shows Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian audience. He was onto a winner with farming as his subject matter, from Young Farmers, sanitised farming TV shows and a delightful exchange with Tim Papworth about how he could have helped with his injury recuperation. Now of course there are serious networking dinners and events throughout the conference but the organisers should be applauded for ‘embracing change’ and putting on a comedy show. An hour in Jim Smith’s company was tip top end to the evening. OFC



I then turned my attentions to the Oxford Farming Conference lectures in the Sheldonian Theatre. I am a great believer in delivery and style at big conferences. We spend an extraordinary amount of time dealing with the nitty gritty of everyday life and farming facts and figures. James Wong and Eve Turrow Paul gave polished and absorbing narratives on the challenges facing our industry and the ‘tribes’ of people that make decisions on the food that we produce, but they eat.

As Michael Gove and Dieter Helm had reminded the OFC on Thursday, the direction of food and farming is environmental. It could alternatively be described as payment for public goods, natural capital or helping ecosystems, it’s easy to get confused with the terminology.  The conference continued with this theme and talked about the birds and bees. What were the policies and practicalities of greening and biodiversity likely to look like over the coming years. AHDB’s Paul Temple made it clear that farmers were a large part of future solutions to a rejuvenated farmed landscape. OFC/ORFC

Steve Murrells explained another sort of rejuvenation to a British institution. It was his message to the conference, to support and champion the Co-op as it goes about championing British produce, that hit home to me.

I congratulate the organisers of both conferences, the humour from Caroline Millar at OFC certainly could have neatly fitted into a routine at the comedy night. I know her committee have worked tirelessly to put together the programme and the final day lunch was a triumphant taste explosion.


My final words are about Mark Lynas and his tentative 7-point plan for a peace treaty between anti and pro-GMO warriors. Now we’re all looking for common ground and we need to get off our polarised pedestals and Mark probably has a blueprint that a future Agroecological approach to food production requires. It would be wise for all sides to open their ears and reduce their oral volume. OFC/ORFC