Simon Redden, one of the three Lincolnshire growers who have come to be known as the “AHDB Petitioners”, told South East Farmer that the board was no longer serving its members. “They should be putting money into the sector, not extracting it from us,” he added.
Another petitioner, vegetable grower Peter Thorold, was equally straightforward. Referring to the recent announcement by Chief Executive Jane King that she would be stepping down over the coming year, he said that after listening to AHDB Chair Nicolas Saphir explaining the radical changes that lay ahead, “it’s hard to see why Jane King can say she is leaving the AHDB in good shape”.
The petitioners’ forthright views are at odds with the response from the National Farmers’ Union, whose president Minette Batters broadly welcomed the strategy’s “strong focus on food advocacy, farm business performance and technical advice”, areas she said the NFU had highlighted in its comments on the AHDB review.
Flower grower Mr Redden, though, said that the 38-page document was thin on detail, particularly with regards to the horticulture and potatoes sectors, and was “full of empty promises with no substance”.He said that while farmers and exporters might feel differently, in those two sectors there was “nothing on the table to change the fact they have had 12 years taking our money and have only just realised what a terrible job they have done,” adding: “Why would you trust them any longer?”
Mr Redden said that with the sector declining, approximately 10% fewer growers in horticulture had paid the levy in the past 12 months. As a major employer and contributor to the economy, he said, “horticulture needs money throwing at it, not extracted and wasted”.
The AHDB says the strategy for 2021 to 2026 will focus on “significantly improving” engagement with levy payers and giving them more of a say on priorities for their sector and crop, including how much levy is collected and where it is spent. It adds that “delivering value for money and designing a modern levy system is at the heart of the future, starting with horticulture and potatoes”.
There is also a commitment to a ballot on the future of the levy every five years, ensuring levy payers have a greater say in designing AHDB work programmes and priorities.
AHDB Chair Nicholas Saphir said the strategy and change programme demonstrated AHDB was listening and looking to build on the ‘five commitments’ it made in the wake of the Government’s Request for Views published last year.
Looking to a future built around new farm support policies, changing consumer behaviours and new post-Brexit trading arrangements, the AHDB has stressed that it is committed to being well placed to deliver effectively for levy payers.
Nicholas Saphir said: “We have listened very carefully to levy payers’ concerns about delivering value for money in such challenging times and ensuring our work programmes are fit for purpose. We fully recognise there are genuine differences between challenges facing sectors, crops and species and that one size of offering does not fit all. Levies in the future must be set to reflect the value provided and work priorities clearly agreed with levy payers.
“In addition, AHDB will review the current tools, services and products across all its sectors to see how they are being used by farmers and growers. We will keep listening to levy payers with open Board meetings and new levy payer user groups and by developing interaction both in person and online.”
The board says using evidence to ensure facts, insight and data underpin all AHDB’s work will be key to the new strategy – “from ‘what works’ on farm to where opportunities exist for British product at home and overseas, identified with world class consumer insight”.
It adds that improving and measuring the way best practice is shared across the industry will be the focus of a new AHDB Evidence For Farming initiative to support agricultural innovation, with a focus on the impact of environmental measures on business profitability.
Ms Batters said the AHDB had “clearly listened to the industry, and its proposals to improve transparency and governance will be welcome news for many farmers and growers.”
The full AHDB strategy and proposed sector plans are published for consultation and can be found online at ahdb.org.uk/strategy. Horticulture and potato levy payers can also find out more about the proposed changes to their levy system at ahdb.org.uk/strategyk. The closing date for both consultations is 31 January 2021.