Horticulture body faces crunch vote after growers’ revolt sparks ballot

From left, John Bratley, Simon Redden, and Peter Thorold who have become known as the AHDB Petitione

From left, John Bratley, Simon Redden, and Peter Thorold who have become known as the AHDB Petitioners - Credit: AHDB Petitioners

If there’s one thing Suffolk grower Richard Geater has missed over the last few years, it’s the personal touch from the government’s farm advisers. 

He used to like picking the brains of an expert at ADAS — then part of the agriculture ministry and the official source of information before being privatised in the late 1990s — and getting some instant practical know-how, he says.

He’s the third generation to run horticulture business L F Geater and Sons in Leiston — and he and others like him contribute to a national advice body called the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Horticulture. Other agricultural sectors have their own version of the same body, funded by levy-payers.

The organisation takes a levy from those within the sector according to a turnover-based formula. Last year the contribution from his business was around £1k.

Now a crunch vote is set to decide whether growers believe AHDB Horticulture should continue. Another for AHDB Potatoes will follow. Ministers aren’t bound by the results but will be informed of them.

The AHDB uses the levy it takes to help the industry survive and thrive - but one group of growers doesn’t rate its effectiveness and after gathering support from 5% of fellow horticulturalists was able to trigger the ballot on whether it should continue to exist. 

The campaigners – who are from south Lincolnshire and have become know as the AHDB Petitioners – believe the body ought to be abolished because they think it’s a waste of their money. 

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Simon Redden, John Bratley and Peter Thorold argue that only a decisive vote “can deliver the dynamic and market-based approach to research and development that the horticultural industry needs”, citing a model they say was successfully adopted in The Netherlands since it abolished its horticultural levy organisation in 2015. They think moves by some growers and grower organisations to push AHDB Horticulture into further reforms showed it was “incapable” of the serious reform required, arguing that if the levy body had provided an effective and efficient service, reforms would not be needed.

“Despite six months of consultation, AHDB has failed to come up with reform proposals that satisfy even its most ardent supporters within the industry,” says Mr Redden. 

“The fact that those who are already most involved with the current AHDB structure say their plans don’t go far enough shows just how out of touch the organisation is. AHDB simply doesn’t understand the modern horticultural industry and how competitive it is. 

“Is it realistic to trust those who have run and led the organisation for the last 12 years to deliver real change? Many growers will justifiably fear that the reforms are merely cosmetic and little more than a face-saving exercise to allow the same people to carry on in the same roles.”

The AHDB argues that if growers lose it then it could hobble the industry at a critical moment. The body is willing to reform and change — but is very much needed, it says.

AHDB chairman Nicholas Saphir

AHDB chairman Nicholas Saphir - Credit: AHDB

AHDB chairman Nicholas Saphir says: “The ballot are not a means for expressing discontent with the way levy is collected or spent or how AHDB operates, it is solely about whether AHDB will continue to deliver statutory levy-funded services and products to the horticulture and potatoes sectors or not.

“Lose it and we lose the ability to collectively invest in the collective challenges that lie ahead from climate change, including sprays, chemicals, integrated pest management (IPM) and zero carbon. Lose it and we lose the collective investment in research and development generally, storage and disease prevention. Finally we lose collective evidence that allows decisions to be made and productivity benchmarked.

“Discussions about our change programme, our package of activities and where the levy is best spent are part of our five commitments to levy payers and the feedback we’re seeking from industry on the new strategy. We are urging growers to get involved and voice their views.”

As well as growing cut flowers Mr Geater also grows bedding plants — but he faces fierce competition from national supermarkets — and practical problems such as how to help his soil.

“Many years ago we used to have an organisation called ADAS who were government-funded and they had offices and used to come around and talk to you and sort out your problems but that doesn’t happen any more,” he says.

He feels that the organisation spends a lot of money on experiments which could be and are done by the industry itself and has been “resting on its laurels”. 

He wants something more hands-on and industry-focused, and says he would like to see “more a big brother at the end of the telephone we can phone up when we have got a problem”.

“If someone came up with much better ideas than they have at the moment then I would support it,” he says.
The ballot closes at midnight on Wednesday, February 10. Voting papers have been mailed to all horticulture levy paying businesses. 

AHDB has also announced a ballot on the continuation of a statutory levy in potatoes which takes place from February 17 to March 17, 2021.

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