COLUMNIST: Cash sucked from farmers’ pockets

The National Sheep Association has now joined the chorus of protest
The National Sheep Association has now joined the chorus of protest

If you encountered an organisation which forced you to hand over a substantial amount of money towards its running costs every year yet denied you any kind of say in how the collected cash was spent you might think there was something seriously wrong with it.

You would be correct. But such an organisation really exists in the shape of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. And farmers are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated at the way it continues to suck levy money out of their pockets while refusing them the merest shred of democratic right to influence its activities.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that barely a week passes without more complaints being levelled at this great Defra offshoot which spends around £20 million a year - roughly a third of all the levy money it pockets – on staff salaries, is run by a chief executive who earns more than the Prime Minister but whose benefits to the industry it purports to serve are so small they are virtually immeasurable.

Not that the AHDB would agree with that, of course. Listen to its version of events and it is delivering massive support to British farmers, signposting the way to the sunlit uplands of real profitability.

But like all mirages, with every step along the road this vision appears as distant as ever, if not more distant than ever given the way farming’s fortunes have nosedived in the last few years.

It’s hardly surprising the National Sheep Association has now joined the chorus of protest at what it sees as a monumental waste of money, given the way the AHDB is failing miserably to promote any of its members’ products.

Indeed, promotion would appear to be the last thing the AHDB has on its agenda, particularly in view of the latest, negative report from one of its in-house ‘experts’ who claims, apparently, that even if we produce everything to the most exacting standards demanded by our overseas customers there is no guarantee that mere British branding is going to win us any significant success in the export market – a clear case of throwing in the towel even before the fight has started.

The AHDB claims, in so many words, to be some national centre of expertise. But take a look at those sitting around the boardroom table and you will hardly be impressed by their track records. What so many them do have in common is that they used to sit around the NFU board table when the chairman Peter Kendall was at the controls. Indeed that seems to be the primary qualification for joining the AHDB’s inner sanctum: when I applied for a vacancy on its dairy board I was turned down of the grounds of ‘lack of experience’. I have been in dairy farming all my working life but evidently that isn’t long enough – though I fail to see how I could have acquired any more experience within that particular time frame.

How long it will be before general disquiet about the AHDB reaches the ears of Michael Gove – or indeed whether he will do anything about it – is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand the only farming organisation he is known to talk to is the NFU. And the NFU is unlikely to complain about its neighbour at Stoneleigh because it is run by people who are keeping their eyes peeled for the next well-remunerated sinecure to the advertised by the AHDB so they, too, can follow the well-trodden path through the revolving door.

Meanwhile £60 million spent instead on educating the next generation about where their food comes from, how it is produced and how to cook it would, I am convinced, deliver far more benefits to British farmers than the AHDB will ever be capable of.