Some years ago, in the days before smartphones and TikTok, I travelled to Europe and North America researching how other countries included agriculture in the school curriculum.
My Nuffield scholarship took me from the bright lights of San Francisco to the prairies of the Midwest.
It was in Kansas that I first heard the term “voluntary check-off”. My attitude to the levy (check-off) that we paid back home on each tonne of wheat and every lamb we sold changed from that day.
Kansas beef farmers and the Canola Council of Canada were just two examples of farmer groups I met who voluntarily paid a levy to further their sector.
In both cases, the farmers recognised and appreciated the strength of pooled funds to create a collective common goal.
Both groups wished for more investment in promotion, education and careers services on behalf of their sectors.
Until then, I had always regarded the levies that were collected on our grains and lambs to be a tax.
Since meeting those farmers in Kansas and Manitoba, I began to value it as part of our budget to fund research, reputation, exports, marketing, skills and personal development.
Today, the headage payments of 60p on a lamb, 85p on a pig, and £4.05 on a beef animal are not incidental, nor is the 46p on a tonne of cereals or 0.06p on a litre of milk, but used wisely they represent excellent value.
The “check-off” on 1,000t of wheat is £460, or less than 0.25% of sales.
Perhaps it is because AHDB is a non-departmental government body that many farmers in the UK still regard their levy as a tax, which I could understand if you neither access nor value its work.
But I see the AHDB as a vehicle for vital industry investment that we cannot do as individuals. Scale and apolitical independence are precious.
A year ago, both the potato and horticulture sectors voted against continuing their levies. It was feared that the remaining AHDB sector boards could disappear.
In response, Defra secretary George Eustice threw down a gauntlet to see if the AHDB is up to the task of change, resulting in the upcoming “shape the future” consultation.
It will ask levy payers what is important to them, what they value, what they need the AHDB to do more of, or less of, and so on. If you haven’t signed up to take part, I would encourage you to do so.
The more levy payers involved, the greater the value of the outcome.
Since my travels, I regard a careers presence that effectively attracts future talent and competes with other industries as crucial.
Why? Because there is a huge shortfall in retention and new talent, and all levy payers should have skin in the game. We can’t do it effectively as individuals.
So this will be high on my priority list in the consultation.
Some farmers may take a different view. Spending on promotion or access to markets may be more important to them. Others may regard investment in new breeds or varieties as its role.
What I can say is that, unless we help shape the AHDB, we have only ourselves to blame if it doesn’t deliver for individuals, businesses and sectors.