2018 NFU Conference Highlights - Recipe for Change

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By Phil Jarvis, Head of Farming at the Allerton Project

Here are my top ten highlights from 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 !!

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.

DEFRA'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.

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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.

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