NFU advisor Laurie Norris will be a familiar face to many. She spoke to Wendy Short about her career to date.

LAURIE Norris has been NFU county adviser for the region for the past eight years, but she has held many roles in the organisation since joining in 1999. Brought up on the family beef and arable farm just outside Thirsk, she studied environmental science at university before taking her first job with the then ministry of agriculture – mainly conducting pesticide surveys.

Her next post was with the former version of Natural England, where she was involved in the development of the pilot countryside stewardship scheme for arable farming. She then moved to the NFU as a policy adviser.

“It was interesting – I had effectively become a gamekeeper turned poacher,” said Ms Norris. “I also had a spell as a land use adviser and found myself responding to policies put forward by my previous employer, Natural England, as well as the Environment Agency.

“However, I missed being in direct contact with farmers and that is why I jumped at the opportunity to take on my current position, which feels like my natural home. No two days are the same and a quiet week can be interrupted a very short notice.

"I remember coming back from holiday to be plunged into the chaos caused by the flooding in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. The team was kept busy for many weeks, lobbying the local MP to get more help and organising practical assistance for our farmer members in that area.”

Despite keeping in close contact with the governmental department that is developing the new environmental schemes for England, Ms Norris reported that information released to date had been lacking in detail.

“At the moment, we are working in the dark to a great extent and, unfortunately, there is no crystal ball. It is a great cause of concern to farmers. Faced with prospective cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme, it is generally felt that action is needed.

"However, until we know more about the decision-makers’ plans, it is difficult to move forward with confidence.”

In Ms Norris’s own opinion, the Entry Level Scheme delivered huge benefits to both farmers and the environment. She hopes that the new arrangements will be just as inclusive.

“The ELS was intended to be ‘broad and shallow’ and it delivered on its target, with large numbers of producers successfully applying for membership. It was flexible and its popularity meant that it covered a very large acreage across the country.

"In addition, many farmers were so encouraged by the recognition that their land offered potential benefits that they put in place extra measures at their own expense. But from what I can gather so far, the new system is being designed to cover more in-depth and specific environmental targets and that may not have the same appeal.”

On a county level, one of the biggest issues that NFU members were facing was rural crime, which seemed to be on the increase, she commented. However, she singled out a significant positive change that has occurred during her time with the organisation.

“When I started out, the public did not have as much respect for farmers as they do today,” she said. “A large part of the job was dealing with problems that arose and trying to make sure that the public were given correct scientific information. BSE and foot-and-mouth are two issues which particularly stand out, but the focus is now on climate change and the ongoing vegan debate.

“Nowadays, there is a general recognition that British agriculture produces safe, sustainable food under high standards of animal welfare. People from all walks of life have a thirst for knowledge about farming and this is reflected in the number of TV programmes dedicated to farming.

She reflected on how her position as a communicator has altered over the years.

“I can remember when I was sending out farmer newsletters by fax machine. Information now flows much more freely, but I am always mindful that some of our members do not have reliable access to broadband and that not everyone uses Facebook and Twitter. These people still need to be looked after, which is one reason why our magazine remains a useful tool.

“My NFU role can be challenging because we can sometimes come in for criticism, despite everyone’s best efforts. We also get calls from farmers who are upset and angry because of difficulties with the Basic Payment Scheme or who are finding it hard to understand the exact requirements of the environmental schemes, for example.

“Nevertheless, I couldn’t think of a better job, or one that suited me more,” said Ms Norris.