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Exclusive 鶹Ů Podcast: Red Tractor interim chair Alistair Mackintosh says rebuilding farmer confidence is a priority

Cumbrian farmer Alistair Mackintosh has taken over the role of Red Tractor chair from Christine Tacon, who stepped down to 'avoid perceived conflicts' following her appointment to the Co-op board

clock • 5 min read
Exclusive 鶹Ů Podcast: Red Tractor interim chair Alistair Mackintosh says rebuilding farmer confidence is a priority

As Red Tractor's new interim chair takes up his role, chief reporter Rachael Brown spoke to Alistair Mackintosh about the future of assurance and audits in the industry.

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Regaining farmer confidence in Red Tractor was a challenge interim chair Alistair Mackintosh was keen to ‘step up' to, with him acknowledging it had been lost over the past few months.

And the decision to take on the job was a ‘no-brainer' for Mr Mackintosh, a beef and sheep farmer in Muncaster, Cumbria, who has been in the role of vice-chair since 2021.

Red Tractor

Mr Mackintosh, who has previously held roles including NFU livestock board chair and vice-chair of Copa-Cogeca, said communication and ensuring that farmers understood the importance of Red Tractor for their business was critical to rebuilding confidence, alongside improving the audit system and working closely with technology.

READ NOW: Red Tractor is not there simply to 'deliver for farmers', says Jim Moseley

He said: "If you said to a farmer, or anybody, ‘how do you feel about being inspected?', everybody is going to turn around and say they do not want that.

"But if we say, ‘how do you feel about being audited so that you can access all these different markets and actually, potentially add value to your business?', that might be a different way of putting things."

'We are listening to farmers'

After months of tumult, the beef and lamb sector requested a vote of no confidence in April. This was delayed to allow Red Tractor to implement changes. Mr Mackintosh said ‘we are listening to farmers' as the body sought to reduce bureaucracy, highlighting 100 audit points had been removed since October.

He said he was confident there would not be a vote of no confidence, and ‘any disquiet will be put to rest'. "Everybody will realise that, actually, the senior leadership team is a fantastic group of people, who are highly professional, dedicated to Red Tractor," he said. He added he found it ‘quite frustrating' some farmers did not understand that and it was a challenge he wanted to address as chair.

'Collective responsibility'

In recent months, Red Tractor chief executive Jim Moseley has faced criticism, with calls from some in the industry for a complete change at the top. Mr Mackintosh added such comments were unfair and it was a ‘collective responsibility'.

READ NOW: Former Red Tractor chair Christine Tacon: "I feeI I have left a job half-finished"

"They [senior leadership team] are not inventing off-the-wall standards just to annoy farmers, there is a whole governance structure in there where farmers are involved, retailers, processors, vets, everybody is involved in this." He added they delivered what the boards told them, not the other way around. "Although some farmers feel it is. I promise you it is not," he said.

Value

With some farmers frustrated at not receiving a premium or adding value to their farm business as part of reaching Red Tractor standards, Mr Mackintosh said, on his farm, he found he received the cost back ‘10 times' – referring to the money he saved through his Red Tractor animal health and welfare plans.

Sheep sector

With the assurance board losing sheep farmer members, Mr Mackintosh said it stemmed from people ‘not understanding what Red Tractor can deliver for them'. He added for his farm, without farm assurance they would not be selling lambs into the same markets.

"Quite frankly, we are achieving more than we would have been able to achieve in the auction marts," he said. "I am fairly confident that, actually if we can reduce that audit burden, make it more simple, easy to do, use technology, reward good compliance by having fewer audits, I think we will find a way through this and sheep farmers will start joining again."

He agreed the beef and lamb sector was one of the challenging sectors to get on board because there were still a lot of family farms and small producers ‘who just do not get it'.

"Some of the smaller producers, say they cannot afford it, it is not value for money. For me, it is again, bringing them with us. "It is about communicating and taking the time and effort to make sure they understand. If after that, if they choose not to, then okay."  

READ ALSO: NFU aims to 'revolutionise' assurance schemes in Red Tractor review

Audit burden

鶹Ů are familiar with the common phrases of ‘streamlining' and ‘reducing audit burden' when talking about Red Tractor, but when challenged on what this actually meant, Mr Mackintosh said it was about finding ways for different portals to talk to one another and sharing information as well as rewarding compliance.

"When you find yourself in a situation, you have no non-compliances, why would we not give you recognition for that and extend the time period for the next audit. I genuinely believe a leaner, meaner audit system will attract a lot more farmers."

Following the axing of the Greener Farms Commitment (GFC) module, Mr Mackintosh said lessons had been learned and, if it was to be reintroduced, things would be done differently. He said he believed in the module, but it ‘came on too fast' for farmers, adding he would have had the same reaction as many farmers if he had not been involved in the process.

READ ALSO: Red Tractor chair to step down to 'avoid perceived conflicts'

Environment standard

He said if farmers asked Red Tractor to deliver on carbon auditing, nutrient management plans it will. He added: "鶹Ů feel persecuted by the big retailers. But actually, we need to empower those farmers, to make them feel that they are not downtrodden, that they are engaged in that supply chain. There has to be a realisation of the realities of the supply chain. It cannot be all about retailers, all about processors and it cannot be all about farmers. We have to bring it together."

Mr Mackintosh said the industry needed Red Tractor farm assurance going forward, adding it would always be the premier assurance scheme.   

ROBBERBY FARM Hunsonby, Penrith, CA10 1PP

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TILE SHEDS FARM - Morpeth, Northumberland

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LOW SHIPLEY FARMBARNARD CASTLE, TEESDALE

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