Minette Batters: We need to trade on a level playing field

After six years leading Britain's largest farming union, Minette Batters talks life after the NFU and why MPs of all parties need to take farming more seriously.

Exhaustion, grief and rebooting was how a close friend described what standing down from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) would feel like. After 10 years, I always knew leaving would be a rollercoaster of emotions. I can say now, my friends are right — it’s taking time to decompress. More than anything, I miss the people, staff and members alike.

When I was elected deputy president in 2014, it was a big news story: the first woman to become a national officeholder. I was on the front page of the Daily Telegraph and remember being infuriated that it was all the media was interested in. I said at the time: ‘Success will happen when being a woman is no longer newsworthy!’ However, I joined two brilliant women as ‘firsts’: Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, then director-general of the CBI, and Frances O’Grady, TUC chief executive. We might have seemed an unlikely alliance, but we shared a common goal in achieving a ‘good Brexit’.

‘In fairness to Rishi Sunak, he’s been the one that has listened the most’

I finished my six years as NFU president at our annual conference in Birmingham in February. This year, for the first time in 16 years, we had a keynote address from the Prime Minister. I’ve worked with four prime ministers, three of them in one year. In fairness to Rishi Sunak, he’s been the one that has listened the most. He held the first ever Food Security Summit in 10 Downing Street last year and is hosting another one in May.

My well-documented criticism of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss was that they didn’t do detail. When you’re dealing with legislative change, negotiating trade deals at pace, knowing your brief inside out is paramount. The UK is a service-based economy and my worry was always that agriculture would be used as a pawn in trade deals with other countries, where it is a substantive part of their economy.

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As I said in my conference speech, agriculture is always the first chapter to be discussed in a trade deal and the last one to be agreed. International trade is a good thing, but the point I made was to make it about fair trade. Give our negotiators the same core standards on environmental and animal-welfare requirements that our farmers have to abide by, otherwise we simply import food that would be illegal to produce here. Things have improved, however. Mr Sunak put in writing last year that not now, not ever, will we import hormone-treated beef or chlorine-washed chicken. This was a big step in the right direction, but there’s still further to go.

‘Buy local, buy seasonal and buy British will continue to be my message’

The NFU is proudly apolitical and I engaged regularly with politicians from all parties. Sir Keir Starmer came to my farm and Shadow Defra Secretary Steve Reed paid us a visit in December. Despite all the conversations, however, Labour still does not have a policy position on international trade. Between now and the end of the year, all political parties will need to develop a manifesto for the future of our food. I find it incredible that something so fundamental gets taken for granted.

The recurring question I am asked is, what will you do next? To be honest, I’m not sure. I took the responsibility of representing 46,000 farming members very seriously. I now wonder how I did it. By the end, I sounded almost incoherent to myself, I was so exhausted. Post-covid, the media took to bypassing our press office and would contact me directly. Seemingly, no time of day or night was off limits. BBC’s Today would think nothing of calling at 11pm — the record was midnight.

For now, I’m loving being back on the farm. My 19-year-old twins are back from university and had their mother at home for the whole of the Easter holidays. I’m paying the price for challenging my children on being careful with money — with university washing costing upwards of £4 a load, our washing machine hasn’t stopped since they got back.

On the farm, we have managed to get our spring barley planted, passed our whole-herd bovine TB test and have started lambing. I’ve clearly suffered from being desk bound, having contracted tennis elbow operating our cattle crush — I’m definitely feeling my age. Another plan is to start growing native British flowers. Our tulips are a triumph, but competing with our Dutch counterparts is a huge challenge. Buy local, buy seasonal and buy British will continue to be my message.

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