While Ulster Farmers’ Union chief Clarke Black might not be calling members out on strike, Joris Minne discovers that his modus operandi is highly effective
The things you learn when you talk to a farmer! For instance, did you know a cow needs 25 gallons of water every day? Nor did I. And nor did I realise that Northern Ireland’s agri-sector is worth £3bn annually. We may be a small country but, holy moly, we’re great with the land.
And for Clarke Black who runs the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the more he can get people to realise how important agriculture and food are to our economy, the better.
Clarke isn’t a farmer, but he is from farming stock. His two brothers farm, but he went for the more comfortable end of the agricultural industry starting in farming machinery before moving into agri-finance and eventually taking up this very senior post at the UFU in 2003.
We are in St Anne’s Square at the new Potted Hen restaurant — an inner-city barrio about as far from the countryside as you can get. Yet Clarke looks comfortable. Farming people are comfortable anywhere, I’ve noticed. Is it because they’re all rich?
Well no, he explains patiently. Of the 18,000 or so farmers with a more or less viable, commercial operation, about two-thirds are card-carrying UFU members and no, they are not by and large wealthy people.
An uncharacteristically dainty chowder with salmon, mussels, little potato cubes, and chives in a light, salty liquor arrives. Clarke talks of the many aspects of UFU’s work — advising foreign governments and agencies on a wide range of subjects, including food security, rural degradation and dereliction, performance of the agri-sector during times of conflict and so on.
The UFU is starting to sound much sexier and more like a branch of the United Nations but Clarke is keen to talk up the work conducted on behalf of the members — all that policy-influencing in Brussels is hard, complicated and sensitive work too.
Over his duck confit, which comes with an alarmingly coloured but very tasty beetroot cream, he says that he has very productive relationships with our three MEPs and particularly with Jim Nicholson MEP and Diane Dodds as they sit on the European agricultural committee.
But his work also stretches to maintaining equally productive and close links with his members. There are 13 UFU committees, each populated with large numbers. The dairy committee, for example, has 30 members. Can he achieve consensus with such large panels?
“Very much so and having large numbers makes the final policy decisions much more binding,” he says. “It might take a while longer to reach agreement with a committee of that size but once the decision is made, you know it will be soundly supported.”
But it’s not really a union, is it? Not in the sense of calling a strike, picketing or marching on employers over pay and conditions, is it? Again, Mr Clarke sighs patiently. No, it’s not in that sense an employees’ union but, when needs be, members will march with placards to protest bad policy proposals.
He cites the UFU’s recent protests against new nitrates directives which helped shape a support scheme to assist farmers to shoulder a £250m bill for building new compliant slurry tanks.
His final point is that in these recessionary times it’s worth noting that the agri-sector is growing. Despite the insane pressures from supermarkets, there’s still a buzz among farmers. But support is needed, he says.
With that, he’s off to another meeting, no doubt to influence and cajole and generally help make his members’ lives just a bit less precarious.