NATIONAL FARMERS UNION leader Peter Kendall has seen members endure a miserable 10 months but concerns over food security, prices and sourcing in the wake of the horse meat scandal could offer new opportunities, he tells David Burrows.
To travel 600 miles and have only 20 minutes with Peter Kendall irks me slightly. After all, I’m busy too. But given the challenges facing him as president of the National Farmers Union it’s soon clear that I am lucky to have even that. As I sit in the union’s London offices just down from Westminster the BBC is showing images of sheep being dug out of the snow in the Pennines. The extreme weather has battered the country’s farmers, but the white spring is simply another chapter in a gruelling 10 months for everyone involved in food production.
“It’s been bloody horrible,” says Kendall of the weather, which has caused farmers huge emotional and financial stress. The number of dead sheep on farms is mounting after 20- foot snowdrifts in some areas, while cereal growers – many of whom are still recovering after the wet weather last year which drowned crops – have had to delay planting. “We were about 3m tonnes down on our average wheat harvest,” says Kendall, who is charged with turning all this into positive messaging and help the industry back on its feet.
“It’s a tremendous challenge. We’ve done a confidence survey and in the medium to long term farmers are still confident. Right now though they feel pretty jaded – they’ve had the stuffing knocked out of them.
“It’s been a gruelling year, but it helps us establish the notion that you can’t take farming for granted. We’re not taking 50 tonnes of steel, putting them in the front of a factory and [producing] nuts and bolts.” Farming “is dependent on natural elements and how the good Lord shines on us”. Which is why some talk of climate change aggravates him. “I can cope with incremental temperature increases, but what I can’t cope with is four inches of rain in one night in August when I am trying to harvest, or snow in April during lambing. My challenge to government is to help us.”
Of course, he’s not asking the government to fix the weather – and he hopes his members aren’t asking him to do that either. Rather, “it’s about what do we do to make ourselves more resilient”.
Kendall emphasises the idea of “resilience” a number of times, keen perhaps not to portray farming as an industry that goes cap in hand to the government for more handouts and higher subsidies. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable. This month the NFU wrote to the government’s farming secretary, Owen Paterson, to appeal for free collection and professional disposal of the dead animals piling up on farms as the snow thawed. “We don’t want government to shower us with money and bail us out. We want to put the right conditions in place that help us build successful businesses.”
Kendall farms in Eyeworth, east Bedfordshire, in partnership with his brother. Together they grow 620 hectares of crops, having moved away from livestock to a purely arable system. He also has a degree in agricultural economics from Nottingham University. Perhaps he draws on this academic and practical experience when suggesting that farmers are not treated as businesses, and that the importance of farming has for too long been underestimated.
He points out that exports have grown in each of the past seven years (though they may show a fall in 2012 thanks, again, to the weather) while “thousands of jobs” have been created in the sector. “This is a really important industry and ought to be right at the heart of government thinking,” he says.
This is one of Kendall’s top priorities – and has remained so since he was voted president in 2006. This is his fourth term in office, having previously held positions as NFU cereals chairman and deputy president.
He is obviously doing something right for the union’s 55,000 members but there is a feeling that he is in charge at a pivotal moment for British farming. Food security. Food traceability. Food prices. All three have come to a head this year with the weather and the horse meat scandal.
There have been chinks of light. Food security, for instance, is something that ministers are now publicly speaking about, though Kendall has changed his focus slightly. In this year’s address to the NFU conference, he “stopped banging on about the global 9.5bn people by 2050” and highlighted the domestic issues. National Audit Office figures “show that we’ll have another 4.5m people in the UK within eight years, so standing still on production means we’ll go backwards in terms of food security,” he says. “We need to sit down and think about how we build capacity.”
This ties with Kendall’s overriding yet “simple” ambition to “put more British food on more British plates”. Better relationships with retailers would be a start. It’s a challenge that has been a top priority for many NFU presidents for many years. Kendall takes time to praise Sainsbury’s for “being aspirational” and “raising the bar” but says he will hold to account those that continue to make a virtue of price. Morrisons is one that he’s had on his radar recently – somewhat of a surprise given its impressive record on British sourcing. The supermarket has introduced a tertiary poultry brand, Hemsley, which has British-style branding even though some of the meat is imported. This sends the wrong messages, he says.
If the supermarkets “make rules and say [they] want lower densities and they want more windows for poultry, then go and
say they’re developing another range like Hemsley and buy in from other parts of the world, then that isn’t fair to those farmers who have spent half a million quid putting new windows in.”
This problem also extends to public procurement. The NFU has often focused on relationships with retailers given their power and budgets, but Kendall is keen to spotlight the government’s sourcing processes too, saying its attitude to food procurement is “lax”. The economic crisis is part of the problem, he admits, but there are “good examples” of public-sector procurement initiatives that don’t end up costing more.
“To me it is the absolute height of hypocrisy for government to say that it is going to regulate and raise the bar for our domestic farmers because it thinks it is important, but when it comes to [the government] buying food it’s not important. That sort of hypocrisy really does my members’ heads in. We do a fair amount of lobbying around this, but it falls on deaf ears and we need more help.”
Kendall has written to all government departments asking for information on their food sourcing, and “some” have responded. The horse meat scandal could stimulate progress, however, with Kendall once again looking to find a silver lining to a crisis.
The scandal has acted as a “wake-up call” and shows that food prices cannot be pushed lower and lower without consequences. “We have got retailers saying things they have never said before,” says Kendall, including the traditional farming bully-boy Tesco. Some of those who attended the NFU’s annual conference in February arrived at the Footprint Forum later in the month buoyed by comments, claims and commitments made by the Tesco chief, Philip Clarke. Kendall was also impressed, but warns that bragging must give way to action by retailers, foodservice companies and the government alike.
“If we have got the biggest retailer wanting to change how it works, that creates a massive opportunity. It means the ones who want to be better have to go further and the whole thing becomes competitive bragging. If we can have competitive bragging about who has the best relationship with British farming I’ll be a very happy chap. I don’t [just] want to see bragging – I want to see delivery and I want to see results.”
That will, no doubt, continue to keep him busy.