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NFU revolt as farming faces yet another crisis

Friday 17 February 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard muses at a rebellion in the ranks of the National Farmers' Union as avian flu sweeps closer to the English Channel

ONE of the more embarrassing moments of my professional life (one of many, I admit) took place in the Falcon Hotel at Settle where I had a just delivered a talk to members of the Settle farmers' club.

When asked to make such a speech, you are faced with two alternatives: an anodyne collection of jokes and anecdotes about a life in journalism, fun but not important, or you can try to make a serious contribution to a debate close to the interests of the members of your audience.

On this occasion, I had chosen the latter and sailed into a fairly harsh critique of the public relation skills - or rather, the lack of them - in the National Farmers' Union which, I said, was letting its members down by its lack of success in explaining the problems of modern agriculture to non-farming taxpayers who cough up the cash that keeps farming going.

War down on the farm.
War down on the farm.

After the speech, I was thanked and presented with a handsome pair of whisky glasses by … the local branch secretary of the NFU! There followed a somewhat acrid debate for, although I did not withdraw my remarks, I felt it necessary to apologise for insulting one of my very generous hosts.

This red faced moment came back to me with a bang this week when it was revealed that a high-level revolt if underway in the upper echelons of the NFU when - for the first time in 50 years - the sitting president of the union will be opposed in an internal election by a group calling themselves Better NFU.

And their reasons for challenging the status quo are roughly the same as those I gave in my Settle talk: they believe the present hierarchy is "failing" - their word, not mine - its 120,000 members by not to putting over their case to the general public.

Now anyone who has read this column in the past will know that I am very pro-farmer, not just because of their economic and social importance in rural life, but because of the way they have husbanded the landscape of these Yorkshire Dales of ours for centuries. Without them, the Dales would be a wilderness of scrub, bracken and bog.

However, the NFU have totally failed to put across this message to the tax payers. They have sat back and allowed the image of an ever-moaning, ever-groaning farmer to become deeply imbedded in the public psyche.

But in recent years, well before foot-and-mouth, British farmers have genuinely been having a rough time, with thousands of them leaving the land each year, worn down by falling incomes, horrendous working conditions, and a lack of respect verging on contempt from millions of townies.

Also, anyone who has read our news columns over the years will have seen many, many stories from the Country Land and Business Association, whose PR professionals realised yonks ago that, if the urban population were to support and value farmers, they must tell the townies the good side of the coin. That good side is the preservation of the countryside which the townies love to visit whenever they get the chance.

The NFU's North Eastern area is huge - all of Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland - and once upon a time their PR man was based in Darlington. Yet, from time to time, he would drive to Skipton to meet me and other journalists to fill us in on the current state of the industry.

He left under an NFU reorganisation some years ago and was replaced by a lady in York. I have never received a single press release from her and, looking at the union's website this morning, I see that the last one she issued on January 26 - about so-called "green fuel."

That is an important subject, one I have written about many times, but as avian flu sweeps ever closer to the English Channel, with suspected cases reported this week in Italy and Germany, shouldn't the Yorkshire public know what measures local farmers are taking to protect us from any potential danger?

Mind you, the York lady is not on her own. The last press release the London office sent out was on February 1 and - archetypally - it was a moan about milk prices, another item of importance to farmers but of little interest to the general public who just want their pinta to be as cheap as possible.

I couldn't help but snigger when I saw that on their list of coming events was a series of breakfast meetings on January 22, almost a month ago. And this is the site which boasts: "We are the voice of British farming."

They aren't. They have not been for several years, apart from the time when they got their act together over foot and mouth. This may mean little to the non-farming public but it is of vital importance to the countryside. The Better NFU campaign may not win their election but I hope they have stirred things up enough to make the leadership realise it is time to live in the real world. The feather-bed days are gone.

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