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‘It’s pretty gloomy out there’: new NFU chief Tom Bradshaw fights to give food producers a better deal
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‘It’s pretty gloomy out there’: new NFU chief Tom Bradshaw fights to give food producers a better deal

‘This is the first time I’ve had my lawn cut by somebody else,” says Tom Bradshaw, the new president of the National Farmers’ Union. Just over a month after being voted into the role, he admits life has become “hectic”.

He is standing outside the idyllic farmhouse in rural Essex where he has lived since he was six, and the garden is all perfect flower beds and newly manicured grass. Nothing here looks hectic, but Bradshaw really is a busy man.

As well as his NFU duties, he grows wheat, barley and oats on the family farm near Colchester, and also owns an equestrian centre and a contracting business that manages four nearby farms – although he admits he has stepped back from day-to-day tasks in recent years. He also has two children, aged six and five.

Easter saw him juggling holiday childcare while tussling with the government over flooding support. Just days after ministers announced a flood recovery plan for those hit by January’s Storm Henk, the NFU publicly attacked the decision to limit support to farms less than 150 metres from named rivers.

“We tried to sort this out behind closed doors,” says Bradshaw, who clearly prefers the diplomatic route. The government bowed to pressure and removed the restrictions but Bradshaw believes the scheme, which is limited to certain rivers, is still not enough.

“We want to work with Defra to make sure money goes to those most impacted,” he says. “There shouldn’t be a geographical limit.”

Henk is one of 11 named storms to have hit the UK since September 2023. The country has just had its wettest 18 months since records began in 1836, and farms have borne the brunt. Many were left underwater for months at a time, unable to plant or harvest crops, puting them under huge financial pressure.

Flooded fields in West Sussex View image in fullscreen

Bradshaw hasn’t been spared: he lost 15% of his wheat crop this year because of the rain. But he is one of the lucky ones. He reads a message from an NFU member saying the floods have put him close to “jacking it in” and “raising the white flag”.

Bradshaw adds: “Markets have collapsed, wheat, barley, rape, obviously. Many people didn’t get crops planted, and of those that did, 40% are in poor condition. It’s a pretty gloomy picture out there.”

For him, protecting farmers is crucial to the country’s food security in an increasingly uncertain world. The UK produces 60% by value of the food it consumes. It is largely self sufficient in grains, and production of meat, milk and eggs is equivalent to consumption (though some high-value products are imported). But the numbers are lower for vegetables (50%) and fruit (16%).

At February’s NFU conference, Rishi Sunak told farmers “I’ve got your back”, because food security was a priority. Measures included a new annual food security index, and grants worth £427m. So does Bradshaw think the government has a plan for food security?

“No. I hear that food production has risen up the political agenda. I believe it has, but it’s easy to deliver the words: it’s the policies we need.”

Bradshaw thinks retailers and supermarkets could do more, too. He points to recent shortages of products such as eggs and salad as a direct result of retailers ignoring farmers’ needs.

“We ran out of eggs in this country because the retailers wouldn’t heed the warning that there wasn’t a viable return for members to reinvest in their businesses,” he says.

The relationship between farmers and supermarkets is one of interdependence and tension. Bradshaw says farmers are at “breaking point”, with retailers asking them to meet an increasing list of requirements that are not imposed on their overseas competitors.

“We are asking for core standards to be implemented within imports that match the standards of production here,” he says. “At the moment it feels like they want everything at the minimum cost.”

But these aren’t the only pressures on the industry. Delays to the rollout of sustainable farming incentive (SFI) payments – the subsidies brought in to replace the EU’s basic payment scheme (BPS) subsidies – have left many farmers out of pocket. Bradshaw, who voted to remain in the EU, admits however that this picture is improving slightly, with more than 17,000 farmers signed up.

There have also been much-publicised protests against a Welsh government scheme under which farmers have to give more than 20% of their land for trees and wildlife habitat in exchange for the new payment. Bradshaw says this system will not work in its current form.

So with all these headwinds, who would be a farmer? It is clearly a subject Bradshaw feels passionately about. When he talks about there now being 7,000 fewer farming businesses than in 2019, his voice breaks. “We can’t let this continue,” he says, clearly emotional.

We are sitting metres away from the former milking parlour where a six-year-old Bradshaw used to help his father (who still works on the farm). “Farming is just something I always wanted to do,” he says. After graduating from agricultural college in Kent, he came back to the family farm a few miles north-west of Colchester.

“When I came home, aged 21,” he says, “my dad more or less handed over the chequebook and said, ‘Here you go.’”

Since then he has expanded the farm contracting business and moved away from dairy farming, converting the former dairy buildings into a riding school.

So, does he want his children to be farmers? “My ambition here is to have a rural farm business that they have the choice to get involved in if they want to,” he says.

Voted in as president in February after two years as deputy president, he replaced the popular and plain-speaking Minette Batters, who once accused former environment minister Thérèse Coffey of being “asleep at the wheel”.

Minette Batters View image in fullscreen

Bradshaw is effusive about the job Batters did, but says he “can’t look to be Minette”. He also thinks the political landscape has changed since she was first president: the NFU often had to act like the opposition under Batters’s reign, because the opposition could be “so poor”.

“I don’t think we need to be that political now […] We are in different times now and we will work constructively with whoever is in power,” he says.

He believes the rural vote is now up for grabs, saying members will be looking closely at all of the party manifestos. A recent Deltapoll survey suggested that the rural vote, which has been Conservative traditionally, could be moving to Labour. It found that in the 100 biggest farming constituencies, Tory support had dropped from 58% to 32%, with Labour on 36%.

For now, though, it is the current government Bradshaw has to deal with. His afternoon will involve going out to bat for his 45,000-plus members in a call with environment minister Steve Barclay.

And after that? A more traditional kind of batting: Bradshaw will make time for a game of cricket in the garden with his son.

Executive summary

Age 41
Family Married to Emily and two children aged six and five.
Education Degree in agricultural business management from Imperial College at Wye; A-Levels and GCSEs at Colchester Royal Grammar School.
Pay “Completely depends on the weather and if it makes the magic money tree grow.”
Last holiday First family ski holiday before Christmas.
Best advice he’s been given “You have two ears and one mouth – try to use them in that ratio.”
Biggest career mistake “A career makes it sound like it was a plan! Being too trusting and taking people at face value.”
Phrase he overuses “You would have to ask my children.”
How he relaxes Family, running and hockey.

Source: theguardian.com