UK: Ballot provides mandate for change to AHDB

A grower’s ballot of almost 2,000 levy-payers from the Horticulture and Potatoes sectors of the Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) shows the majority of growers view the levy organisation as outdated and unwanted according to the returns.

The ballot was organised by three Lincolnshire growers, known as the AHDB Petitioners who collectively grow potatoes, vegetables and flowers with a combined turnover of £20 million. The ballot was sent to 1,967 growers in total, although despite a Freedom of Information request, AHDB did not provide a full list of levy-payers to the independent polling company Civica Election Services Ltd (CES) which ran the ballot. Responses were received from 585 horticulture or potato levy payers, 55 growers who pay both horticulture and potato levies, and 21 other individual levy payers – a total of 661 responses (a response rate of 33.6%).

With a response rate over 33 per cent, the exercise has been hailed as hugely successful compared to the Government’s call for views in 2018 which received responses from less than 0.5 per cent of levy-payers, a paltry response by any standards.

Flower grower and ballot co-organiser Simon Redden comments: “We believe that the AHDB’s refusal to provide details of all levy payers has denied some 1,800 growers from having a vote, a very undemocratic move. We are disappointed that the NFU did not agree with Defra’s recommendation for a five-yearly ballot on the future of AHDB and their enthusiasm for Defra’s heavily flawed review. The NFU members who have voted in this ballot have provided a clear mandate for the NFU to reverse its previously held position.”

The key findings from the ballot are:

  • 92% of growers say current AHDB policies are of no, or marginal, benefit to their business
  • 80% of growers in the horticulture and potato sectors do not want to pay a statutory levy,  although 57% would be prepared to support a voluntary levy scheme if applicable to their business
  • 92% of respondents want an immediate ballot on the funding of the AHDB by statutory levy
  • 88% of respondents were not consulted by their representative organisations as part of the previous Defra call for views on the AHDB. This includes 74% of respondents who are members of the National Farmers Union (NFU).

In addition, the grower’s ballot revealed:

  • 70% of growers conduct their own research and development activity in order to remain competitive in the marketplace, something which questions the relevance of AHDB’s R&D role in modern horticulture
  • 89% of respondents believe that the AHDB’s performance should be independently audited annually and the report published in full
  • 81% believe it is wrong to discriminate against commercial growers by making them file an annual return when other farmer sectors do not have to do so
  • 79% of respondents believe that the failure to file an annual return should cease to be a criminal offence
  • 73% of growers think that no levy should be paid on the first £125,000 of turnover
  • In this year when growers are particularly hard-pressed, 85% of respondents believe the levy should be halved for this exceptional year, with the shortfall funded from existing AHDB reserves.

Vegetable grower Peter Thorold comments: “It is clear that Defra’s survey yielded too small a sample of opinions to be valid, something which was recognised in the review’s own conclusions. Given this we wonder why AHDB Chair of Horticulture Hayley Campbell-Gibbons asserted last November that, ‘There's been a healthy level of response, especially from growers, to the government's open review of AHDB.’ Defra’s low level of engagement also calls into question AHDB CEO’s Jane King comment that the review provided ‘a general endorsement for the continuation of the statutory levy.’”

The majority of respondents to the Grower Ballot say they receive marginal, or no benefits from AHDB policies, and 81 per cent no longer wish to pay a statutory levy. One comment suggested that of one major horticultural association ‘agreed that current research projects through AHDB were not applicable to horticulture.’

Vegetable and potato producer John Bratley adds: “These results highlight again that the statutory levy has extracted circa £140 million from horticulture and potato growers over the last twelve years while delivering nothing in return. With margins in these sectors under such pressure, and the Government keen to forge a new future for all sectors of British farming, we look forward to discussing these findings with Defra Secretary of State George Eustice and Parliamentary Under-Secretary Victoria Prentis.”

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