NFU Viewpoint: The Sugar Board needs YOU, says Robert Baker

Robert Baker at Crossways Farm, Elmswell.

Robert Baker at Crossways Farm, Elmswell. - Credit: Archant

Six years ago, when I was beginning to prepare the farm for our annual Christmas break and contemplate some long evenings by the fire, I received a phone call from out of the blue.

A well respected local farmer and friend was calling to tell me that he had “a little job” for me and that I should stand for a place on the NFU Sugar Board.

When I replied that I would think about it and get back to him he replied that he had already done that for me and had even gone as far as drawing up a list of growers to sign my election form!

Before I knew what I was doing I found myself writing a short CV (having rescued the letter from the rubbish bin) and within weeks I was elected on to the board.

I was made extremely welcome by the board members, particularly by chairman William Martin, but it soon became apparent that it was going to be a very steep learning curve for me and far from a “little” job. The enthusiasm, commitment and knowledge of my fellow board members was immediately apparent and, initially, intimidating. However, everyone was expected to contribute and, despite it being my first meeting, there were no exceptions offered to me.

The employed staff are extremely professional and deserve a lot of credit for the work that they tirelessly undertake on behalf of growers. This can only ever be fully appreciated when witnessed firsthand and we are very fortunate to be so well served.

The amount and variety of the work covered by the board on behalf of growers is staggering with responsibilities shared out across all board members. Beet reception, seed, IPA, price, CAP reform, frost insurance and interaction with our global colleagues are just some of the areas covered on a daily basis but, inevitably, when major issues crop up, like the frost problems in 2010/11 or the recent price negotiations, then the workload rises exponentially.

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The time has now come for me to step down from the board and I do so with some degree of sadness. I will miss the long debates at board, the many conversations outside of the board, the local and regional beet reception committee meetings but above all the many hundreds of phone calls that I received from growers, some of them even complimentary at times!

Anyone wishing to stand will certainly need to be patient. Change is rarely rapid and it is often hard to find consensus. The opinions of 3,500 growers can be diverse, even within a factory area and a thick skin is also essential.

There will often be times when politics prevent logical progress and negotiations are always likely to be tortuous. We must find a way to reverse the damage done to the relationship between growers and processor during the recent price dispute and find a way to receive a fairer slice of the cake, while maintaining industry competitiveness.

A partnership is possible if we trust each other to share the rewards equitably and not be expected to produce beet at a price that is set at just enough to get it grown.

So if you have the necessary qualities and fancy a new challenge, the Sugar Board needs YOU! The closing date for nominations is 6pm on Tuesday, January 21 and you can find out more on the NFU’s website, .

: : Robert Baker farms near Bury St Edmunds and is (for a little while longer) a member of the NFU’s national Sugar Board.