Batters reflects on six years dealing with Covid, politicians and climate
When Minette Batters first started at the NFU, she was described by a colleague as not knocking on doors but crashing through them. At the time, she took that as a massive compliment.
A decade later, she realises crashing through a door is the easy bit. “It’s what you do when you get to the other side that matters,” she explains.
It’s an insight that has come from spending six years as the first woman at the helm of the NFU – and having held several senior positions in the union before that. Described as the best president in NFU history, Batters has locked horns with six secretaries of state, while contending with Brexit, Covid, international wars and a cost of living crisis.
She has certainly crashed down doors in that time. Of course, challenges continue. farmers are in crisis and the threat of protest looms on the horizon. Meanwhile, much of the country is still underwater due to extreme weather. The difference now, though, is that the government will now listen to farmers when they voice their concerns.
Name: Minette Batters
Potted CV: Amateur jockey and event rider, chef, farmer, NFU president
Best career decision: Taking on my farm
Career highlight: Being elected as the first woman to lead the NFU felt like a big moment
Career lowlight: Too many to mention. Failure has taught me more than success
Best piece of advice received: You make your own luck
Business mantra: Work hard
Hobbies: Running marathons
How do you relax? Reading, cooking, running
Favourite meal: Steak
What book are you reading at the moment? Look to the Land by Lord Northbourne
Favourite album? Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits
Favourite film: Four Weddings & a Funeral
Batters has elevated the position of the NFU to one where “the government has wanted to effectively have us onside”. Although she is modest about her role in this shift – she says the organisation has offered more policy solutions and worked with the media to communicate them – her leadership style has no doubt been a crucial factor.
It’s a style that has involved staying fair and giving credit where it’s due, but also calling out politicians when they break promises. Batters admits that has sometimes made her relationship with government officials “really hard”.
She has had to walk a tightrope of being amenable enough for them to “want to have you in the room”, but also tough enough to speak out – just “not so much that they lock you out of the room”.
Ploughing meets politics
That tightrope has been easier to walk with some politicians than with others. “Boris Johnson talked about not betraying our farmers in trade deals. He’d ‘rather die than hurt Britain’s farmers’, he said at one point. But ultimately, we gave away everything with him and Liz Truss,” she says, pointing to deals with Australia and New Zealand that she “can never support”. Then there was Truss’s choice of Defra secretary, Ranil Jayawardena. He “landed like a tornado” and ushered in the “most terrifying time” for the sector, says Batters – as he had apparently no knowledge of the industry and no interest in gaining any.
On the other end of the spectrum is George Eustice, with whom Batters is understood to have enjoyed a good working relationship. There is also clearly mutual respect between her and Rishi Sunak. In her view, he has “set a very different agenda” to his predecessors and she admires how on-brief he’s been.
“The NFU was brought about in 1908 to restore credibility between farmers and government. That’s more important now than ever”
As for her brief, Batters has made it a key priority to protect UK product and producers. For that reason, Batters sees the standards campaign as her greatest achievement. Backed by a million public signatories, the 2020 NFU petition and campaign brought about legislative changes to ensure food that is illegal to produce in the UK could not be imported from elsewhere.
The campaign also brought about the creation of the Trade & Agriculture Commission – a group of food and farming experts who must be consulted before any trade deal is agreed. The aim was to give farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy – an aim Batters feels has been achieved. “I’m absolutely certain that without the standards campaign and a million people supporting it, that by now we would have imported hormone-treated beef,” she says.
This ability to react quickly – and vocally – to unfolding events has been key to Batters’ success. But it’s also been a frustration. “The NFU has had to respond to extreme, unprecedented events for which there was no playbook in history,” she says. “The downside is that the things I’d thought I would be able to focus on haven’t received so much attention.”
One such thing is the continued lack of a comprehensive food strategy – something she believes is “desperately needed” to resolve long-term problems such as improving fairness for farmers, increasing access to labour and ramping up investment.
“It’s no good having a part document that sits on the shelf,” she says, nodding to the Henry Dimbleby-authored report shelved by the government last year. As an election approaches, she wants to see politicians making clear commitments.
“I will have to learn to sit on my hands”
Batters particularly wants them to address the “greatest threat that UK food faces”: a lack of investment. “We live with a retail price war now, and it doesn’t go away, and that makes it difficult for everyone,” she explains.
For her, the government must support fair pricing – but it also requires a culture change at retailers to stop rewarding the “ruthless buyer for negotiating a ruthless contract”. She believes the UK has a chance to lead a new-look relationship between buyer and producer. Especially as “we’re now hitting a tipping point globally, whereby you’ve got protests in Europe about farmers not being valued”.
European farming protests in Britain
Protests are looking increasingly likely this side of the channel. In the face of continued pressure, Batters hopes the NFU will continue to “really focus on the policy solutions and not fall into the trap of [saying]: ‘My members want [XYZ].’ We really have to focus on how we bring the industry together, where are we going, and how are we going to get there,” she explains.
Batters may sound relentlessly positive in the face of such challenges. But the truth is – after 10 years at the NFU – she is worn down as the farmers she represents.
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“I’ve never turned my phone off in 10 years,” she says. “You’re on call 24/7, and that does take its toll, because to a certain extent you just never switch off.”
She’s now on an equally gruelling farewell tour of the country – clocking up over 1,000 miles every week talking to her members. She confesses a need to “almost find myself again” when it’s over – following a period of “exhaustion, grief, and then rebooting”.
Looking ahead, she is determined not to become some kind of “stroppy backbencher, marking the NFU’s homework”. “I think I’ll be watching everything like a hawk, and I will have to learn to sit on my hands.”
Becoming an actual backbencher is also not on the cards. “I’ll never be an MP,” she says. She has seen value in her relationships with Sunak, Keir Starmer and Ed Davey, which is why “I really believe in the NFU’s apolitical status”.
“The NFU was brought about in 1908 to restore credibility and integrity between farmers and government,” she says. “That’s more important now than ever.”
Her enduring belief in that goal is why,despite the toll the job has taken on her, Batters maintains it’s been a “massive privilege” to lead the NFU.
“I’ve met some amazing people, and on that basis, I would do it all again.”