The National Farmers Union (NFU) is the leading farm organisation in Britain, drawing their members from England and Wales, with the National Farmers Union Scotland and the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) in Northern Ireland affiliated to the NFU.

It held its annual meeting in Birmingham this week, which was notable for attracting a visit and address from the UK prime minister Rishi Sunack.

It was the first time since 2007 that the UK prime minister attended in person, unlike in Ireland, where the senior members of Government are regular attendees at the main farm organisations' annual meetings.

Prime minister engagement

As is usual on these occasions, there were plenty of platitudes from the prime minister for the importance of farming for the UK economy and society.

However, it was seen through by most delegates and despite the default political setting for UK farmers to vote Conservative, current opinion polls put the Labour Party ahead in attracting the farming vote in the general election which will take place some time in the final quarter this year.

The reasons for farmer disquiet in Britain were explained by outgoing NFU president Minette Batters in an interview with The Times newspaper.

She didn’t personally support Brexit, but the NFU was, at best, ambivalent, with many farmers hostile to the EU and voting to leave.

The outgoing president was scathing in her assessment of the ministers responsible for agriculture during her term of office and lamented the UK government allowing Australia and New Zealand “walk all over them” in the trade negotiations, which gave both countries full access to the UK market for beef and sheepmeat.

She was also critical of the post-CAP farm support systems put in place for England, with a total disengagement from funding productive agriculture.

Brexit hangover

In truth, the UK has struggled to define what it wants from farming post-Brexit.

Agriculture is a devolved matter, so the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the autonomy to design an agricultural policy that best suits their regions.

That has meant relatively farmer-focused policies being adopted in the UK regions, but England has been strictly environmentally focused.

At this week's NFU conference, prime minister Sunak signalled a change of approach to redirecting support back towards farmers and farming.

The most generous interpretation of this is that the government has belatedly realised it has got its policy wrong - the more cynical interpretation is that it is an election year manoeuvre to shore up the farming vote.

UK farmers are among the least confrontational in Europe and while there aren’t nationwide tractor protests planned, there has been protests at a more local level.

There is a general expectation that this year’s election will lead to a change of government, with Labour returning to power for the first time since 2010.

If that is the case, it is unlikely to make much difference for farmers, as Labour traditionally isn’t seen as the party for rural voters and its policies are focused on reducing food prices rather than protecting farm incomes.