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Farming

Welsh Labour leadership candidates face farmer protests in Powys

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POWYS was the scene of a significant protest this weekend as nearly 100 tractors rolled into Newtown, echoing the concerns of the farming community against proposals set forth by the Welsh Government. The convoy, led by local farmers, bore banners proclaiming “no farmers, no food, no future,” a stark message against the sustainable farming scheme that threatens to reshape their livelihoods.

The protest coincided with the visit of Welsh Labour’s leadership candidates, Vaughan Gething and Jeremy Miles, who are in the running to succeed First Minister Mark Drakeford. Their attendance at a leadership debate in Newtown was overshadowed by the demonstration, which saw a substantial turnout from the agricultural sector, voicing opposition to plans that would compel farmers to allocate a significant portion of their land to non-farming activities.

Under the contentious scheme, farmers would be required to dedicate 20% of their land to environmental initiatives, splitting evenly between tree planting and re-wilding projects. This mandate has sparked fears within the farming community, already reeling from economic pressures and the aftermath of recent inflation surges, that their industry faces an existential threat.

The candidates did not engage with the protesters, opting to leave the venue via a side entrance, a move that has drawn criticism from both the demonstrators and Montgomeryshire MS, Russell George, who stood in solidarity with the farmers. Mr. George expressed disappointment at the candidates’ reluctance to address the crowd, highlighting the peaceful and cooperative nature of the protest, which garnered praise from law enforcement and support from beyond the farming community.

The Welsh Government has positioned the scheme as a critical component of its environmental strategy, aiming to combat climate change and biodiversity loss while ensuring food security. A spokesperson emphasised the collaborative effort in developing the Sustainable Farming Scheme and encouraged public feedback through the ongoing consultation process, concluding in early March.

As the debate intensifies, the Welsh Government assures that no final decisions will be made until the consultation period ends, urging stakeholders to contribute their perspectives. Meanwhile, the silence from Mr. Gething and Mr. Miles post-protest has only amplified calls for a more engaged dialogue on the future of Welsh agriculture.

Samuel Kurtz MS, Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, said: “The Welsh Government simply isn’t listening to farmers and rural communities and that is driving the frustration being felt.

“The start of the next First Minister’s tenure could be overshadowed by serious discontent in rural Wales, as neither candidate is willing to listen to the genuine concerns of the agricultural sector.

“That’s why I’m urging once again for the consultation to be paused. If it isn’t then it is only a matter of time before farmers are on the steps of the Senedd protesting, and I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with them.”

Also commenting, Russell George MS, who joined the farmers, said: “I was disappointed that the candidates did not come out to speak to the hundreds of farmers waiting.

“It was encouraging that the police praised those that attended for cooperating and making their points peacefully.

“This issue cuts deep across the country and support from those not directly involved in farming was clear to see.”

On Monday (Feb 19), the Minister for Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths said: “I meet with the farming unions regularly and I wanted to have a meeting as soon as possible after our Sustainable Farming Scheme roadshows and theirs had been completed.

“I’d like to thank them for joining me today, it was good to hear the feedback they had from their events. We will consider this in addition to the feedback we’ve noted from our events.

“Many of the issues discussed were common with those we heard from the 3,200 farmers who’ve attended the Welsh Government events.

“I reiterated to them this is a genuine consultation. It is still open, and I would continue to urge people to take part and give us their views. We will consider every individual response.

“Once the consultation is over I will receive a detailed analysis of the responses, and as I’ve said before I would expect to make changes to the scheme as a result.

“It is vitally important people take part in the consultation. Please do find time to respond as your views matter.”

Farming

Farming revealed as Wales’ most dangerous job

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NEW figures released today reveal that farming continues to be the most perilous occupation in the UK, with a stark reminder of the dangers as the annual Farm Safety Week campaign kicks off. The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) reported that 27 people lost their lives on farms across Great Britain (GB) in 2023/24, underlining the severe risks faced by agricultural workers.

Despite representing only one per cent of the working population, agriculture accounts for 20 per cent of all workplace fatalities. In 2023/24, there were 23 farm worker deaths, an increase from 21 the previous year. Tragically, four members of the public, including two children, also died on farms, bringing the total to 27. A significant portion of these fatalities, nearly 40%, involved individuals over the age of 65.

Northern Ireland also reported a grim picture, with farming responsible for eight out of 17 workplace fatalities in 2023/24, according to the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI).

The Farm Safety Foundation (Yellow Wellies), the charity behind Farm Safety Week, stresses the need to address risky behaviours and complacency within the industry. The Foundation highlights that alongside fatalities, there are an estimated 23,000 injuries to farm workers annually in GB.

NFU Mutual reported 937 farm accident claims in the UK for 2023/24, a decrease from 1,021 in 2022/23. These accidents, including falls from heights, trapped body parts, and falling objects, cost the rural insurer over £68 million.

Research conducted by the charity in September 2023 found that 88% of UK farmers believe ‘complacency’ is a major contributor to farm accidents, while 82% cite ‘attitude’ as a significant factor.

Stephanie Berkeley, manager of the Farm Safety Foundation, stated: “Farm safety is a global issue. The International Labour Office (ILO) ranks agriculture among the three most hazardous sectors worldwide. In the UK, 35 farm-related deaths occurred last year, including two children. This devastation to families and communities must stop.”

Berkeley added: “This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Farm Safety Foundation. While we’ve made progress, the statistics from HSENI and NFU Mutual show there’s much more to be done. Farm Safety Week is an opportunity to reset our approach to safety and risk-taking. We cannot tolerate poor safety behaviours or rely on luck in our daily tasks.”

Brian Rees, Abbeycwmhir farmer and Lantra Wales Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, emphasised practical steps for improvement: “As Farm Safety Week begins, let’s remember the fatal accidents, life-changing injuries, and near-misses in our industry. Fix anything faulty, avoid dangerous situations, and reflect on near-misses.”

Sue Thompson, Head of Agriculture at HSE, echoed these sentiments: “This year’s fatality figures are disappointing, with agriculture again having the highest fatality rate among major industries. Farm Safety Week highlights crucial safety and health issues. Farmers must prioritise their safety and health. While we, as regulators, will enforce standards, the industry must change its culture to drive meaningful and lasting safety improvements.”

Thompson also stressed the importance of protecting children on farms: “The industry must choose between maintaining its current culture or ensuring children’s safety. It cannot do both. Farmers pride themselves on fixing anything on the farm; now they must fix the industry’s broken health and safety record.”

For more information on Farm Safety Week, visit www.yellowwellies.org or follow @yellowwelliesUK on social media using the hashtag #FarmSafetyWeek.

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Farming

Cabinet Secretary to highlight ‘Start to Farm’ scheme at Royal Welsh Show

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THE Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies, will attend this year’s Royal Welsh Show to witness the impact of Farming Connect’s ‘Start to Farm’ scheme, a vital initiative ensuring the future prosperity of family farms in Wales.

Euryn Jones, chair of the Farming Connect Strategic Advisory Board, praised the programme, stating, “Matching landowners wanting or needing to step back from the industry with younger farmers or new entrants keen to gain a foothold in farming is not only invigorating and modernising Welsh agriculture but also safeguarding the future of many farm businesses at risk.”

Mr Jones will oversee a special ‘Start to Farm’ event focused on joint ventures during the Royal Welsh Show in Llanelwedd from 22nd to 25th July. The Welsh Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, Huw Irranca-Davies, will join an invited audience of Welsh landowners and opportunity-seekers registered on Farming Connect’s ‘Start to Farm’ database. The event will also feature former beneficiaries of the scheme, who now farm collaboratively as part of joint ventures, and representatives from key stakeholder organisations within the industry.

The ‘Start to Farm’ initiative has successfully facilitated 78 new joint venture partnerships across Wales, covering all sectors of the industry, through fully funded mentoring, business, financial, and legal support. An additional 29 matched pairs of providers and seekers are currently on their pathways towards new joint ventures or share farming partnerships. Supported by approved mentors and specialist advisers, these prospective partners are developing business plans and legal frameworks in preparation for their unique business arrangements.

Mr Jones emphasised the necessity of staying abreast of best practices, new technologies, and innovative, sustainable working methods to drive established businesses forward. These areas can pose challenges to more traditional farmers, especially if there is no succession plan to transfer responsibilities to the next generation.

“Farming Connect, through its Knowledge Transfer Programme, strongly encourages and enables younger farmers to invest in personal development and engage in farm business management early on, whether within a family farm or a new partnership, while their enthusiasm, ability, and energy are at their peak,” said Mr Jones.

The ‘Start to Farm’ joint venture support services will be delivered by Farming Connect’s approved team of specialist advisers and legal experts, tailored to meet the requirements of both landowners and prospective incumbents. The initiative aims to facilitate the seamless transfer of skills, knowledge, and expertise from older or more experienced landowners to individuals who have the ability, skills, and energy to ensure sustainable farm development.

During his visit to the ‘Start to Farm’ event, the Cabinet Secretary will hear first-hand about the ‘life-affirming’ benefits experienced by many farmers involved in successful share farming arrangements in Wales. Speaking ahead of the Royal Welsh Show, Mr Irranca-Davies remarked, “Ensuring that the knowledge and expertise of more experienced farmers is passed on to new entrants is extremely important. Bringing together this expertise, experience, and insight with the ‘Start to Farm’ initiative is key to the future prosperity of Welsh agriculture.

The Welsh Government will continue to work with Farming Connect to deliver a farming industry that supports thriving rural communities and is sustainable in every sense of the word.”

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Farming

First Minister speaks of need to win back trust of Welsh farmers

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THE FIRST Minister accepted the need to win back farmers’ trust as he was scrutinised about Welsh Government support for rural Wales.

Vaughan Gething told a scrutiny committee the relationship with farmers has improved significantly in the months since widespread protests against subsidy reforms.

In May, the Welsh Government postponed the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) until 2026 after a consultation received more than 12,000 responses.

Mr Gething raised the importance of taking a step back and listening but he stressed the need for compromise, adding: “You can’t please everyone.”

He said: “Farmers were the first group … I met when I first became the First Minister to try to reset our relationship – to recognise that we need to have a further conversation.”

Llyr Gruffydd, Plaid Cymru’s shadow rural affairs secretary, raised the farming sector’s calls for the SFS budget to increase by more than £500m due to inflation.

The First Minister replied: “We’re not going to be able to put right the last 14 years in the next 14 weeks – and I think that’s a wholly unrealistic demand.”

Mr Gething told the committee: “There is a need for honesty about the scale of the hole that has been inherited by the new UK Government.”

He said farming got the rough end of Brexit, with the sector “sold out” in trade deals.

Mr Gething stressed the issue will not be resolved in the first Labour UK budget, warning the UK’s books are “in a worse state than the public were told”.

“There’s an even bigger hole than we thought,” said the former lawyer and trade union representative. “You can’t click your fingers and wish that away.”

Recalling Labour’s 1997 landslide, Wales’ First Minister cautioned that it took two years to unlock significant investment “and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a similar picture”.

Mr Gruffydd raised concerns about water quality regulations, which include slurry storage requirements coming into force on August 1.

He warned some farmers are “stuck in the planning system” and may not be able to meet the regulations through no fault of their own.

Mr Gething assured the North Wales MS that discussions will be held with regulators and enforcement authorities about the practicalities.

Turning to transport, Labour’s John Griffiths raised comments from Stuart Cole, a professor of transport economics, who has warned rural Wales has “lost out” on spending.

Mr Gething said the Welsh Government took over responsibility for the core valleys lines which became a significant financial commitment, skewing spending figures.

Pressed about cuts to rail in some rural areas in Transport for Wales’ timetable review, Mr Gething pointed out that an average of six passengers used one Heart of Wales line route.

“You can run a flexi-bus service, you can’t run a flexi-rail service,” he said.

The First Minister told the meeting forthcoming bus reforms, which would re-regulate the industry and introduce a franchising system, will be a real benefit to rural Wales.

On roads policy, Mr Gething described the former road-building programme as unaffordable, saying a new approach is needed in light of the climate and nature emergency.

David Rees, the Senedd’s deputy speaker or Diprwy Lywydd, who chairs the committee, raised suggestions that the south Wales metro has been too dominant.

Mr Gething said a better service in south Wales should give people confidence that it can be done in other parts of the country as well.

But he cautioned: “As ever, I can’t give you a definitive timeframe even though I know everyone would like me to – that’s about the balance of being honest and ambitious.”

Quizzed about the rural economy by Labour’s Jack Sargeant and the Conservatives’ Mark Isherwood, Mr Gething described digital connectivity as an essential enabler.

He pointed to Welsh Government investment in digital infrastructure despite responsibility being reserved to Westminster.

Turning to health, Russell George raised long-standing concerns about the recruitment and retention of dentists, doctors and other health professionals in rural Wales.

The Tory MS for Montgomeryshire criticised proposals to close Welshpool and Caernarfon air ambulance bases, which will be replaced by a new site in north Wales in 2025.

Pointing out that tens of thousands of people signed petitions and expressed “deep, deep concern”, Mr George asked why the Welsh Government did not step in.

Mr Gething said compelling evidence suggests the new model will lead to a better service for more people as he rejected calls to “override” clinician-led decisions.

“This isn’t about money,” he told committee members. “This is about what is the appropriate model to ensure people have the best possible service.”

Labour backbencher Joyce Watson raised the importance of rural schools to communities such as those in her Mid and West Wales region.

Mr Gething said the Welsh Government strengthened the school organisation code in 2018 to include a presumption against closure and a higher test for councils.

He told the meeting at Llanelli’s Parc y Scarlets on July 12 that only one proposal to close a rural school – on Ynys Mon – is currently being taken forward.

“I grew up in a rural part of the world,” he said. “Where you have a primary school, in particular, it makes a really big difference … and a sense of place as well.”

Asked about access to school transport, Mr Gething pledged to take forward the recommendations of a review on learner travel.

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