Mixed emotions for NFU East Anglia boss Pam Forbes as she quits role for new post
A stalwart of East Anglian farming expressed mixed emotions this week as she announced she would be moving to a new national role.
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East Anglia regional director Pamela Forbes, who is set to become head of the NFU’s sugar team, said she made the decision to leave after reaching a 25 year milestone.
This includes 16 years in her current role and a nine-year spell as a senior policy adviser and deputy regional director for the NFU’s old central region before being promoted to her current role.
“That 25 year anniversary was the trigger,” admitted the 51-year-old. “I felt in a regional role that really was long enough. I was going to resign, when this came up.”
Pamela, who is originally from Caithness, presides over a team of 12 at the NFU’s regional offices at Newmarket, including six county advisers, who provide services for 6,000 members. She also leads 50 group secretaries who have a dual role working part-time for the NFU, as well as for NFU Mutual, a separate insurance arm.
Pamela, who had just written her last column for NFU publication British Farmer and Grower, said: “It felt quite strange putting fingers to keyboard to think it was the last time. I think if I was leaving the organisation, it would be really quite traumatic.”
But while she will travel to Stoneleigh every Monday, she will be based for part of her time at the Newmarket offices, close to the family home, a 75-acre farm right on the Suffolk/Cambridgeshire border.
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“You make friends, and it becomes more a way of life than an occupation, I suppose,” she said. “There’s an element of me felt I have done most of the things I could have done in the region and it’s time for somebody to cast a fresh pair of eyes,” she said.
East Anglia was a “dynamic” region for farming and now was time for a fresh vision, she said.
“When I came to the region it felt quite disparate. Counties were very, very important and significant in the NFU and there had been a regionalisation process,” she recalled
Presenting six different county views at council was not tenable, and she strived to give the region a coherent voice. When it came to the big policy issues there was no reason why Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire couldn’t share a view, she reasoned.
“That was my challenge,” she said. “It just took a bit of coercing and persuading and also getting the right people in the right job.”
She added: “We get a cross-section of humanity in the farming industry as you would in any industry but what I think the NFU is very good at is picking out the core issues of importance to all farmers.”
A key moment in the modernisation of the NFU and farming was the election of Bedfordshire farmer Peter Kendall as president in 2006. Mr Kendall, who stepped down from last year, understood the challenges the region’s farmers faced, she felt.
“We were very conscious there were issues in the east, and we needed to voice them in a more coherent manner. I hope I have given the region a voice,” she added.
Mr Kendall helped the sector to shed its “whinger tag”, and project a more positive outlook, she explained. The sector was persuaded to make environmental improvements on a voluntary basis rather being compelled to and embraced the new role. Many members are very clued up, she believes.
“Our whole attitude combining farming with environmental good works has become so much more second nature to the average farmer,” she said. “Now it’s absolutely mainstream thinking. If you talk profitability and sustainability in the same sentence, you get pretty much 100% of farmers getting it.”
During her tenure, the industry has been beset by crises from BSE, to foot-and-mouth, swine fever and avian flu, and farm assurance has become a key focus.
While the bureaucracy surrounding farm assurance may still cause farmers’ blood pressure to rise, it has increased the professionalism of the industry, she believes.
As attitudes have changed within the sector, the NFU regional organisation has also evolved during her 16 years in office, she said.
“I set out to make the organisation in the region relevant to people,” she said. “The way we communicate with our members has improved to such an extent the majority of members understand what we are trying to do on their behalf.”
While numbers in the industry has dwindled with higher levels of mechanisation, the land area covered by NFU members has increased, she said, and over the last couple of years, membership has risen.
“People do want to be part of what they perceive as a big and powerful club,” she said.
“It’s a genuine privilege to have led the region for such a lengthy period, during what has been a real roller-coaster ride for British agriculture,” she added. “I believe the NFU has made a real difference on behalf of farmers and growers.”
Her team was “definitely the best in the NFU”, and she would miss working with it, as well as the farmers who don’t grow sugar beet, she said.
She takes up her new role at a pivotal time for the sugar industry, which must deal with the axing of sugar quotas from 2017, and dramatic falls in prices. The relationship she will foster with British Sugar in new role will be a “constructive” one, she said.
“I’m told the way to negotaite is to have a win-win and I’ll follow that advice,” she said.
The NFU will be announcing Pamela’s regional successor shortly.