Minette Batters British Farming Awards

In her four years as NFU president, Minette Batters has steered the agricultural industry through unfamiliar territory more times than she could ever have predicted. Emily Scaife speaks to the industry leader and champion.

From navigating Brexit to guiding the industry through a pandemic; negotiating trade deals to reacting to the outbreak of war in Europe, Minette has been a steady constant for an industry buffeted by unprecedented events. So it is fitting that on the morning of our interview, Boris Johnson has confirmed he will step down following mass resignations from his cabinet. “It’s easy to say we’re living in extraordinary times, but it feels more extraordinary than I ever, ever could have thought,” Minette admits. A tenant farmer from Wiltshire, Minette runs a mixed farm which includes a 100-cow continental cross suckler herd and a small herd of pedigree Herefords, plus sheep and arable ventures. She has diversified into weddings and corporate events by converting a 17th century tythe barn on site and is mum to 18-year-old twins. Considering she does all that along-side her role as NFU President, it is hardly surprising Minette has become an expert in compartmentalisation. “You need it to seem as though all the different parts of your life are completely in control even though there are occasions when your life is turning upside down,” she says. “I’ve found ways of getting through, but it has felt like a rollercoaster at times.”

Sleepless nights

Perhaps the biggest test of her resilience was the Covid-19 outbreak and ensuing lockdowns. Farmers, whose businesses were crumbling were phoning her in tears, and industry anger towards the government was mounting. She admits she had many sleepless nights around this period. “There’s a limit to what you can do – I just tried my best on their behalf to get their story and get the situation resolved.” Carrying the weight of the industry’s worries on her shoulders, Minette also had to continue running her farm while her wedding business ground to a halt. “My son and daughter’s GCSEs were cancelled and my wedding business was mothballed, with no sign of government funding initially,” she says. “I’m useless with technology and I remember my first Microsoft Teams call and not being able to see anyone. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this’? “It was awful but day by day we settled into a battle rhythm. However, I do remember for a 48-hour period wondering ‘How could our lives have fallen off a cliff so fast’?” There aren’t many national figures and leaders who would admit to finding such scenarios hard to handle, but this is typical of a woman who prides herself on being ‘boringly normal’. “I see myself as very bog standard – that was one of the barriers I saw to me running for office at the NFU in the first place,” she says. “I remember saying there was no way I could do it as we’re small and tenants and don’t own any land. I hope my tenure has shown what a broad church the NFU is and that literally anyone from anywhere can go into these roles.” Minette may consider herself ‘normal’ but the industry disagrees, as shown last year when she was presented with the Outstanding Contribution to British Agriculture award at the British Farming Awards in recognition of her tireless campaigning for the industry. “Speaking truth to power and challenging the status quo has been more important than anything – I wanted to be able to look back and think I never shied away from it,” Minette says. As part of her efforts to hold Government to account, she has been determined to ensure there is a public record of what the Prime Minister said to her during meetings – a decision that has attracted some misdirected criticism. “When I told The Times that Boris had told me ‘I’d rather die than hurt British farmers’ I was logging it in the public domain so history would know what the NFU had done and the promises politicians had made. At the time, lots of people thought I’d believed him. I never believed a word of it. “In the future, when people remember me, I hope they will think that I really did stand up for farming.” She has also ensured every issue has been approached with a policy solution. “In 2020 I said we had to bring the industry together to work out what a White Paper would look like for a sustainable farming scheme. “Everyone groaned at the time because we were going into August, which is usually a bit of a quieter time [for policy]. Eventually we got to a place where we were able to hand a document to Government which had whole industry support. And out of that came the Sustainable Farming Incentive. It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s a massive step when you consider that soils weren’t even going to be part of the thinking.” When Minette was elected NFU President in 2018, she became the organisation’s first female leader. But she admits to finding the press’ focus on her gender frustrating when she was elected. “Success will be when it’s not newsworthy to be a woman,” she says. “For me, the reason for standing for a third term was I wanted to make sure that in the future women will be deemed completely equal.


“Whether I have done it as well as others is maybe up for debate, but in terms of time, energy and effort spent it really matters to me that I’ve done the same as my male predecessors. I need to leave the position ready for another woman to step into without ever being judged.” Minette is passionate about inspiring the next generation of farmers and believes enabling young people to climb the ranks of the NFU is a positive. She admits she is not planning to stand for a fourth term as president. “I want other people to come through and for fresh eyes to look at everything,” she explains. When asked who she looks up to, she mentions James Dyson, for his ambition and determination, and Prince Charles, for talking about climate change before anyone else was even thinking about it. But perhaps her most significant source of inspiration comes from the younger generation whose commitment and enthusiasm Minette admires. “Farmers like Joe Bramall and Joe Stanley come to mind because they always think the glass is half full and they’re always talking about solutions. “When I meet people like that it makes me so proud to be part of this industry.” Minette acknowledges that keeping the British public on side is fragile in the face of huge price rises. “There is more support for buying British than there’s ever been. But there are also unprecedented levels of food poverty,” she says. “We mustn’t stop positioning ourselves in terms of what we can offer rather than what we want. “Public opinion is something you should never take for granted and never stop investing in.” Ultimately, the opinions that matter most to Minette are those belonging to her children. Despite becoming a nationally-recognised figure (you know you’ve really entered the public consciousness when you appear on Desert Island Discs) to her son and daughter she is still just ‘Mum’. “A few weeks ago my daughter was helping me on-farm and I said to her ‘Do you think you’re going to work as hard as I do one day’?” “She looked at me and said ‘I do hope not’. My son also tells me I do not have my work/life balance sorted at all.” Despite all the hard work and unexpected challenges thrown her way, does she consider herself an optimist or a pessimist, four years into her presidency? “I’m incredibly optimistic. My frustrations largely come from being able to see so clearly what ‘good’ looks like and my urgency to get that over the line and recognised politically,” she says. “Nothing in this role has led me to believe there can’t be a really good future for agriculture.”