“They have been here for centuries,
The man, the horse, the rustling plough,
Taming these harsh, high hills.
And winning battles overnight
By native wisdom and unending toil.”

Ysgrifennydd Gwladol, Brif Weinidog, foneddigion a boneddigesau, y mae'n rhoi pleser mawr iawn imi agor Sioe Frenhinol Cymru mewn blwyddyn sy'n arbennig iawn i Gymdeithas Amaethyddol Frenhinol Cymru.

[Secretary of State, First Minister, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me the most enormous pleasure to be opening The Royal Welsh Show in this very special year for the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society.]

I cannot tell you how touched and honoured I was to be invited to be your President in this centenary year and how pleased I am to be back in Llanelwedd, which is surely one of the most beautiful showgrounds in the world.

As with all great institutions, the history of the Society and the Show has not been without incident. It has had to cope with appalling weather, changing show venues, wartime, petrol-rationing and, most recently, the horror of Foot and Mouth Disease. 

But it has come through all these exigencies with strength and resilience and, of most importance, it has always given the greatest possible support to the farming and rural communities of Wales. Indeed, the fact that agriculture is still so much at the heart of Welsh national life is largely thanks to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society and those who have led it over the years and I do congratulate them all.

Of course, this year there is another vitally important society in Wales which is celebrating its centenary and one that is particularly close to my heart. The Welsh Black Cattle Society also celebrates its 100th birthday this year and as the Patron of the Society, as well as the proud owner of some of these splendid animals (not enough of them in the opinion of members of the Society!), I do want to congratulate them on their achievement too. 

I know that in a little while I am going to see wonderful examples of the breed proving just why they are one of the finest beef animals in the world, winning as they did a major award at The Royal Show a couple of weeks ago, and why they are ideally suited to the new priorities which are being set by the Mid Term Review.

Ladies and gentlemen, none of you need me to tell you that next year will see probably the biggest change in agriculture since the Second World War. Change is always difficult, but it is particularly hard for farmers who have had to put up with so much in recent years. However, for what it is worth, I happen to think that Wales could be particularly well-placed to benefit from the Mid Term Review and that there is real cause for optimism. 

Now, at last, it is quality not quantity that will matter and where else could you find better conditions for producing some of the finest beef, lamb and, maybe even (dare I mention it?), mutton, in the world than here in Wales. You have some of the most productive grassland in the world and some of the finest native breeds, be they Welsh Black cattle, Lleyns, Black Welsh Mountains or Llanwenogs. You are also blessed with some of the best farmers. 

Many of them are family farmers who have been on the land for generations and have priceless experience and wisdom, the sort which cannot be taught in a classroom, but which is absorbed and inherited. In other words, as with their flocks, they are “hefted” people – remove them and you have lost something utterly irreplaceable if you break the chain of continuity of management.

That is why I want to see more co-operation amongst farmers, so that they can keep their costs down and deal with the retailers in a way which means the farm gate price remains reasonable, and this could not be more important for our dairy farmers who are struggling so desperately at the moment. I know from my discussions with retailers, during which I constantly push the case for the small farmer, how essential it is that farmers do co-operate so that they can have a guaranteed and constant supply of produce. 

Wales has already shown what a difference greater collaboration can make with some of the most successful co-operatives in the United Kingdom. Only last week I met some members of the South and West Wales Machinery Ring in Carmarthen and heard at first-hand the benefits which it has brought to them. But is the knowledge of such benefits being disseminated more widely? Are the agricultural colleges adapting their courses, for instance, and teaching their students about co-operatives and how they work; about marketing and local sourcing? We are entering a new world and we all need to adapt.

Clearly, the onus for change is not just on the farmer. Many retailers have made great strides in sourcing British food and buying regional produce. They certainly deserve credit for this. But, if I may say so, I would like to see even more effort put into explaining to consumers what they are buying. They should be told how and where the food was grown. 

Schools have an essential part to play in this as well – why on earth can't we just bring back good, old-fashioned home economics so that children are taught to cook and learn about proper food rather than all this politically-correct pretence about “food technology” and an over-obsession with hygiene to the extent that we lose our immunities and now, indeed, have an officially-recognized allergy epidemic in the United Kingdom?! I cannot help feeling that consumers would probably vote with their shopping baskets if they were given the knowledge to do so. 

Just look at what has happened to the sales of organic food, which so many Welsh farmers now excel in producing. Last year they were over £1 billion for the first time with sales growing at over ten per cent a year. Do you remember how you all used to laugh at the idea of organic farming?! But imagine the impact on the countryside if consumers demanded locally-sourced, regional and organic produce…

So there is some optimism for the future, but I also think that there are new skills which need to be learned. Marketing is going to be critical in the new world – it won't be enough just to produce a quality product, knowing how to sell it will be just as important and that requires skills which perhaps not everyone has. Wales is the “Land of my fathers”. It has to become the “Brand of my fathers”.

Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may know that I am the President of the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs. I could not be more proud to occupy this position, which has given me a unique insight into some of the challenges facing our young farmers. Only recently I had discussions with them and other agricultural leaders to see how we could encourage new entrants into farming. There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges they face is the lack of affordable rural housing. 

I know that there is much good work going on in Wales by many organizations trying to solve this problem and I am trying to do what I can to encourage the business community to see if they could turn vacant properties which they might have in market towns and villages into flats and homes. But this problem is becoming a pretty desperate one and it requires urgent action from everyone with an interest in the countryside, for no amount of enthusiasm and ability can overcome the lack of a home.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have said this before and I will say it again until my dying day - our countryside and our farming and rural communities are some of the most precious natural assets we have. They uphold and sustain a way of life and a culture which helps to define this nation of Wales. We must always remember that agri-culture is exactly that – a culture and a way of life - not just yet another industrial process. With changing perceptions and priorities there are now opportunities to be grabbed in Wales to make the most of the enduring “story” that so distinguishes this ancient land. As that great Welsh poet, A G Prys Jones, wrote so eloquently:

“They have been here for centuries,
The man, the horse, the rustling plough,
Taming these harsh, high hills.
And winning battles overnight
By native wisdom and unending toil.”

Foneddigion a boneddigesau, ni all dim roi mwy o bleser imi nag i ddymuno i Gymdeithas Amaethyddol Frenhinol Cymru ben blwydd hapus iawn yn gant oed, ac i gyhoeddi bod Sioe Amaethyddol Frenhinol Cymru Dwy Fil a Phedair, ar agor.

[Ladies and gentlemen, nothing could give me greater pleasure than to wish the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society a very happy one hundredth birthday and to declare open the 2004 Royal Welsh Agricultural Show.]