Minette Batters NFU president

New NFU president Minette Batters. Photo: NFU

If delegates at this week’s annual NFU Conference were looking for some much-needed clarity over Brexit, they were likely to go home disappointed.

The farming sector’s annual jamboree had anti-dairy campaigners shouting “dairy is rape”, the thoroughly modern election of Minette Batters as the new (and first female) NFU president and a big name keynote speaker in environment secretary Michael Gove. But for those looking for insight into what will happen, post-Brexit, in terms of CAP, or the numerous other issues that farmers care so deeply about, there was only disappointment. 

There were comedy moments. Like when outgoing NFU president Meurig Raymond chose to break up his speech outlining the sector’s myriad post-Brexit demands with a tirade against fly tippers.

But calls for Brexit clarity from the farming sector apparently fell on deaf ears as Gove said much and promised little in his speech. The audience waited with bated breath as Gove ended promising sentences with “…and I hope to make an announcement on this very soon”. He did find space for a little dig at his boss Theresa May’s penchant for “walking in fields of wheat”, though.

In his speech, Gove repeatedly told delegates food production and farming had never been closer to the heart of British policy making. That’s had the FDF cooing about how “Defra has blossomed” under his leadership as, “in just a few months, the Secretary of State has placed food and drink at the heart of government thinking”. 

But so far as farmers are concerned, the sop of making milk contracts mandatory between milk producers and buyers was no consolation following the government’s refusal to endorse the NFU’s high-profile request to extend the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to protect primary producers such as farmers.

The assembled delegation waited for some guidance on a seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Indeed, Co-op Food CEO Jo Whitfield highlighted the shortage of labour as “mission critical”. Some farmers say it has already left produce rotting in the ground.

But Gove had little of substance to say in the way of appeasement. In fact, he dodged giving a concrete answer on possible seasonal workers’ schemes with the kind of agility one only finesses after many years’ hard politicking.

It comes less than a fortnight after British organic berry grower Haygrove announced it would be scaling down its UK operations and investing in China because of current uncertainty over labour. Meanwhile, NFU Scotland last week published data showing 42% of its growers were intending to scale down or cease operations as a direct result of the labour crisis.

Quite simply Gove failed to address these concerns. And there was muted discontent among delegates who expected more from the environment secretary, especially as he had made so much of protecting British farming (as opposed to merely the environment).

As Raymond said, the food industry may be universally committed to making a success of Brexit but the dearth of decisions on labour provision does not bode well for the sector – or for consumers who are bound to feel the pinch if availability of UK produce contracts, as many predict.

This was my first visit to the NFU Conference. So the key takeaways from my first rodeo are these: Tweed jackets are out and brown suits are in this year, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next - not even Michael Gove.