Arable matters by Brian Henderson

With a vote to take place early next year on the continued activities and statutory levy-gathering role of the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) in the horticultural sector, the organisation could be in for a bit of a pruning of its name in the future.

While 'trimming' it to the Agricultural Development Board might, at a stroke, swipe some of the acres of space which have been devoted to spelling its name out in farming columns and magazines over the years, I did find myself wondering a), if such a move is likely to best serve the sector in the long term and b), if the domino effect is likely to see the organisation’s role in other sectors subjected to the sort of critical appraisal which could see the whole edifice collapse.

For the move – which is underway to get a similar levy-payers ballot on its role in the potato sector – could certainly point in this direction.

I guess it might be a bit like the Brexit issue in the run up to the referendum though – in that it’s easy to stand back and blame what appears in most lights to be a big, lumbering and expensive organisation. And to view it as taking an overly-bureaucratic approach in its workings and which might seem to be out of touch with those who have to cough up their hard-earned cash for what some view as the questionable luxury of bank-rolling its operations.

Let’s face it, though, being charged with gathering information on and promoting the various sectors of the industry, along with not only paying for and encouraging research and development in the sector, but also getting this filtered down to farm level, is not only a pretty tall order but is also one which sets any organisation up to be a become an Aunt Sally stall that can become an easy target for all the brickbats under the sun.

So, again like Brexit, it might not be until after the nay-sayers have jumped out of the fold that they finally realise that it wasn’t actually to blame for many of the wrongs with which it was charged – and what's more, something or somebody has to fill the often uncomfortable role which it played.

For a third likeness to Brexit, it might just be that the sector could have been better served by highlighting where specific issues lay and what could be done to address them, then seeking reform from within the existing structure – rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.

But that’s not to say that the workings of the organisation are beyond criticism. According to those behind the levy payer ballot on both the horticulture and potato sectors, nor was the way in which Defra’s ‘call for views’ on the organisation was carried out.

While the 2018 review included meetings with stakeholders around the country, they claimed that the consultation was not widely advertised which meant that most growers were unaware of the review. This led to a further gripe that levy payers were never contacted directly for their views.

It would probably be fair to say that even those who did feed into the review felt that there was room for some considerable improvement in some areas – a fact which was not missed by the organisation’s board which did promise to make some fairly big changes to get grass root growers back on board.

A few years ago Scotland found itself feeling a little left out by the organisation, but steps have been taken to address this. There’s been an improvement not only in its activities up here, but also a bit of a raising of its profile.

I would guess that other than the technical conferences, which tend to begin at this time of year and run through to spring, where most people probably came into contact with the AHDB would be through some of the monitor farm projects.

It's a bit confusing because Quality Meat Scotland fulfils the role up here which the AHDB plays in the livestock sector down south, plus the AHDB’s remit covers the other sectors, including monitor farms covering combinable crops, dairy, potatoes, horticulture and mixed units in Scotland.

Though the monitor farm approach seems to have stalled somewhat recently – with a revisiting of some of the earlier farms to be involved in the initiative the only thing currently on the cards – AHDB has launched a number of ‘Strategic Farm’ groups on this side of the border. Tatties, dairy and the cropping sector are all represented in this programme which appears to take a more ‘hothouse’, specialist approach to the dissemination of knowledge.

Another area where we often come across AHDB is in the role which it plays in the drawing up of the cereal and oilseed national variety evaluation lists – a new one of which was released earlier this week.

Taking a quick detour into this showed that while there didn’t appear to be any startling new varieties for us in Scotland this year, one new soft Group 4 wheat did have some potential for the distilling market.

Swallow, from the Cambridgeshire-based Blackman Agriculture, had been given a recommendation for the North region – not because of its high yield or even because it has shown a stellar performance in disease resistance – but rather because it has given consistently good results on the distilling side.

The fact that it has comfortably outperformed all other varieties in 2020 distilling tests is likely to be a major driving force in actually getting the trade to prick up its ears and take a look at this variety.

But while drawing together these tables might not always give an exciting set of outcomes, we need some organisation to sift through the plethora of new varieties which come on the market every year and try to set out a rational way of allowing us to pick the riders and winners.

Of course, as well as commissioning and conducting various levels of research and development, as an organisation AHDB is also highly involved in various market analyses, especially on the grain side of things – as well as providing the technical aspects and procedures for benchmarking most common farm enterprises through the Farmbench project.

Over the past couple of years it has also produced a whole library of works on Brexit and how the different sectors might be affected along with the technical aspects of trade deals under a host of different scenarios.

So, might it just be that, just as Voltaire once said of God – 'If the AHDB didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it?'