When she was elected as the first female president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in 2018, Minette Batters was advised by a friend that because she was a woman she would have to work twice as hard as a man and will be judged twice as hard.

“From that day on I was determined, on behalf of women, not to let them down,” she told attendees at the Oxford Farming Conference last Friday morning.

During a panel discussion, which looked at whether farming can do better in providing diversified leadership, Batters reflected on her six years leading the NFU, which is due to end next month.

She described leadership as “tough”, requiring a president to listen and engage, while also trying to take all members with them. However, while membership expect farming organisations to lobby strongly on their behalf, it might not always be the right approach to “come crashing through the door”, said Batters.

“You can be angry, have your day in the sun, but what do you do the next day? It takes a long time to create relationships and a long time to repair one,” she said.


During her tenure, the industry faced various challenges brought on by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Batters maintained that nothing compared to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the turmoil caused to grain and energy markets putting extreme pressure on farmer margins and domestic food supply.

“You only turn the food production tap off once – we really have to change and have a plan for food production,” she said.


She also gave a fairly blunt assessment of UK political leadership during her time as NFU president. Former Defra Secretary Michael Gove had “extraordinary capability”, knew his brief and was “always charming”, but “did I trust him? Probably not”, said Batters.

She said Prime Minister Sunak has similar ability to Gove, but lacks vision and a plan for farming, while Boris Johnson and, in particular, Liz Truss had “been memorable for all the wrong reasons”.

“She never did detail and was never top of her brief,” suggested Batters.

When asked what advice she would give her successor, Batters responded: “Don’t manage your own Twitter [now called X] account.”

Confusion around green terminology

Consumers and those involved in the broader global food system are increasingly aware of the impact of food on their health and the wider environment, Professor David Hughes, an expert in international food and drink industry issues, told the Oxford Farming Conference.

At the front-end are young people, led by the “brilliant” Greta Thunberg, who are often angry at the older generation for ruining the world, said Hughes.

However, he acknowledged that Europeans tend to be most aware of the issues, while in the likes of the US, over 50% of the population are what he describes as “eco-dismissers”.

But even in the UK, there is a lack of understanding among consumers around many environmental buzzwords.

Research commissioned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) shows that most consumers do understand terms such as “organic farming” or “plant-based food”, but they are less clear on terminology such as “net zero”, “carbon offsetting” and, in particular, the term “regenerative agriculture”.

“It is a confusing area for most consumers, which has driven them to believe there is a lot of greenwashing going on,” said Hughes.

Despite that, he maintained the direction of travel for the industry is clear and for farmers his advice is: “you go green or you go broke”.

Making farming inclusive for all

The theme of the 2024 Oxford Farming Conference was “The power of Diversity” with various panel sessions looking at issues such as women in farming and how people from diverse backgrounds can be encouraged to look at the industry for their chosen career.

One of the main issues for new entrants to the industry is the cost of land and there is a perception that only those with a land base can pursue a career in farming.

Ultimately, that perception acts as a barrier for those from non-farming backgrounds.

“By talking about land ownership – it is almost killing it for us,” suggested Rory Christie, who runs a dairy and pig business in Scotland, employing 15 people. Christie said that when people do come to work on the farm, if they are to stay long-term there must be amenities in place in the local community allowing them to pursue hobbies and interests.

“Our challenge is often about the place,” he said.

Other speakers talked about the negativity that surrounds farming and the need to get into schools to highlight the exciting opportunities that exist.

During her presentation, Welsh organic farmer Polly Davies said young women need role models in the industry.

“You cannot be, what you cannot see,” she suggested. She was also critical of the training provided at agricultural colleges in operating tractors and farm machinery.

“In lectures, they just talk about the tractor everyone has at home – not about driving the thing. We need to get women to understand tractors – it is just about confidence,” said Davies.

Read more

Farming in the fringes of conference season

British PM commits to drive up food exports