As someone who has been with The Moorlander since its inception a few years ago, it felt like a serious professional achievement to be scheduled in to talk to Minette Batters, the head of the National Farmers’ Union, in between her interviews with Sky News and Farming UK!
Minette runs her own tenanted farm in Wiltshire, but, on top of that, she could not have chosen a more difficult time to become the first female president of the NFU in its over 110-year history. The industry faces uncertain, challenging times ahead as Britain’s relationship with the EU changes forever.
You could argue that no one is better placed to take on this challenge, though, as she is someone with farming in her blood, now being the sixth generation of her family in the industry, and who had to work extremely hard to be in the business she loved.
“I was quite involved in the family farm from a young age. We used to bring in dairy calves which I used to rear before I went to school and then when I got back from school. I guess that’s what kicked off my early love of cows!”
An initial problem she faced was the fact that her father didn’t have a succession tenancy and therefore, when he retired, the farm wouldn’t continue in the family.
“I suppose I became determined that one day I would farm and, it took a long time, but eventually in 1998 I was able to secure a long-term tenancy agreement in Wiltshire. We agreed to take on two derelict cottages and do them up. So, I started farming with 20 suckler cows and now, at any one moment, we have around 300.”
To grow up on a farm is a relatively unique experience and one that has undoubtedly shaped Minette’s attitude: “I definitely have a deep love of the land and the farm and the privilege it was to grow up in such a wild space. I always wanted to make sure I retained that.”
Despite a lot of time and effort to find a way back into the industry she loved as a child, there were still everyday issues she would have to combat in her early days on the new farm, such as having to make it clear to visiting delivery drivers that she was in charge.
“I can always remember somebody delivering something to the farm and saying ‘can I see the boss?’ And I said ‘I am the boss’.
‘And he looked me up and down and he looked very surprised that I was going to get in the loader, put the pallet forks on and unload the delivery.
‘There is a lot of that and often you get phone calls from people saying ‘can I speak to your husband? So a lot of women suffer from that. It is more interpreted by the outside world as being a male industry than those working within it.”
Coming from a different generation himself, I asked Minette what her dad would have thought of her becoming the first female president of the NFU: “He would be absolutely flabbergasted. It would never have crossed his mind that would happen…but to be fair, I never expected it either!”
Indeed, Minette’s rise to the highest echelons of the NFU can very much be seen as an evolution rather than revolution, having got involved locally in Wiltshire at first. She has been an NFU member from grassroots through to County Chairman; she served as Wiltshire’s Council delegate and also as Regional Board Chairman for the South West.
“I am not your archetypal NFU president, you know, I am a tenant farmer and those aren’t your normal presidential qualifications.”
Having recently interviewed Lewis Steer, the Dartmoor Shepherd, who had to jump through many hoops to get into the industry he loved – like Minette – I asked her about the challenges facing young people wanted to get into farming.
“I think that is one of the areas that Brexit could open up. We know that there are a huge number of young people who want to get into farming but who just do not have a route in. I think there are going to be opportunities [created by Brexit] to allow young people to enter the industry.
‘Historically though it has been difficult. I know when I got into this business the Common Agricultural Policy was set up to help people leaving the industry rather than the people coming in. I hope that one of the pluses will be far greater accessibility for young people.”
It is the topic of Brexit that has had Minette invited to be on news stations across the country, as she discusses the potential impact that leaving the EU could have on farming across Britain.
“I really think this is a difficult one for a membership organisation. I will have members pleading with us to leave with No Deal and life will be fine and I will have members pleading with us for revocation and cancelling the whole thing. The membership is divided just like the country. My job is, in the first instance, to be very honest with the membership and do the right thing, as we see it, for British agriculture.
‘The main problem with No Deal is that it cuts off immediate access to our biggest trading partner and for products like lamb, in particular, we are just priced out of the European Market straight away. And for places like where The Moorlander is coming from, this is just so crucially important.
‘We are just committed to doing the right thing. We supported an orderly departure like in Theresa May’s deal because if we leave with an agreement in place, and so have transitional arrangements, we can enshrine animal welfare and environmental standards in law. So, if we were to do trade deals with countries like the United States, will have to take note of those food standards.
‘I said to Michael Gove that we needed this in writing – we needed to draw up a commission to look into what our offer for agricultural products would be and, as yet, we don’t have one side of A4 as to what that would be!”
The NFU’s argument, as Minette puts it, is not about whether or not the UK leaves the EU, but that, under No Deal terms, Britain would just have to accept whatever the rules are of the countries we trade with, even if it contravenes rules we already have in place here such as regarding chicken stocking.
I asked Minette what, to her mind, would be the worst-case scenario for farmers in Devon should No Deal become a reality:
“We will be asking for a huge support package from the Government in the event of No Deal to make sure that the industry has time to restructure. I don’t think its so much in the short term, because I do think the Government will be prepared to step in to allow farmers to get through the first 12 months.
‘My worry will come in the longer term when we allow cheap imports in and when they decide to get rid of the tariff wall completely. It will dramatically undermine our marketplace.
‘Questions remain unanswered. It’s all well and good having all this rhetoric about trade deals around the world – well, what are they? And what are we going to sell more of?”
Minette’s criticisms, however, are not solely aimed at the British Government. I asked her what she thought about not discussing the ‘divorce’ and ‘future relationship’ at the same time: “I thought it was a mistake on the EU’s side. I think Theresa May was wanting to [do them both together] but I think the EU was slow to agree to the political declaration and I think the Withdrawal Agreement on its own was not enough.
‘I think there were faults on both sides but it is doing such damage to prices. You’ve got the beef industry absolutely on the floor and farmers just at their wits end with the unsustainability of pricing.
‘We also know that over 60% of farms will be unprofitable without direct support.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just Brexit that are causing headaches for farmers on Dartmoor, across Devon and up and down the UK.
“Rural crime is a massive priority. It is absolutely huge at the moment due to the lack of resource in policing in rural areas. Bovine TB is also a massive issue.
‘Also delayed agricultural environment payments have been an issue, meaning that farmers have been having to go back to banks and renew overdrafts for money they should have been paid by Government in 2017. There is quite a big list of ‘day jobs’ we have to deal with.”
Coming nearer the end of our interview, I asked Minette how she considers she has taken to her role. I believe her answer has been demonstrated in every response she has given up to this point “I always try to tell it like it is, whether I am talking to politicians or members. I always try to play a really straight bat. If I have to be robust, I am quite capable being very robust!
‘I do always try to be positive about our industry as well. I mean, Brexit has a lot of challenges but also a lot of opportunities. We have one of the largest markets in the world – 70 million people – and many countries in the world see it as a prize jewel to have access to our market.
‘The biggest problem we face at the moment though is unprofitable farming. If we want businesses that can invest in the environment, or that can invest in their own infrastructure, and we want to keep families on the land, we have to be profitable.”
Despite the issues facing those managing farms or trying to get involved in the industry, Minette is adamant that there is no better job in the world. To finish our discussion, I asked her what advice she would give to those young people who want to get involved in Britain’s oldest sector:
“It is important following your dreams and follow your passions. Be careful who you listen to, in some ways as well. Really seek out sound advice. Always push and challenge yourself to get better and have drive and commitment to be the best you can be.
‘I’ve been fortunate to meet many people who have changed the way that I think and do things throughout my life. There are some people you meet who really do make a difference to you, from all walks of life, and as I become older, I listen more. I’ve always tried to improve myself and what I stand for, and continue to learn, and listening is the most important lesson I’ve had.”
I suspect that, over the next few years, no matter what happens with Brexit, Minette’s bloodline will continue to have its effect on British farming, whether on a small farm in Wiltshire, or on a national scale, as the next generation prepares to follow in the family’s footsteps:
“My daughter hasn’t got a clue what she wants to do but my son is keen!”