Growers who called for a ballot on the continuation of a horticulture level say that the strategy for change published by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) does not go far enough and offers little to the horticultural and potato sectors.
The comments come as AHDB confirmed there would be a formal ballot on the continuation of potato levy in February. The move means that two of the AHDB’s six sectors have now questioned the reasons for its existence.
Potato grower and ballot co-organiser John Bratley, who grows between 220 and 280 ha of the crop each year, comments: “Our own ballot of 661 growers in July showed that 92% of growers feel current AHDB policies are of no, or marginal, benefit to their business, while 80% of growers did not want to pay a statutory levy. Like many growers I receive little or no benefit from the levy and, as I am in competition with other growers, AHDB’s policy of ‘knowledge exchange’ for everyone means that any technical advice which will give me a competitive advantage has to come from elsewhere.”
Potato growers currently pay £42.62 per planted hectare, with their customers paying a further 18.58 pence per tonne purchased. Because the levy is paid on planted area, it does not reflect yields, crop losses (a particular issue over the last two years) and crops which fail to find a buyer. In the past AHDB has investigated the use of drones and satellite data to spy on farms who may be growing potatoes.
John continues: “Like our colleagues in horticulture, potato growers are fed up with being forced to pay for an overly bureaucratic organisation which offers little or no benefit to professional growers who are increasingly working to secure a larger share of the same overall market. AHDB simply fails to understand the commercial reality of how growers’ markets work. In terms of its recently published plans for the next five years, where are the radical changes that both Defra and growers have been asking for?”
AHDB has said that it looks forward to “having constructive conversations” with levy payers, but despite promising real reform, its new Strategy Document makes no mention of potatoes or horticulture in its ‘Looking Ahead’ section, while associated documents reveal no changes to the levy system for at least 18 months.
Ballot co-organiser Simon Redden adds: “AHDB have spent the last few months trumpeting their new Strategy Document, but the 38-page brochure is full of empty promises with no substance and offers nothing for the horticulture or potatoes sectors. There is nothing to address the lack of benefit they have provided for the last 12 years, and it doesn’t recognise that if growers or their associations organised research, then the growers themselves would be entitled to 230% tax relief, something which is lost to the industry with AHDB funding R&D.
“Furthermore, the plan for levy reform which AHDB chair Nicolas Saphir has been promising since his appointment is actually to do doing nothing at all for 18 months. After this, potato growers may be able to appeal for a refund on their payment based on the existing mechanism, while the proposals for horticulture lack any real detail and would still leave many crops and sub-sectors without representation.”
Vegetable grower Peter Thorold adds that the mixed messages coming from AHDB show that the organisation has lost its way. “Nicholas Saphir’s acknowledgement that there are ‘differences between the challenges facing sectors and even within sectors’ is welcome, but the strategy document doesn’t provide any information on how the organisation will address these. It simply promises more of its existing projects from which many growers derive no benefit at all. If this is the best the organisation can come up, then it shows how divorced the organisation has come from the industry it is supposed to support. If their Town Hall meetings are anything to go by, AHDB is simply going round in circles.”