Minette Batters, NFU president: Boris told me, ‘I would rather die than hurt British farmers’

Minette Batters started her day at 5.30am with 25 press-ups and a run round her farm with her dog to check the sheep, cattle and horses before waking her teenage twins, then jumping in the car with a black coffee to wind her way through the Wiltshire countryside to catch the train to London. There she changed into heels to meet the prime minister.

Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester www.thetimes.co.uk 

Ushered into No 10, worried that she might still have mud on her face and straw in her hair, the National Farmers’ Union president found herself sitting opposite an even more dishevelled Boris Johnson. “I was keen to prove I don’t have a set of horns and I am not a raving lunatic,” she explains. Instead she felt concerned about the prime minister. “He looked like a man understandably with the weight of the world on his shoulders so I said, ‘I want to take farming and food off your desk and I can do that. There is a viable plan.’ I ended the meeting by saying, ‘Look, Prime Minister, I will carry you aloft myself on my shoulders to achieve this.’ He laughed and said he’d have to lose a bit more weight.”

Batters may be half Johnson’s size, but she was determined to explain to him why farmers, chefs and environmentalists are running a campaign to convince the government to think again about their refusal to ensure imported food meets domestic standards after Brexit.

Instead of launching into the pros and cons of chlorinated chicken, the prime minister and the president spent ages chatting about Nethercote, the Johnson farm on Exmoor. “He said where he grew up was a very disadvantaged area with a few sheep. ‘It’s a difficult place to farm and we couldn’t make a living just farming there, Minette,’ he said, ‘but I love it,’ and he sounded sincere.’”

When she finally left, “There was a line of 20 people looking very unhappy, including ministers and the chief whip. I think they were expecting to see Rishi Sunak appear, and they were horrified to see me,” Batters says.

Was she successful? Batters can mimic the prime minister’s voice perfectly, suddenly sounding grave. “He said, ‘I would rather die than hurt British farmers,’ and I think he really means that.” In return, she had prepared her own speech. “You are prime minister at the time the Agriculture Bill goes through and I am president of the NFU and for the first time in 70 years we are setting a new course for the future of British agriculture,” she explained to him. “I told him we both have a moral duty to get this right.”

Batters, a former caterer, then showed the prime minister the million-strong list of those supporting the NFU petition to amend the Agriculture Bill now going through its last stages in parliament. “I explained to him that we now have this extraordinary unprecedented tsunami of a coalition from the best chefs, all the farmers across the country, the environmentalists and all the NCOs, even the mammals’ association.”

Batters explained her request for a trade standards commission with experts on the environment, sustainability, animal welfare and food safety allowed to scrutinise any potential deal. “He looked surprised when I made the point that the US has exactly the same thing, an independent trade commission that reports into Congress. He said, ‘Oh right, I hadn’t realised.’ He has a lot of things on his desk and with Covid he just hasn’t had the bandwidth.”

But his aides could have briefed him. Why does Batters think the government voted against the proposal last week? “I think there has been ping-pong between Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and the department of trade. They are on different pathways, but only the prime minister can decide his priorities. He is overrun with things, some small, some huge to be sorted out, but it is clear to me now that he just has to make a decision, however tired he is; we can’t just drift towards disaster. So many people care desperately about upholding the values of food production in this country.”

Batters has been surprised by the recent surge in support for farmers. “The chefs have been incredible. We have Delia Smith, Prue Leith, Jamie Oliver, Richard Corrigan and Raymond Blanc, and more, all saying they support farmers — it’s just like Christmas.”

Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour politicians have also visited her farm. “We are an apolitical organisation, so I was pleased when Keir Starmer wanted to come, but I’d also love to have Boris Johnson, to put the record straight.”

Batters was still shocked when she saw the Labour leader outside her stables. “I thought it was a man delivering something. We were in the yard. I knew he was coming to the farm, but then this man walked around the corner in a bomber jacket, black T-shirt, jeans and wellies and I looked at him and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ His wellies and jacket had clearly been well worn; it was so different from the booted and suited Starmer, which is all we ever see usually.”

Covid, she says, has proved how vital the farming industry is to Britain. “We had a nation to feed; every single person couldn’t buy exactly what they wanted to buy during lockdown. I couldn’t find flour at one stage. Now 86 per cent of people say British farmers should grow as much food as they can.”

Yet Britain’s 46,000 farmers, she warns, are fearful they won’t be able to compete with food made to lower standards from abroad. “I have farmers beside themselves about what the future is going to hold for farms that they have been looking after for generations. They have huge amounts of debt and don’t know what the future holds on trade or policy and they are frantic.”

However, the UK can’t block all imports, or it sounds like protectionism and fortress Britain rather than global Britain. “We’ve been very clear from the beginning we are not asking Australian farmers to cut their hedges at a certain time of year. That’s why we have always wanted the compromise route of having experts on a committee who write a report for parliament to sign off before a trade deal is concluded.”

In Britain, she says, “We now have laws that dictate stocking density of poultry sheds, that dictate no growth promoters, and the retailers are always wanting higher standards, but the farmers aren’t getting any more money; they are getting the same for milk and strawberries as 20 years ago. We are now the lowest user of antibiotics in the world, box ticked, we’re on our way to producing carbon-neutral food, and we aren’t getting any reward. Yet we are saying to the rest of the world you can import what you like, reared how you like, bring it on in.”

What upsets her most is when farmers are told that it will be fine because there will be labels on food so consumers can decide. “Out of the home, when you pick up a sandwich, in a hospital or school, there is no requirement to give you the country of origin. Some suppliers will always go for the cheapest even by a couple of pence if they can. But the least well off should be able to eat ethically too. We already have the most affordable food in Europe, with the safest, most traceable animal welfare and environmentally friendly agenda; we are a huge success story. Now we are going to undermine our producers in a way that isn’t fair when they are trying their hardest to provide what we say we want. We can’t be moralistic about how our food is grown here and then import food and not care how the animals are treated abroad.”

But Britain can’t refuse to do any trade deals. “It sounds like we are saying no to American food. That’s not right. Take California. It has very high standards. They have banned all consumption of pork meat produced with growth promoters.”

Brexit, though, makes matters more complicated. She must find it infuriating that more than half of farmers voted to leave the European Union, ignoring NFU advice. “No, I’m a passionate believer in democracy,” she says. “We had a referendum. This is the result.”

Meanwhile, the prime minister has promised to return almost a third of the country to nature by 2030, declaring in his conference speech that people would soon be enjoying “picnics in the new wild belts”. “I do think his commitment is a good one, but he needs everybody else around that cabinet table to back him and to make a success of farming,” Batters says. “And I know there is conflict.”

“Rewilding” the entire country is not the way to do it, she warns, “There are some rich landowners who just think, ‘We can get our food produced somewhere else in the world and we’ll rewild the country and have this lovely quintessential cottage industry of people making bread,’ but if we’re going to deliver on the prime minister’s commitment on the environment, we’ve got to be able to have thriving, profitable agriculture too.”

The “think tank operators” who promote a revolution in land use misunderstand the reality of rural life. “It’s all very well if you live surrounded by four square walls and you’re thumping away on your laptop, but I represent people. These are real, beating hearts that are out in the countryside at the end of farm tracks, small isolated communities and families. This is an old culture that is deep and embedded in our countryside.”

Not all farmers can diversify and have holiday cottages, she says. “I meet a lot of farm businesses who say absolutely no way can they get planning for glamping instead of sheep.” Nor would it necessarily encourage more participation in the countryside since rewilding would leave some areas inaccessible, she suggests. “I have never seen my footpath so busy. It’s been wall-to-wall walkers and that’s been brilliant to see people getting out into the countryside, but if we rewild everything there are all sorts of situations that come about with access.”

Nor, she insists, is it practical to reintroduce lynx and wolves. “We’ve got too many people here. You’d have a lynx released in the Lake District and it would probably turn up in Birmingham before you knew it. The line is with a lynx, ‘They can go and kill a deer and they will keep deer populations down.’ Well, it’s a damn sight easier for them to go and kill a lamb.” As for beavers: “You only have to go to Scotland to see the damage that the beavers have done.”

Over 70 per cent of the country, she points out, is a farmed landscape. “We can only rebuild our stone walls, we can only plant our hedges, we can only feed the nation if we have highly skilled farmers doing it. We don’t necessarily want someone who doesn’t have that commitment to the land.”

Batters, the first female NFU president in its 111-year history, took over the tenancy of her farm in 1998. Her father, who had it before her, “was always quite convinced that women weren’t farmers”, she says. “But the more you’re told you cannot have something from a very young age, the more inquisitive you become about ‘Why can’t I?’ And you start to challenge the status quo.”

Managing the land is far more than a job for her. “For me farming is about a sense of place and identity. I can look to the north towards Salisbury Cathedral, and whenever I come back I see the spire. My small corner of south Wiltshire is just the best place in the world because it’s home. That’s what farming families across the country feel. Some of them will have been there for six or seven generations and they wouldn’t necessarily want to farm anywhere else in the country; that’s quite a unique thing.”

That sense of local identity will matter more than ever after Brexit, she says, combined with a sense that Britain can be the best in the world. “We need to build a global brand. But there’s no point me running Brand Britain when the government is off with Brand America.”