Drought action needed now

February has gone out in a spring-like fashion with March coming in tomorrow like a lamb. Last week’s temperature was incredible for February, and Friday was shirtsleeves! It is so very dry though; I have never seen Crouchlands so dry in February, which means we are either in for a very wet spring, or a very difficult year ahead. We have crocuses everywhere in the garden and on the cow-track verges; a few daffodils too. The woodland is coming to life, buds on the trees and bushes, green shoots everywhere thrusting up through the ground, many of them urgently needing to get the show on before a canopy appears; shutting out the light.

I have had a very eventful week! A drought summit with Minister of State Caroline Spelman and Richard Benyon on Monday, a nerve-racking NFU Conference (as I was in charge of the organising team and I had moved it to the ICC in Birmingham), which turned out to be a resounding success; followed by defeat at the NFU Officeholder elections, which was quite a blow.

The drought summit on Monday was very interesting and constructive, and I was surprised at the change in attitude and the spirit of co-operation which now exists, particularly between the water companies. There is no crisis this year, but if this weather continues, the summer of 2013 certainly will be a crisis, and we do not want to look back then and wished we had done something 18 months earlier (which is now) in order to mitigate that crisis.

That is why every one of us in the South and East of this country will be told to, and indeed should; change our attitude to water and how we use it. Certainly, in the farming industry we are doing a great deal to save water and cut cost, investing in new technology, saving rain water and so on. Industry is doing the same, and so will each citizen be persuaded to think about the water used, and the purpose it is used for.

I did get agreement that agriculture and food production, food security, is as important as water security and energy security, and that our claim to water is as valid as theirs; even though they have a statutory duty to supply. That is a milestone and has not been the case before. We only use a small amount of water in agriculture, less than one per cent overall (but much higher at certain times of the year) and it needs protecting. If farmers are to build expensive reservoirs, which by common consent is the sensible thing to do, then they need capital tax allowance on that (which they used to have) and they need to be allowed to fill them! Winter fill is not much of an option this year, and concession was given on Monday that the filling season should be extended; indeed they should be allowed to fill any time of the year if water levels and flow allow.

There will be less planting of spring crops this year, especially vegetables. It makes perfect sense to only plant veg that you can water, but the dilemma for some is that with contracts signed, they will need to supply that veg in some cases at their own expense. A substantial cut in income is bad enough, having to buy the crop not grown in order to supply is highly damaging and could finish off some growers. At the NFU Conference last week, the Horticulture team stated in their session that there is enough evidence showing retail abuse in their sector to really shock the general public. The adjudicator to curb retail excess and abuse of power is needed urgently they stated.

And on to the NFU Conference; a great success they all said; 1,100 of them, with around 1,000 sitting down for the dinner on Tuesday night. The messages were loud and clear from conference; this industry needs to change, it needs to be done quickly, and it can only be done by you, the farmers. The political session said it, the business session said it, the production session said it. We were given the same message at the breakout sessions, and in Question Time at the end. No reason not to have received the message then!

We need to up production; we need to do it with great care for the environment and bio-diversity, and with ever improving animal welfare. We must also do it with less water, less inputs (fertilizer/pesticides), we will have to probably do it without the advantage of GM, and we must do it with a lower carbon footprint. We are well placed to do all that, but it will not be easy, but boy, are we important all of a sudden! Food is suddenly the subject on everyone’s lips, how to grow enough of it, how to keep it affordable, and how to grow it sustainably. Farmers love challenges, and we will respond again as we have always done, but we need clear messages from government and buyers, we need sensible regulations; we need an element of freedom to be entrepreneurial.

So, I am no longer Vice-President of the NFU; indeed I am nothing at all now to do with the NFU other than a member! I am going to carry on with many meetings in the short-term until newly elected Vice President Adam Quinney (beef farmer from Warwickshire) finds his feet. This would normally be for a very short period, but as Adam has not held any national or senior position in the NFU, it will take longer. Why did I lose? Who knows, this is politics after all, and it could be a number of reasons, such as my work on NFU reform which was not universally popular (but highly necessary), the fact that I did not challenge Meurig Raymond (Deputy President) was certainly a factor.

I had made it very clear from the outset that I would not challenge, and that Council should return the team for another term. My reasoning was simple; if I challenged Meurig, then he would be forced to challenge Peter Kendall the President, who needed 75% of the vote for a fourth term. I was not prepared to put at risk a very good and hard working President at a time where CAP is in a critical position of negotiations, bTB is in the same place, and of course government cuts, the animal health and welfare issues and so on. For these reasons I wanted the same team returned so that we could be immersed in these issues from day one. Alas, the Council decided this was too cosy and were determined to break it up.

I have enjoyed every minute of the last two years as Vice President, and I would not change a thing if I had the time again. Turn to Page 16 I think it very important to be true to oneself, and all the changes I have made, although difficult, although unpopular; were necessary and will move the NFU on. The commodity boards will now be stronger as they will have appointed members on them who have expertise, and controversially will have votes and can stand for the chair (cries of what has happened to our democracy! Well democracy needs a bit of a hand sometimes if it doesn’t deliver). The next generation of young farmers is now established and up to 150 young people will be involved, moving things on.

There will be re-connection with the counties, and the Regional Boards will take responsibility for their members, and progress in their areas. The Council are going to decide in June if they want fewer of them there, or if they are going to have weighted voting, according to income at county or regional level (their choice and made possible by my introducing electronic voting) Finally all Officeholders and National Chairmen will have proper induction, training (media, IT, and presentation skills); all of which were overdue. The conference is now at the ICC in Birmingham, and attendance and sponsorship this year were at a record high. I hope they build on all that, and that this great organization goes from strength to strength.

Gwyn Jones