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Farmers need to polish up a tarnished public image

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 04, 2013

Comments (6)

Whoever the new President of the NFU may be, one of his biggest and most immediate challenges will be to shore up public support for farming, at a time when it is beginning to show signs of crumbling away.

As a former Communications Director for the NFU, I should make it clear straightaway that that is not intended as a criticism of the excellent team of people currently in charge. The threat is external, and it arises from a combination of circumstances, any one of which could do serious damage to the good name of farming. Together, they look alarmingly toxic.

I suppose we must put the badger cull at the top of the list. Whilst the rural communities of the South-West have mostly accepted the arguments for it and shrugged off the operational shortcomings, I fear it must look very different from further away.

Owen Paterson's fatuous remark about the badgers moving the goalposts has done for public perceptions of the cull what John Gummer stuffing his daughter Cordelia's face with a beef burger did for perceptions of the safety of British beef during the BSE crisis. Coupled with the failure to achieve its targets, the cull is now widely seen as a fiasco, in which farmers are complicit.

To make matters worse, the NFU is now faced with a range of cattle-related controls which will be costly, disruptive and onerous. Yet if they campaign too stridently against them, they'll give ammunition to those who are already saying – not least in the letters column of this newspaper – that farmers are only interested in killing badgers, and aren't prepared to shoulder their own share of responsibility for curbing cattle to cattle spread.

With renewable energy, the position is reversed. The urban public don't really care about wind turbines, solar parks and anaerobic digestion (AD) plants. But amongst the people who have to live alongside these essentially industrialised interlopers in our precious countryside, they are hugely controversial. I note that at last Friday's debate on renewable energy at Mount Edgcumbe House, Stephen Gilbert MP suggested that perhaps the NFU should take the lead in encouraging farmers to use green energy (whilst he and his MP colleagues keep their heads firmly below the parapet, no doubt).

Whatever the empirical rights and wrongs of renewable energy, the massive subsidies associated with it have given it the stink of a gigantic scam, tainting everything associated with it, farmers and landowners included.

I could go on – to the row over how CAP reform and modulation, and farmers effectively telling the conservation lobby "keep your hands off OUR money", when it is actually being provided by hard-pressed taxpayers. Or the prospect of even bigger and faster tractors leaving even more mud on the roads at maize harvesting time (often to feed the AD plants), whilst using cheap diesel and not needing to have an MOT.

None of this is, to put it mildly, 'good PR'. I haven't seen a figure for farmers' favourability rating for some time, which rather suggests it has been slipping. Does that matter? Well, yes it does. Whilst it is less important to be popular if farming is doing reasonably well, farmers still need the public on their side as consumers, as voters and as local influencers to secure their markets, underpin their political campaigns and resist further controls and red tape.

Telling people to "Back British Farming" may play well with the farming community. Accentuating the positive, by putting the emphasis firmly on what "Farming Delivers for Britain" is much more likely to impress the public.

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6 comments

  • blackwhite1  |  January 29 2014, 9:46PM

    The public trusted the farmers to look after the countryside and our wildlife; you have betrayed us big-time. We have offered our help to vaccinate badgers for you, in response to which you threaten to gas and snare them instead. You rip up trees and hedgerows causing land and houses to flood, then cynically say you'll replant them when the grant system changes in the other direction. You fight to put as small a percentage as possible towards wildlife conservation on your big monocultural fields. Your pesticides quash bio-diversity. Animals are being herded into increasinly large 'mega-farms' which treat living creatures like inanimate commodities.We appreciate that you have a living to make - but at the moment the price is far too high (not of your milk; many of us had previously sympathised with you on that). I would say that your popularity is at an all-time low at the moment. You have a lot of polishing to do!

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  • eponym1  |  December 04 2013, 10:49PM

    Thank you Anthony Gibson, a sound article from an ex NFU man. Unlike many who comment on the recent cull trials I do believe that badgers are a reservoir for bTB and that it is sensible to control those clans where bTB is proven to be present, but I have repeatedly condemned both the concept and implementation of the inept Somerset and Gloucestershire trials. No amount of ministerial massaging is going to render the trials a success and Owen Paterson demeans his position even more by suggesting otherwise. While the cull trials have undoubtedly brought every potential negative side of farming to the fore, the NFU really should learn that when they rattle their sabres on behalf of their immediate clients, the farming community, they invariably forget about the impact of their statements on the remainder of the rural and urban public who don't understand farming and resent their taxes subsidising activities of which they disapprove.

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  • stormkettle  |  December 04 2013, 10:12PM

    NFU are pitiful in pursuing badger culls in the face of public opposition and research to show that they do not work. I have no respect for the cruel NFU who show no regard or concern for animals like badgers. People care about badgers and their safe and secure future.

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  • missmustoe  |  December 04 2013, 9:39PM

    I have empathy for the smaller farmers, who are being taken over by big corporate farming industry, many wealthy NFU members calling the shots. Conservation and environmental welfare has taken a back seat, in rural areas, and OP, has said himself that environmental issues come second to making money for rural folk. Which begs the question why he is minister for the environment. You also cannot divorce hunting wildlife from farmers, who are making money from it, and protecting it against the majority of public opinion, which have progressed from medieval practices. The badger cull has brought the hubris nature of farmers to the fore front, and shown the NFU as an unelected political party behind the lines, with huge influences in DEFRA and Natural England, and challenging democracy against those who have had enough of their influence for profit at the expense of our wildlife. So yes, Farmer's reputations have been tarnished big time. I am more than careful what I shop for now, and always look for wildlife and environmentally friendly products. Until the Badger cull ends, and farmers are seen to take responsibility for their farming practices, then people are , as they are now, going to vote with their purses.

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  • NealStreet  |  December 04 2013, 1:06PM

    Well, you're largely right - and you should criticise the 'excellent' people at the helm of the NFU. I had some real sympathy with the situation often faced by farmers (eg supemarkets). Not any more. Following the disgraceful badger cull - unscientific, dishonest, repellant as it is, just in order to conceal the appalling mess of useless bTB checks, dishonest cattle movements, and sloppy animal husbandry (eg recent outbreak in County Durham); I would not willingly stand in the same room as a farmer. Have a good xmas on your 'Environmental Stewardship' handouts - but kiss goodbye to public support.

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  • Clued-Up  |  December 04 2013, 10:24AM

    The former Communications Director correctly identifies the badger cull as the main reason for the nosedive in public sympathy for farmers. Rural communities are even more opposed to the badger cull than the "townies", according to an opinion survey. No matter where they live, around 92% public oppose the badger cull. As the former Communications Director will know, it was sheer stupidity for the NFU Council to launch the badger cull against this level of public opposition. It was particularly stupid of the NFU Council to fail to consult its own membership on whether they supported the badger killing programme. The NFU Council appeared to think it could batter and manipulate its way past the opposition. It's been proved wrong. The only rational, economically sensible actions the NFU Council can now take is to shut up about the badger cull, end its support for it and start the long, painful process of rebuilding bridges between farmers and their customers.

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