Interview - Adam Sykes, potato representative, NFU horticulture board

On the NFU horticulture board last month, there was a new and very fresh face. Adam Sykes, at 29, became the youngest member of the board. Not only will he represent pototo growers in the NFU, but his views will also influence government officials and retailers.

Along with his brother, Sykes runs the family farm where he was brought up, near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire. It is a mixed farm with sheep and cattle. The family grows cereals, oilseed rape, sugar beet and, of course, potatoes. Around 400ha of potatoes are sold on contract to the McCain factory in Scarborough. The farm also specialises in the storage, chitting and cutting of seed potatoes for other farming operations across the UK.

Given his background, it was not surprising that he went straight into farming when he left school. "I never wanted to do anything else," he says.

After studying for a BSc in agriculture at Writtle College, Essex, he went straight back to the farm to work. In many ways, he is a very traditional farmer: he is a member of the local young farmers' club, he plays in the local five-a-side league and he has a young family. "The life of a farmer suits me," he says.

He drifted into the NFU horticulture board almost by accident. "I never wanted to do a high-profile job, and I don't regard myself as a natural public speaker," he explains. "But there was a place on the board for a potato grower and... I didn't want to leave it vacant. I felt it was very important that the industry should be properly represented."

There is a wide variety of issues to be faced. Last year the wet weather conditions meant that blight was a major problem. Mild winters mean that blight is persisting in many areas. This has been aggravated by the spread of the aggressive A2 strain of blight, and there are fears that it could reproduce sexually, making it harder to combat.

Another issue that is likely to come up is genetic modification (GM). Sykes believes it is important to keep an open mind on the GM debate. "There are certainly potential benefits," he says. "GM could be used to help with blight and even with nematodes."

More immediately, there is the continuing debate about EU directives. "It's important to lobby for these and make sure that we get the right balance," says Sykes. There is currently enormous concern about the workings of the water framework directive and the nitrate directives. Although these are intended to prevent a serious problem - nitrates getting into rivers and even into the domestic water supply - there are fears that they may be applied too strictly.

Sykes is particularly concerned about proposed rules that would force farms to establish a winter cover crop to hold nitrogen in the soil. This would apply in all nitrate-vulnerable zones. Putting a cover crop on the soil would effectively mean that farmers would not be able to get onto their land until February. "Some people may want to work on the soil before then. It's obviously an issue we'll have to discuss."

Land rent is likely to be another controversial topic. Soaring prices of wheat and oilseed rape mean that land rents are increasing rapidly. "Production costs are now extremely high. We've got high rents and fuel costs - the cost of red diesel has doubled. Contract prices are too low to cover these costs effectively. We need to pressure the customers to ensure that the prices to growers reflect the various costs in the industry."

He also hopes to be involved in the Why Horticulture Matters campaign, which is being launched by the NFU later this year. "It's important that the public realises what is involved in growing their vegetables and understands why responsible farming is important."

Sykes is enjoying his new role. "It's going to involve me doing around 10 days a year of meetings and I'll have to spend some time in the office doing the administrative work. I reckon it will take up a day every fortnight."

And the fact that he's the youngest on the committee does not inhibit him. "I put my bit in. I don't feel overawed. It's a very vibrant board - we have good discussions." He points out that, although most of the members are around 15 years older than him, there are some who are in their 30s.

For the moment, he intends to spend the next few months learning about how the committee works and how he can use his energies most effectively. "I'm finding out about the industry and making a lot of contacts. Right now, that's the best thing I can do."

CV

1998-2002: BSc in agriculture at Writtle College

2002: Returns as manager to family farm where he worked as a youngster

2008: Joins NFU horticulture board.


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