Agriculture needs honesty and not easy soundbites

Royal-Welsh-Show

Today Llanelwedd again becomes the centre of Welsh rural life. The Royal Welsh Show is a sparkling, vibrant and life-enhancing event. It is something which we have created in Wales of which we should be intensely proud. For four days we celebrate Welsh life at its richest, from food to environment, to recognising the value of excellence in all sorts of rural skills and an appreciation of knowledge and love of the countryside. Throughout all of this a unique culture inheritance which has been bequeathed to us. And at its heart it is a celebration of people.

And as such it is the exact opposite of the political debate on agriculture. Which is shame because farmers deserve so much more.

Whenever a debate on agriculture, or in fact any aspect of life in rural Wales, takes place in the National Assembly it follows precisely the same format. Every time. Today it is inevitably led by Llyr Gruffydd for whose approach to rural policy Dylan’s vivid “Bible black” description may well have been written.

Using his best funeral tones Llyr lists all the problems and difficulties facing farming. He paints a picture that would have given Dante nightmares. And at the end of this description of an industry and community that is beyond all hope, he delivers his verdict. Which is always that the only solution is ever increasing amounts of public support.

If the electorate were ever to be unkind to Llyr then he would soon find himself in demand as a professional mourner.

I am, of course, being terribly unfair to Llyr who is one of the most effective voices on the opposition benches and will certainly fancy his chances if Leanne falls from grace. And he’d be a serious candidate. But my wider point on the nature of the debate on agriculture in Cardiff Bay is what is important here – whoever the opposition spokesperson happens to be – the story is always the same.

When replying to such debates as a minister I asked my officials for two things – firstly the numbers on prices, production and efficiency – and secondly the latest press releases from the farming unions. I worked on the basis that opposition parties would not do their homework but would simply repeat the lines from the latest press releases. I remain disappointed that I was rarely wrong.

And it is this which does a great industry a great disservice.

Agriculture is the backbone of not only the rural economy but also our culture. As well as a food producer it is the custodian of our water resources, environment and biodiversity. It is critical to all of us that farming not only survives but flourishes. Most farmers know that they are being infantised by politicians who are more interested in their votes than giving them good advice.

From the moment of my appointment as a minister for agriculture I had a clear agenda and vision which I knew that would probably not be wholly welcomed throughout the industry. I was also determined to do things differently. I had seen previous ministers managing for the next week or month, throwing money at fundamental problems which needed more thought than cash. And I had watched as ministers tried to placate and almost buy favour with vested interests. I was determined to put in place structures for the long term and not seek short term popularism; determined to shape the new Common Agricultural Policy and determined that we put in place new structures to support a sustainable food production system in Wales; determined to put in place sustainable means of production that would be both financially and environmentally resilient. And finally and perhaps most importantly, I was determined to tell the truth as I saw it, to lead a serious debate about how we support change and reform in Welsh agriculture. And I hoped that it was this commitment to honesty and reform which would become the hallmark of my time in office. It’s for others to judge, and for time to tell, whether this will be true or not.

So where are we today? We’ve probably had a far more serious debate about the future of agriculture in Wales over the past few years than we’ve had at any time in the past. My first significant decision was to appoint Gareth Williams to conduct a thorough audit of how we manage and regulate agriculture. Others had demanded a “red tape” review which placed the onus for reform on government alone. I was clear that reform was needed in both government and industry. And that this reform included cultural change and not simply a bonfire of grant application forms. Initially welcomed cautiously by the industry and equally as cautiously by my own officials, Gareth created the basis for a different way of working. We succeeded in changing the way that government does business more than we achieved cultural change in the industry but that was always going to be the case.

In retrospect it was my decision not to offer compensation for the snowfall in the spring of 2013 that crystallised this debate and clearly signalled the later decision to transfer 15% from pillar one – direct payments to farmers – to pillar two – the wider rural development plan. And it was the excellent advice from officials to appoint former NFU officer, Kevin Roberts, to write a report on the future resilience of Welsh agriculture which gave us both the practical tools and the intellectual case to help create the future pattern of public support for the industry. It was this report and this approach to business resilience which laid the basis for the current £1 billon Rural Development Plan. I’m delighted that the current minister, Rebecca Evans, has decided to carry forward this approach – albeit with a more ready and infectious smile than I could ever manage.

Kevin argued the case for reform in agricultural production and management and set out the argument that it is in the interests of farmers that more reform takes place and does so at a pace which gives Welsh agriculture an advantage over its other European competitors. And he also demonstrated that many producers are already changing the way they farm. In all sectors we have seen farmers driving change and investing in the future of their own businesses. Our ambition now must be to use public resources to help make this the norm throughout the industry.

Any hope for those opposed to reform that a the newly-appointed Irish Commissioner would slow down the pace of reform were pretty comprehensively shattered a couple of weeks ago when he made clear that there would not be any additional aid for the dairy sector and that he remained committed to further market-facing reforms of CAP. This commitment reinforces my own judgement that investment in greater efficiency and market-development is the best way to secure the future for agriculture in Wales. Reliance on subsidies has not provided farmers with either a decent standard of living or with business sustainability. The old system has simply allowed inefficient producers to dominate the debate and to hold back the industry as a whole. It’s time that the best producers were supported to become world-beaters.

Which brings us back to where we started in Llanelwedd. Like many others I want to see my children enjoy not only the Show but also the cultural vibrancy that it represents. I want to see an agricultural industry that not only creates world-class produce but one that is sustainable for the future. And that means more reform and not less. And a faster pace of reform and not a slower pace. And that will not be achieved when we have a political debate which is based on easy speeches and soundbites which please vested interests but avoids tackling the fundamental economic issues that will underpin future success for the industry. My experience tells me that many farmers will welcome and would prefer a debate which is based on the economic and environmental realities of agriculture – today and tomorrow. With a subsidy regime that is being eroded by public opinion, political decisions and by market forces it is only a hard focus on efficient production and investment that will secure the future. Farmers understand and recognise that. It’s a tragedy that politicians try to duck it.

And the irony is that by avoiding this debate we threaten the long-term future of an industry and a community that we claim to be supporting. No change and no reform and a continued reliance on a declining subsidy will cause hardship and business failure for too many people – the numbers tell an unavoidable story. So let’s change the way that we do things in Wales. Let’s be honest with ourselves and embrace a reform agenda which will establish Welsh agriculture as the market-leader across the European Union. And if we can do that we would do something very special for all of our children.

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