Incoming NFU East director gets to grips with new role
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Incoming National Farmer’s Union regional director for East Anglia, Robert Sheasby, had a busy winter ahead of him getting to know the farmers who make up his membership. SARAH CHAMBERS met up with him in December 2015 as he began his task.
In a world where farm sizes are increasing, it’s remarkable that, over the past five years, membership of one of the farming sector’s most visible stalwarts has gone up.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which celebrated its centenary in 2008, has been the durable face of farming through recessions, near-catastrophic disease outbreaks, mechanisation – and, in 1973, Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, later renamed the European Union.
“The vast majority are in membership,” explains Robert Sheasby, East Anglia’s new NFU regional director.
“You never get 100%. There are always businesses changing. Unfortunately people die and businesses cease trading for a wide variety of reasons and new entrants come into the market.
“A hundred years ago there would have been more farmers than there are today. The farmed area has probably changed a little bit but actually the amount of food we produce continues to increase through efficiency, changes in productivity and, actually, the professionalism of farmers.”
These professionals see the NFU as a means of making the government of the day, and the wider public, aware of what they do and to lobby on their behalf over legislation, prices and various other aspects of a job which doesn’t get any easier in many ways despite the technical advances – working the land.
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Robert arrived at the NFU’s Newmarket office in June to take over the reins from longstanding predecessor Pam Forbes, who left to take up a new challenge as the NFU’s chief sugar adviser.
He believes that it’s no coincidence that the organisation is as relevant to farmers today as it was 50 or 100 years ago and sees this as the reason for the growth in membership.
“That’s down to us being relevant to the industry,” he says. “We are a voluntary organisation. Members choose to pay a subscription but will only do that if we continue to do a good job.”
Robert grew up in rural Dorset among farmers, although his own father was from a retail background.
He studied land agency at Seale-Hayne agricultural college in Devon and went on to work as a land agent and auctioneer in the West Country and Thames Valley. He moved from that to a post at the NFU headquarters in London, which has now relocated to Warwickshire, in 2001, around the time of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK.
He started looking at Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidy payments and went on to become NFU rural surveyor covering England and Wales.
In 2009, he landed a role as NFU regional director for the North West and from there, his current role.
Perhaps because of his diverse background, he is a firm believer in learning from other industries.
“You take your lessons from whatever your surroundings are. We can learn lessons from anything retailing, banking – why is that industry doing what it’s doing and succeeding?” he says.
“It’s that understanding of businesses and how they are operating and the pressures and challenges they face that has left me in a good position to move through my career really.”
With a change of landscape comes a new set of challenges, but the scale of the arable operations in East Anglia, worth around £1billion, means that the agricultural industry here remains very strong.
Robert arrived just as harvest was getting under way and from now until March he will be busy meeting members at their various annual county meetings over the winter months.
It is from these that he will really begin to get a grasp of the issues preoccupying members here.
“Clearly there are issues around water and that is not going to go away at all. We have got to work hard to find solutions to that tension really. I’m very clear we have to work together to find a solution.
“As an industry we have got to work together and agree a consensus position and take that view and through that more widely to the wider industry and to planners.
“One of the primary roles of the NFU is to deliver the right political and economic environment in which our farmers can flourish.”
That means lobbying politicians at all levels, from councillors through to MPs in order to get good laws in place.
“This part of the country has lots of jobs linked to the food supply chain. There’s a lot of food processing in the region which depends on farming businesses providing the raw material.
“As an industry, we have got to deliver what the customer wants and we have got to do that in a safe way and there are examples in the past where we feel we have been let down by the supply chain.
“An example of that was Horsegate. That was farmers meeting all the regulatory requirements but others not adhering to all the rules.
“We recognise regulation is there to protect people and is usually well intentioned. But there are examples where red tape leads to unintended consequences.”
Rules sometimes need to change, he reasons, for example around tractors and trailers, or around farm buildings unsuited to modern agriculture, and it’s these kind of changes which can improve the working lives of farmers.
“I’m interested in members’ businesses being profitable,” he says.
“What farmers in East Anglia are really good at is growing first-class quality crops.”
But there were issues which affected them, one of which was a European Union ban – partially lifted around Suffolk – on neonicotinoids, an insecticide coating used on oilseed rape seeds prior to planting. There has been much controversy over the ban, imposed to protect pollinator populations.
“The hard empirical evidence about neonicotinoids affecting bees is at a lab level. It’s not at a field level. There are significant impacts of the production on the back of lab-based evidence and that’s the bit farmers would like to see resolved because farmers absolutely rely on pollinators.
“I have yet to meet a farmer that truly doesn’t like wildlife on their farm. Farmers love seeing it. You can go out with an office holder. They will point out a brown hare or a particular type of butterfly on their field margin. Farmers recognise the value of wildlife to the countryside.
“What we want to see is proportionate regulation. Farmers are intensely aware of the world and they know they are operating in a public environment.”
People drive past farmers’ “factory floor” every day, and see their cereals, vegetables, beef and lamb being produced. As a nation, he asks, how reliant does it want to be on imports? At the moment the UK is heavily so, but there is plenty of scope to become more self-sufficient in some of the staples, he believes.
But producing sufficient food relies on a good legal framework and on research and development, he points out.
The NFU has begun a series of meetings with members where it will be talking about the European Union and gauging their views in the run-up to the in-out referendum on Europe.
“We think it’s really important to talk to our members about what they think and what they want answers to,” he says.
“One of the big challenges at the moment in terms of our relationship with the EU is the Prime Minister says he’s going to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union.”
The NFU will be working towards a coherent position on the issue by the summer.
“The purpose is to get members to think about Europe. The timetable is hard because no one knows when the referendum is.
“That’s the point of a trade association – to listen to your members and act accordingly.”
At present, although there is an aspiration among many to end reliance on farm subsidies, there is also a feeling that this is not realistic now.
“We need to get to the place where we are working in a market which is equal to all. To find our European neighbours are farming in a different regime would undermine our own marketplace. That’s why at a European level reform can become so challenging.”
Having access to many markets is important for farmers, he says.
“If we are not looking at new opportunities markets don’t stand still they are always evolving and changing.
“Our competitors at a global level will seize them to the detriment of us. So we have to keep looking and innovating.”