Election fever hit north east farmers last week at the NFUS panel debate night with the crowd rallying for reform across the board.

To a packed audience of farmers alongside a half dozen election candidates there were calls to reform farm assurance, environmental farm payments and even the host NFUS which was called upon to get their house in order.

Panellist Jim Wilson, farmer and SoilEssentials managing director said: “We need a reformed NFUS. Most of my friends are not members, most of my friends see the Union as part of the problem not the solution.

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The Scottish Farmer: Former NFUS President Andrew McCornickFormer NFUS President Andrew McCornick

“There needs to be one person one vote. Massive reform is needed. We need to know what is happening, which is against the NFUS culture. Unless the Union reforms in a way to make it more accessible, we will be looking into the future and there will be half the number of members.

“I would love to be an NFUS member, but I am not going to join an organisation which is working against our best interests in some cases.”

Continuing his challenge Mr Wilson criticised the Union for being a part owner of farm assurance bodies and the proposals from Red Tractor on Green Farm commitments. He said NFUS were ‘closing their eyes to the whole thing’.

Quick to respond NFUS vice president Andrew Connon replied: “On the green farm commitment, NFUS is not on the main board of Red Tractor and knew nothing about the commitment. We were totally blind sided on green commitment.

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The Scottish Farmer: Robert Neill addressing the audienceRobert Neill addressing the audience

“I personally highlighted to Red Tractor the disgust and distrust to Scottish farmers the way they went about their business and their top down approach at red tractor.” Methlick farmer Davie Smith challenged Mr Wilson saying: “You are miss-calling the Union, we can use the branch structure. We need the Union to get through to politicians, without the NFU we are scuppered.”

Former Union president and panellist Andrew McCornick argued that Mr Wilson should use his drive to reform the Union as a reason to get involved and change the organisation from the inside.

Other agricultural bodies were in the firing line for reform, as questions about farm assurance provoked passion from the panel. Panellist and borders farmer Robert Neill said: “When farm assurance first came it, it was six questions now it is 160 questions. Now the inspectors don’t have time to even look at the livestock. But love them or hate them we need farm assurance.”

The chair of AgriScot went on to support the reactionary work QMS conducted to refute misleading TV documentaries about the meat industry, which included writing to Ofcom with an official complaint. He pointed out that farmers are too busy to do all this and the support from farming bodies is welcome.

Farmer and former London marketing executive Jason Lancaster described the farm assurance model in Scotland as a ‘total mess’.

He called on assurance bodies to have a ‘single minded focus on putting brands into the marketplace’ and which should not be a ‘police force’.

Comparing farm assurance with Mr Lancaster’s time in marketing he explained: “When I worked for Uniliver my job was to make people want to buy the ice cream at a premium price. I would never have dreamed to make demands on how the company made the ice cream.

"Who in heaven’s name thought it was a good idea to bring those things together? It is incompatible. I have no idea why you [farmers] do it?”

After the debate in response to this chief executive of QMS Sarah Millar issued this statement: “Demands from the supply chain have, understandably, increased as consumers seek out more assurance and then repeated reassurance of provenance, rearing methods and ultimately processing for retail shelves and food service.

“At the heart of QMS assurance is earning, and retaining consumers’ trust in how our red meat is reared and processed, as well as telling the story of perennially consistent quality, borne from the complete end-to-end, whole life nature of the assurance scheme that underpins Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork.

“This trust that consumers place in our farmers and the whole red meat chain is sacrosanct, which makes what goes on on-farm and throughout the chain - the ‘how’ we do things - crucial for instilling understanding and confidence in our products.

“Fundamentally, we cannot make claims about our product in any of our marketing if we do not have the evidence to back up our marketing claims.”

Head of member services for NFUS James Buchanan said: “From 8315 recorded members in 2018, NFU Scotland’s membership now stands at 9023 with fresh plans for member engagement, recruitment and retention already in place.

"We have a very loyal membership with an annual retention rate of more than 95% which demonstrates the confidence our members have in the work we are doing on their behalf.

“All members received a copy of NFUS’s business plan and operational strategy for the years ahead, alongside a copy of our recent member survey.

“The documents clearly recognise that our members are, and always will be, the lifeblood of the organisation. As such, everything we do over the coming months and years will have our primary mission in mind: a profitable and sustainable future for our members.”

NFU Scotland chief executive John Davidson, who represents NFUS on the Red Tractor ownership body said: “NFUS was at the forefront of the decision that saw Red Tractor’s proposed Greener Farm Commitment abandoned and the ball start rolling on a fundamental look at Red Tractor’s operations and governance.

“The recommendations from the independent governance review, undertaken by consultants Campbell Tickell, outlined the work needed to be undertaken by Red Tractor to rebuild trust with farming members.

"We are scheduled to meet with Red Tractor and its new interim chair Alistair Macintosh soon and will reiterate the need for the organisation to make trust its top priority.”