Swine to say goodbye
28th Aug 2020 / By Ed Barker
Ed Barker leaves the NPA today, after just over three busy years as a senior policy adviser that has seen a huge amount happen in the Brexit brief. Here are his parting thoughts.
After three and a bit years I will be moving on to pastures (units?) new. What a whirlwind time it has been in a great sector!
It was slightly odd and intriguing going back into the pig sector in 2017. The last of our farm’s pigs left on a Ronnie Hume haulage lorry sometime in 2006 (as an aside I will never forget the chaos one cold morning of moving pigs out onto Ronnie’s truck, some of the pigs turning around in walkways, my brother dropping his brand new mobile phone in the chaos – it was trodden on and chewed - and I attempted to stay afloat by crowd surfing a load of finished pigs. I struggled to explain this to people in Westminster).
After having left school in 2005 one of my first sensible jobs was to oversee the closing down of the pig enterprise. It chimed with what happened with so many other farms and allied businesses in the local area. This was why it was so great to be able to join the NPA when I did in 2017 – to see an industry in a totally different place to those dark days that will be imprinted on my mind as a youngster.
The industry has clearly not forgotten the scars of its past (and for good reason) – when other sectors and the NFU continue to cite the darks days of 1999 onwards as a warning to all UK agriculture, you know that the sector went through something significant.
My father was so enamoured with the fact that I had joined the NPA that he insisted on coming to an NPA eastern regional meeting shortly after I joined, which led to him spending his time reminiscing with local titans like Ian Campbell, Peter Mortimer, Jimmy Butler and many more.
On a personal level it was great to see some very familiar faces of my own - James Black, our next door neighbour, and the Lawson clan (Robin and me have many fond memories at school – sharing a tent on D of E and one very notable evening in Framlingham College’s sixth form centre bar, in which a theme night called ‘Best of British’ saw both of us dressed up as the Chuckle Brothers. The night took a turn for the worse when, upon going back to his room, Barry Chuckle managed to trip up over his computer cables and land face first on his desk, only then to be chastised by the on duty matron at length).
On joining the NPA, I didn’t so much hit the ground running as hit the ground sprinting. I was very lucky to be able to go round the country and see a number of producers and allied members to get a feel for the industry that was totally different to the one our farm said goodbye to.
In particular, it gave me a chance to get to grips with this very alien outdoor pig sector that was totally removed from anything we did on our fabulous Beccles heavy clay soils! It was great to visit Richards Lister and Longthorp, Sophie Hope and Rob Mutimer at different points to talk through all the ins and outs and bring me up to speed quickly.
I also went to see a member who gave me a very long list of all the things that needed to be sorted out in the pig sector before asking what I was personally going to do to sort ‘all this Brexit nonsense out’. For anonymity’s sake we will just call him Colin S.
The role I came into was a new one completely and as a result it took a few months to work out how it could fit into the NPA but more importantly how we can make sure the UK pig sector is listened to in what is a very noisy environment.
Front page news
Since the Brexit vote, farming has gone from twee Sunday papers country features and Countryfile fluff to actual front page news. This was (and has ever since been) evidenced by the ongoing debate about food standards and trade, as well as a UK only agricultural policy for the first time in over 50 years.
Food and farming is as popular now in Westminster as it probably ever has been since rationing was introduced. By comparison when I started working in the House of Commons, I was (naively) taken aback by how little everyone there discussed food and farming. It was up there with obscure niche policy areas such as wheel clamping regulations, DVD piracy or UK relations with Namibia.
Whenever it was raised it usually was confined to something to do with badgers, recycling or the forestry commission, which the then coalition government had mooted selling off in a spectacular failure of PR (disclaimer - it was subsequently u-turned).
However we live in a totally different world now – suddenly we are more relevant than we probably ever have been, and it has been genuinely fascinating going on this journey in the last three years. It is perhaps still notable that we still haven’t yet left the EU ‘properly’ and we are still in a wrangle about trade as much as we were when I joined.
I was asked to speak at the Fosseway pig discussion group (in the unforgettable background of a bowls club) and was kindly given a bottle of whisky as a thank you. Upon it Simon Davies and Gareth ‘Geordie/Imp’ Virgo had written that I could only open it upon the successful completion of a Brexit deal. I think it may be extremely well matured by the time I come to drink it.
The new policy and political world meant that we could go about really making a name for ourselves. When I joined, we had just had the 2017 election (you may remember that was the one that a Tory government with a small majority then decided it only wanted a small minority after a disastrous election campaign from Theresa May (you may remember that she was the one who was PM after Cameron and before Boris and spent two years or so as a human pinata for the conservative party (she did however respond very positively to our Ladies in Pigs Cookbooks we sent her)) – and after the election we had a large number of new MPs and Ministers to meet.
We also had new departments created, most notably Dept of International Trade (DIT). After 3 or so years of work, we are now in a position where we are regularly asked to provide feedback, analysis and insight directly to civil servants and Ministers there. So much so that Zoe had a 1-2-1 chat with the trade ministers during Covid.
Similarly new work streams and sub-departments were being opened in Defra as we started a totally new set of policy areas – EU trade, China trade, USA trade, rules of origin, migrant labour, breeding and genetics, productivity…the list could go on. Many NPA members helped at length on this, and some even came into small Government offices to help explain issues to civil servants directly – and I know many will continue to do so in the future.
I would like to think that many NPA members can see how it is more important now than ever to get the best value as they can form their MP. Having been on that side of the fence it was amazing how frequently we would have emails, letters, calls etc from the same group of people. The vast majority were serial letter writers who often were members of multiple green organisations and sent the same template emails that each NGO told them to send in.
Most, if not all, MPs are wise to this and the volume of such repeated emails lose their impact completely and tend to get same effort in response as they took to write. An email or letter, written from one’s own brain carries more weight than anything – especially if there is a genuine issue or concern that is being hindered by poor legislation or archaic systems.
MPs and staff are so wise to this they can separate the important and pressing from the repetitive and unoriginal – furthermore MPs often value a direct line to a farm business that can given them the lowdown on a specific issue.
Whilst we as NPA are always talking to politicians, it is ultimately the local business in their patch, that employs their constituents, who is really sought after for views. I would urge as many members as possible to keep a line of contact with their local MP as EU exit and various other issues appear on the horizon.
A few thank yous
It would be remiss of me not to thank a few people for their help, support and advice over the last few years. The trade policy area has been helped massively by Marcus Bates, who is always my go to on anything to do with genetics or the pandora’s box of complicated stuff that are Export Health Certificates.
Thanks to the processor and integrator members for working through various bits of technical trade policy, to all the marketing groups for their views and opinions on the market. Simon Davies once introduced me to a pig discussion group with so much detail about my life, I was expecting Michael Aspel to appear from behind a curtain with a red folder.
Ed getting into the spirit of things with YNPA
Thanks also to all the breeding companies who have helped us deal with the various challenges on post-Brexit exports and imports of live pigs and genetics, to producer group members and allied group members for their thoughts and advice, to Lydia Harrison for hosting me on her table at various National Pig Awards (the quid pro quo of this was that I had to listen as to why the Springboks were definitely going to win the rugby world cup, to which I would laugh the suggestion off with good grace), to Wes, Jonathan and Jack for getting the Young NPA into a more formalised body to help the next generation in the pig sector (and also to the many great people I have met as part of YNPA – the mercurial Flavian Obiero, Fenland’s answer to Mr Motivator - Lee Thompson, Jamie Baker who still has honorary YNPA membership, Zarkos minor and may others).
Thanks also to all the invitations to events to speak at – PVS conference, P&P fair (2018), JSR, TVC dinners – and of course the various hosts of pig discussion groups I was asked to speak at – I always enjoyed meeting and chatting with producers around the country who couldn’t make it to regionals, it also helped that these discussion groups were held in a pub.
I have been supported by AHDB staff who have all the statistics and numbers at their fingertips, NFU who have helped make our joint parliamentary group (APPG) a very effective lobbying mechanism (also thanks go to all those members who attended our events and collared MPs and Ministers on behalf of your industry – Duncan Berkshire, Marcus Bates, Simon Davies, Paul Toplis, Rob Mutimer, Richards Longthorp and Lister), thanks to all you as members who have hosted your MPs on farm or have written to MPs – we have seen how we as a sector can have enough critical mass to show strength of feeling on various issues. I don’t think we have seen the last of these campaigns from you, the membership, sadly.
I have said this to many people, but will gladly say it again. I do genuinely think that the UK pig sector stands very well to deal with the many challenges that will arise out of a total exit from the EU. As a sector that is not directly subsidised, extremely responsive to market changes, cognisant of its brand and up to date with its domestic and export markets it has the resilience to deal with the challenges ahead.
Other sectors are in a different place and are having very different conversations to the ones we are having. Pork is still the world’s most popular meat product – Covid-19 has reminded the consumer just how great pork is, and with the focus on shorter supply chains, self sufficiency, lean protein and affordability, pork stands very well placed to deal with it.
Finally thanks should go to the NPA team. The last three and a bit years have totally flown by, which is probably a sign of time well spent. They are all a great group to work with, extremely passionate to the point of forensic obsession about the UK pig industry and all it contains – I am certain that my successor will be welcomed into an Association and made to feel as part of a team as I was.
There are so many exciting and interesting things to do, and I hope my successor enjoys it as much as I have.
Many highlights include getting the UK pig sector on the front page of the FT, YNPA trips to Whitby and a rare sunny day in Aberdeenshire, appearing at select committee inquiries, being mistaken for an undercover policeman at the Labour Party Conference, being sat amongst a hen party on a flight back from Belfast, hosting various international delegations, Flavian, Josh, Tom and me in Stratford, me and Lizzie’s train journeys back to Stowmarket after YNPA nationals or Pig Awards, talking at great length with Guy Kiddy and Marcus about the 1981 Ipswich Town midfield, trying to be magnanimous to the various Tigers supporters across the NPA - the list could go on.
On to pastures new, where I will be joining the AIC as their Head of Policy and External Affairs – which will mean that for many allied members I will not be going anywhere!
I look forward to seeing you in different guises and places (after all UK farming is the smallest of small worlds as Paul Smith reminded me only recently).