National Farmers' Union : History and Membership

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The National Farmers' Union (NFU)


By Corporate Watch UK
Completed July 2003

The National Farmers' Union:

friend to ‘big business’, not to small farmers.

"The NFU is a powerful group, It's dominated farm policy for decades and has all the political access it needs, and yet it has at the same time presided over the near total collapse of British farming. In short, yes, I think the NFU has let us all down very badly".

-Zac Goldsmith, Farmer and Co-founder of farm 1

More than 65,000 farmers and farm workers lost their jobs in the six years to 2002 in England alone.2 There is no sign that this exodus from farming, the largest exodus of farmers since the Second World War, is letting up - with some analysts claiming that by 2005, a further 25% of farms, mainly small farms, will have gone out of business.3 This, however, comes as no surprise to those who follow the fortunes of British agriculture. The latest figures from the NFU show that the average UK farmer earned just £11,000 over the last financial year.4

As the industry collapses, many farmers feel sold out by the UK Government, misunderstood by an unsympathetic public and let down by a union that does not represent their interests. The NFU is supposed to be a representative body to the farming industry which, unlike any other union, the UK government is legally obliged to consult over policy. If this is so, why is farming still in crisis? This briefing seeks to show that the NFU at a national level is not only failing to offer solutions, but has also been part of the problem.

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History and Membership

'It was more than a pressure group of loyal farmers - it became the seat of the agricultural establishment'.

-Lord Henry Plumb, former president of the National Farmer's Union5

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) of England and Wales has dominated the farming political scene for almost 100 years.

A group of nine Lincolnshire farmers first proposed the idea of a farmers' union in 1904. At that time, British agriculture was in serious decline. After a dramatic increase in food production as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 led to a flood of cheap grain imported from North America in the late 19th century. The introduction of refrigerated ships meant the UK could import food from her colonies more cheaply and rely less and less on UK farmers.

Legislation failed to address these problems and, with land increasingly neglected and farming families impoverished, the Lincolnshire group decided that only by joining together would farmers be able to redress the balance. The Lincolnshire Farmers' Union they founded held its first meeting on 2nd September 1904. Each of the founding members paid £1 into a kitty as a form of subscription. One of those members, Colin Campbell, pledged to extend the union nation-wide and after four years of campaigning, the new National Farmers' Union held its first meeting in the Agricultural Hall, Islington, London, on 10th December 1908.

A range of committees were set up to deal with the pressing issues of the day, including Insurance, Disturbance (concerned with land tenure), Local Taxation, Parliamentary and Manurial Values (the grand name for the process of assessing the value, for compensation purposes, of a crop in the ground at the end of a tenancy). Additional standing committees dealt with education, milk, fruit, hops and employment.6

It was in the run up to the Second World War that the NFU began its very close relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Farming (MAFF). This was a result of the realisation by the British government of the time that food security was essential to Britain's overall security. This meant that food production had to be massively increased, and to secure this farmers had to be paid properly. After the War, the combination of global food shortage and the lack of dollars to buy food imports led to a continuation of this policy.

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This relationship was cemented by the 1947 Agriculture Act, which essentially set in law the involvement of the NFU in all aspects of Governmental agricultural policy making. For example, under the 'Annual Review' of agricultural prices, which was instituted under the act, the NFU was given institutionalised access to the process of setting agricultural subsidies. By making the NFU a statutory consultee in agricultural policy, the Government handed the union unprecedented power to determine the future of the farmers whom they represented. The NFU and MAFF broadly agreed on the goal of agricultural policy, anyway at that time, which was to massively increase agricultural productivity and ensure that prices were set to provide farmers with a reasonable standard of living.

By being formally involved in the process and then publicly accepting or rejecting the annual review, the NFU helped to create the perception that the government’s review involved negotiation with farmers. Meanwhile, other farming interest groups were, and continue to be ignored by Government.

This close relationship with government is one of the reasons why the NFU has shunned the more militant tactics usually employed by unions. For example, at the end of the 1960s, the President of the NFU had to warn farmers angered by an unfavourable price review that 'militant action would undoubtedly be counter productive and inflict damage on ourselves.' He stated: 'I had to consider the end result in the long term and the effect it would have on future negotiations with the Government'.7 It is also alleged that in 1965, the NFU made a pact with Harold Wilson's Government not to overly criticise Government policy in exchange for their 'special relationship'.

Over the last fifty years, farmers have benefited greatly from this close relationship with MAFF, with subsidies and tax relief supporting their income. Recent victories for the NFU include its campaign against the pesticide tax, its campaign against the taxation of red diesel, and successfully negotiating generous compensation deals (which in many cases far exceeded market values) for farmers who had their animals culled during the Food and Mouth crisis.

However, the relationship between the NFU and the British government is changing. First, decisions about subsidies are now primarily decided at a European level.8 Second, New Labour is far less open to financially propping up UK farming with taxpayers' money, taking, instead, a 'neo-liberal' approach along the lines of Sean Rickard (see Appendix II) and Lord Chris Haskins (see Corporate Watch profile of Northern Foods Plc.).9

Until New Labour reformed MAFF into the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2001, MAFF was often referred to as 'the NFU's political wing'. Jack Cunningham, the first New Labour agriculture minister, attempted to challenge the privileges granted by MAFF to the NFU, amongst other reforms, which ultimately cost him his job. Stories of his extravagance at the tax payers expense duly surfaced, allegedly leaked by the civil service, and his career was over.10

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The voice of British farming?

In 2001, the NFU claimed on its website to have over 150 000 members (this claim has now interestingly disappeared from the website completely). It’s members are not, however, all farmers. The NFU press office claims that it has 65,000 'farmer and grower' members and 75,000 'countryside' members. There are also other smaller membership categories such as corporate members, retired farmer members, farming family members, professional members and student members. Only full farming members can attend meetings and vote on policy issues.

At a forum organised by the Littoral Arts Project in 2001, however, Andrew Clark from the NFU stated, "In 1993 we had 96,000 full farming members, that figure is now down to 53,000 members". Figures from DEFRA show that in 2002, there were 163,800 full-time farmers in the UK. If Andrew Clark's figures are accurate, the NFU represents less than a third of full-time farmers.11 Whilst it is clear that over the last 10 years numbers have fallen as many farmers have left the industry, 'others have resigned in protest at what they regard as less than adequate representation.'12

‘NFU Corporate’ is the membership category for farmer-controlled businesses and co-operatives. There are currently over 70 corporate members.

There are currently around 75,000 'NFU Countryside' members. This category consists of people in other professions with "more than a garden, but less than a farm;" or smallholders with a small amount of livestock or a few acres of cropping land. It was set up in 1992.

There is a new ‘NFU Professional’ membership category - currently with over 2,000 subscribers - for bodies such as rural solicitors, land agents, surveyors and accountants with clients involved in agriculture or horticulture.

Many farmers feel that the NFU is far more interested in its countryside members - presumably because 'countryside' members are not relying on farming for a living and are hence not dropping like flies. The countryside membership is certainly a brainwave to ensure that their membership numbers continue to look healthy.

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Publications and Projects

NFU publications include a monthly news magazine NFU Business, as well as the mid-month NFU Business Update, eight regional journals, a magazine for rural professionals - NFU professional journal, numerous sectoral newsletters and the monthly glossy magazine NFU Countryside for its ‘countryside’ members. There is also an NFU 'Farmer and Grower' magazine.

NFU services

As well as representing its members' interests, the NFU provides a wide range of services to its members including help with legal, planning and taxation matters, marketing and food promotion (

The NFU services division markets itself partly as a way for other businesses to access NFU members (for a fee, of course). On its website, it seems only too keen to sell off its database which

"comprises principally of loyal members of the NFU, their families and their employees. Most of these are young-to-middle-aged. They have high household incomes and are financially sophisticated - keen to buy professional services, equipment and information as well as consumer goods. All of them use - and rely on - NFU Services and its business partners. Could your company benefit from access to our members? Could they benefit from the service your company offers?"

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The NFU Mutual Insurance Company Ltd

The NFU Mutual is an insurance company that ranks among Britain's 10 biggest insurers. Founded in 1910, it is no longer connected to the National Farmer's Union. Its head office is in Stratford upon Avon but it has hundreds of smaller offices scattered around the country ( Farmers account for one third of the NFU Mutual's general business although almost three-quarters have life cover with ‘the Mutual’.13

The NFU Mutual and the National Farmer’s Union as well as the Scottish NFU and Ulster Farmer’s Union, are linked through NFU local group secretaries who are also agents for the NFU Mutual. The NFU Mutual also provides direct financial support to the NFU running into millions of pounds each year.

The Mutual's 'competitive' insurance has been regarded by some as a significant factor in farmers belonging to the NFU. Others, however, stick with the NFU Mutual out of a sense of continuing family tradition and the lack of a strong alternative.

Interestingly, whilst NFU countryside members are offered a £25 discount voucher for NFU Mutual insurance, this benefit is not extended to NFU farmer and grower members.

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1"The Politics of Farming in Britain" by Dan Foster Date viewed 23/7/03

2NFU UK Agricultural Review April 2003. Date viewed 23/7/03

3'Extent of the Farming Crisis revealed' by Patrick Wintour. The Guardian. 11/4/01


5Plumb, H (2001) The Plumb Line: a journey thorugh agriculture and politics (the Greycoat Press) (p. 19)

6Taken from (before this website was replaced by

7Lord Plumb quoted in 'Civil Society and Internal Democracy of Interest Groups' by Wyn Grant, Department of Politics and International Relations. Paper for Political Studies Association annual

8David Walker (Agricultural Economist), ‘Beyond the NFU’, 16/3/02 Viewed: 23/7/03


10“Well Goodbye Dolly….” Nick Cohen, The Observer, 8 April 2001

11DEFRA Agricultural and Hortcultural Census until June 2001 viewed 23/7/03

12Farmers Weekly 20th October 2000.

13“A new harvest of city folk for the farm insurers” The Independent, 3 August 2002