“It was a lot of words, but I think it’s all like ‘jam tomorrow’.” National Farmers Union member Simon Edwards’ reaction to Michael Gove’s keynote speech was one seemingly shared by many.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs earned smatterings of applause during his 35-minute address to the NFU’s annual get together on Tuesday, this year in Birmingham, but there were also murmurings of frustration.
Increasing rural broadband coverage, tackling fly-tipping by criminal gangs, opening a Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme for migrants – all issues which delegates want to see immediate action on, yet all seemed to be met with warm words instead of detailed plans.
The most noticeable frustration came after Alison Capper, chairman of the NFU’s Horticulture Board, raised the issue of migrant workers.
“In 2017, 60% of growers did not have enough workers. 30% walked past ripe crop. This is mission critical for the 2018 season. When will we get an announcement in the SAW scheme for 2018?” she asked Gove to applause in the conference Hall.
Gove reassured farmers he understands that it is “mission critical”, but pointed out his hands are tied.
“I talked to my colleagues Amber Rudd and Caroline Noakes at the Home Office. I hopefully will be able to say more shortly but the one thing I recognise is that while I hear the arguments and can articulate them I hope on your behalf, I have to acknowledge that the lead department in this is the Home Office.”
He added: “I hope I can say more shortly.”
That didn’t go down well in the hall, and in press conference after his speech Gove insisted he wasn’t playing the ‘Not me, Gov!’ card.
“I made the case within Government. I’m bound by collective responsibility, I recognise that other Government colleagues have responsibilities as well which we need to take into account,” he said.
Gove may have used his speech to drop the strongest hint yet that seasonal workers would get a special deal after Brexit (“The NFU has put forward strong and, to my mind, compelling arguments for a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme,” he said) but others felt his address was light on detail.
Speaking to HuffPost UK after the speech, Simon Edwards said he didn’t feel like the Government had kept the farming industry informed on their Brexit plans. “They work in the dark all the time and it’s very hand to mouth because I don’t think it’s up to them,” he said, adding: “It’s the Europeans who will rule the roost and tell us what’s happened. I think we’re going to have to take what we’re given.”
Another NFU member, sheep farmer Simon Latter, also welcomed the tone of Gove’s speech, but added the expected sting in the tail.
“He gave us some confidence in what he said but we need to see the action now,” said Latter.
On Brexit, Latter feels “it’s a long way from any kind of certainty”, adding: “All we know at the moment is that half our market could disappear and we could have huge seasonal demand which can’t be met by supply.”
Simon Hall from County Durham, who runs a mixed farm of arable, beef and sheep, was also complimentary about Gove. “It was a very good speech and he talks a lot about what we wanted to hear but as long as he delivers,” he said.
On Brexit, Hall was as bemused as other members as to what the final deal will be.
“It’s like asking how long is a piece of string because I’m very sceptical as to what the politicians are saying as to what we’re going to get might be two totally different things. Nobody honestly knows,” said Hall.
Yet despite the lack of information from Gove on the Government’s Brexit plans, most NFU members are happy with the latest Defra Secretary. They recognise Gove as a ‘big beast’ in Cabinet, and know that he is a man who gets things done.
However, his flurry of activity since taking over the department in June may not have always been to the liking of the farming community.
While Gove was hailed by environmentalists for pushing on with restrictions on bee-killing neonicotinoids, NFU president Meurig Raymond used his opening speech to chastise those who make out farmers are “drenching the countryside in pesticides” and try to “paint a picture of farming which is unrelated to what really goes on.”
But it was only a gentle telling-off, as NFU members now believe the presence of Gove at the top of Defra gives them the strongest voice they have had at the Cabinet table for many years.
Gove will have to make sure he delivers ‘jam tomorrow’, or he could find himself in a sticky situation with the nations’ farmers at next year’s NFU conference.