National Farmers' Union: An alternative voice for farmers?

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A survey of over 500 independent and family farmers in September 2002 found that: * Over a quarter surveyed (28%) didn't feel any organisation represented their interests. * Over two-thirds (68%) agreed there was a need for a new body to represent independent and family farmers. * Higher percentages of younger farmers (71% of those between 16-44) and women in farming (75%) wanted a new organisation.: * A fifth (18%) had lapsed their membership of the NFU.81

During the late 1990's, a number of disillusioned farmers across the country began to form new grassroots organisations. These included ,b>Family Farms in Crisis, Small Farms Association (SFA) and the Family Farms Association. Chairs of these organisations met in 1999 to discuss how they could work more closely and present a strong voice that would represent the family farmer in political negotiations. The Small and Family Farms Alliance (SFFA) was established in late 1999, bringing together the Small Farms Association and Family Farms Association, both based in the South West. The Alliance, chaired by Michael Hart, has been highly effective at communicating the realities of being a farmer in the UK today, as well as having a strong critique of the role played by agrifood corporations, the USA and the liberalisation of trade in the farming crisis. It has build bridges with environmental groups and forged strong international alliances. A lack of both human and financial resources, as well as the lack of an administrative base, are the key reasons why the SFFA has not developed into a more powerful organisation.

Both the SFA (chaired by Philip Hosking) and the Family Farms Association (chaired by Pippa Woods) continue campaigning in their own right, producing newsletters, organising conferences, responding to government consultations and taking practical measures such as the SFA’s new local food initiative.

In 2000, Farmers for Action (FFA) burst onto the scene. FFA was launched at a service station on the M5 near Birmingham amid growing disenchantment over the reluctance of the NFU and the Country Landowners' Association (CLAB) to take firm action in defence of the beleaguered farming industry.82 FFA was successful in applying pressure to the supermarkets through a series of blockades and demonstrations at supermarket depots.

The fuel protests in late 2001 took the FFA in a different direction, detracting attention from the farmgate price issue. Environmentalists who had begun to sympathise with the plight of farmers in the hands of corporations found it impossible to support the FFA’s stance in calling for lower fuel taxation. Since the fuel protests, however, some within FFA have become more interested in environmental arguments, and with the wider critique of corporate power.

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FFA are notable for their pragmatic approach – happy to negotiate and work with the supermarkets one day and blockade the next. The FFA are, after all, a group of small businessmen out to protect their own interests, not a radical social movement (yet). FFA are still a notable force in farming politics and command the attention of the national, as well as the farming press, mainly because of their charismatic spokesperson, David Handley, and because they are willing to taking direct action. Their ‘Farmers Strike’ on August 23rd 2002 was another attempt to raise public awareness of the crisis in farming.

A sign of FFA's effectiveness is the NFU's attempts to 'smear' them. A number of sources from within the NFU and FFA claim that Ben Gill has worked against them at every turn. For example, during the early blockades of supermarket depots, Ben Gill allegedly advised the big supermarkets not to talk to FFA 'under any circumstances'.83 Another example is that senior NFU officials are alleged to have telephoned the NFU Scotland president, Jim Walker, urging him not to attend a meeting between FFA and Robert Wiseman Dairies on Saturday 10th August 2002. The aim of the meeting was to negotiate a higher milk price for farmers. Mr Walker refused to comply with NFU HQ demands and attended the meeting stating he was happy to meet with anyone who shared his aim of securing more profitable farming. He added,

"The NFU in the south does not control NFU Scotland, and it most certainly does not control me........People can agree or disagree with FFA's tactics, but everyone involved in that organisation is totally committed to our industry and they can see no other way to get people to listen".84

In early November 2002, a new UK-based farming organisation, farm, was launched. farm is a membership organisation, campaigning for a viable future for the independent and family farm. It was set up in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic by a group of farmers and campaigners who shared a common analysis of the causes of – and solutions to – the crisis in farming. Robin Maynard, an experienced environmental campaigner, is its National Co-ordinator. Other founding members include five farmers from across Britain, Peter Lundgren and John Turner from Lincolnshire, John Sherell from Devon, John Sanderson from Suffolk and Devon farmer and Ecologist magazine editor, Zac Goldsmith.

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Before farm's launch, a survey confirmed that 68% of farmers polled agreed there was a need for a new farming organisation to represent independent and family farmers. farm argues that the farming crisis is caused by a series of interrelated factors:

       * the steady take-over of food production and distribution by large agribusiness companies and conglomerates
       * the failure of government to stand up for the long-term interests of farmers, consumers and rural communities
       * lack of public awareness of the scale or implications of the farming crisis.

“...we believe that farming is more than just another industry, and that agriculture – not agribusiness – offers the most viable long-term future for farming, food production and the environment.”85

The NFU has failed to come up with an accurate and progressive analysis of what is really going on in UK farming today. They have also failed to suggest a practical and positive way forward for the small and family farm. They blame farm, and other farming or rural organisations that have split away, of dividing and weakening the farming lobby. However, as an insider to the political process and a statutory consultee, the NFU has inevitably excluded any contrary views to those broadly sympathetic to Government policy. As interest groups have felt they have not been sufficiently represented, they have formed their own voice - such as the Tenant Farmer's Association; Farmer's Union of Wales (FUW); organic farmers and the Soil Association (founded 1946); the National Pig Association; the National Sheep Association; the British Independent Fruit Growers Association (BIGFA) as well as the others mentioned above. The NFU has not been seen to represent these interests, falling into sectoral rivalries rather than seeking to set out a coherent and embracing vision for food and farming.

For any of these alternative farming organisations to have an effective voice campaigning on behalf of small farmers in the UK, however, they will need to recruit a large number of farmer members and must work closely together. Derek Mead sums the future up well -"Farming is finished if we don't all pull together".


81“Survey reveals that farmers want a new organisation to campaign on their behalf” farm Press release. 19.9.02 82“Farming militants behind the action”, Peter Hetherington, The Guardian, 12 September 2000 83Interviews with Kelvin Lindsley, David Handley and Derek Mead, 2002 84“NFU accused of smear campaign” by Farmers Weekly Staff.Farmers Weekly Interactive, 16 August 2002 85 See 'What we believe' section. 25th June 2003 Viewed 23/7/03