National Farmers' Union: Dissent from within

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Derek Mead and the 500 signatures to overthrow NFU leadership

Derek Mead, a dairy farmer and property developer from Weston-Super-Mare, recently joined the NFU Council. A founder member of Farmers for Action, Derek Mead is now intent on driving the NFU into the 21st century. He has mounted a campaign to challenge the leadership of Ben Gill and other committee members. Mr Mead needs 500 signatures to call a special meeting at which he will try to vote out Mr Gill, Tim Bennett (deputy president) and Michael Paske (vice-president).

"The NFU needs a 50-year spring-clean, new management, new ideas, and the word 'can't' erased from the NFU dictionary," he said.

Mead maintains that it is preferable to try to change the NFU from within rather than create an alternative from scratch, as it would be almost impossible to recreate the NFU's local infrastructure, "the vehicle is there, why don't we use it?"

Derek Mead is forthright in blaming the NFU for not standing up to the multinational companies, especially the supermarkets, that are squeezing farmers around the world. He says that "NFU leaders should be strong enough to deal with supermarkets....We should be naming and shaming supermarkets and using open-book accounting throughout the food chain so everyone knows where the money is going.".

Cereal dissatisfaction Fifty years ago most farms were "mixed". This meant that they grew several different crops on rotation, and probably kept animals as well. Today, most farms have a single ‘commodity’ interest. This means that they focus solely on livestock & fodder crops or on arable cultivation. The conflicting interests of farmers focused solely on single commodity sectors is one of the most difficult issues that the farm lobby has to face. There is a "fundamental split" within the union because arable farmers want high grain prices, but livestock producers want to pay the lowest prices for animal feed.

In Spring 2002, the arable lobby voiced concern that the NFU has failed to deliver on arable issues in recent years. During the Foot and Mouth crisis, arable farmers suffered very low prices, but the NFU was pre-occupied with the plight of livestock farmers. Rumours circulated about the creation of a new organisation to represent arable farmers. The main backer of this scheme is prominent Essex farmer, Guy Smith (see list of GM-supporting farmers). He had been one of the main supporters of Marie Skinner's campaign to become deputy President and was evidently disillusioned by re-election of the existing NFU leadership team. He used his column, 'Smith's Soapbox' in Arable Farming to canvas support for the plan amongst its 20,000 readers. These rumours alarmed the NFU hierarchy as a bulk of the union's funding is from the wealthy cereal producers, and arable farmers account for one-third of the union's 60,000 members.79

The NFU responded by outlining measures that it hoped would convince dissatisfied members that it is the only organisation that can lead the ailing arable sector out of its depression. Agricultural economist, David Walker, neatly sums up the position,

"Those who seek to promote specific commodity interests outside the NFU are faced with a significant challenge in developing an effective lobbying alternative to the NFU. Until they have proved their effectiveness, it will be difficult for them to garner the kind of resources and membership necessary to do the job. It is a chicken and egg situation"80


78“Rebel farmers step up campaign” Farmers Weekly Staff. Farmers Weekly Interactive, 20th June 2002 79Gill 'alarmed' by NFU revolt Farmer's Weekly 22.2.02 80David Walker (Agricultural Economist), ‘Beyond the NFU’, 16/3/02 Viewed: 23/7/03