Stop the whingeing, NFU tells its members

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The President of the National Farmers' Union yesterday urged the industry to shed its "whingeing" image despite many farms facing the destruction of grain and potato harvests by heavy rain.

The President of the National Farmers' Union yesterday urged the industry to shed its "whingeing" image despite many farms facing the destruction of grain and potato harvests by heavy rain.

Tim Bennett urged farmers to use the abolition of European production subsidies next year to reconnect with consumers and build a new industry based on high-quality food.

Under European reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, from next year farmers will be paid for environmental stewardship of the land rather than subsidies for bulk production that produced huge surpluses.

Mr Bennett said: "We have this image of whingeing which we do because most of us are small businesses often working on our own and feeling we are living in difficult times.

"What we have to do is turn that around. We have to stop whingeing. When it is tough we have to accept that and carry on. We have to get our confidence back. Most of us are proud of what we do. If we could articulate that with confidence we will be a successful industry."

But Mike Haskew, vice chairman of the pressure group Farmers for Action, warned that many people did not understand the pressures facing British farmers trying to make a profit from sales to huge supermarkets and food processors. He said: "We may seem to be whingeing but people would not whinge if we were allowed to sell our produce on a level playing field. We are just asking for a fair deal. In Britain, people are many generations removed from farming. A lot of people in cities and urban areas do not come to the countryside or just look at the view. They do not understand the complexity of producing food to a high standard in an environmentally friendly way."

Mr Bennett said some arable farmers faced ruin if poor weather over the next two weeks stops the harvest of thousands of acres of wheat and other cereals. He said he will visit the worst-affected areas of Yorkshire and the North-west, starting tomorrow.

Yesterday, Lord Haskins, the Government's rural adviser, warned of potato blight adding to problems of harvesting wheat, which he has warned could be worse than the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Mr Bennett said he was asking banks to be sympathetic to farmers and said subsidy payments could be brought forward to ease the cash flow crisis in affected areas.

"Some people have managed to get some of their grain in over the past couple of days," he added. "For some arable businesses the effects of this will be as financially damaging as for [farmers] affected by foot-and- mouth. We are just hoping for an improvement in the weather."

Critics of the NFU accuse it of being dominated by "grain barons", saying it is too close to government and the major supermarket chains and too ready to support industrial agriculture instead of independent and family farms.

But Mr Bennett, a beef farmer with 200 acres near Carmarthen, in west Wales, said he was working to represent the whole agricultural industry. "We now live in a world where the consumer has the ability to buy food from all over the world and the retailer will supply it," he said. "I cannot compete against Brazilian beef because I have much tighter regulation, in terms of animal welfare and the environment. I have much greater costs on my business. I cannot produce the lowest price.

"I have to ensure I can produce a better product the consumer can enjoy and feel safer with. They will pay a little bit more. That is the future of British agriculture. We have to be better than everyone else, and, in return, consumers will feel comfortable and buy from us.

"We have 60 million consumers here, all of whom are getting wealthier. We are selling to the wealthiest bunch of people there have ever been. That means they are discerning, they like to have what they want and when they want it. We are close to that market.

"A 50-year experiment about telling people what to produce and giving them money to do it will end. In 2005, there will not be production support and farmers will be free to produce exactly what the market wants. I do not believe people fully grasp the importance of what is going on."