How farming can butter up journalists

The past few weeks have been very quiet in Farmers Weekly Towers. At one point, there were so few people in the office that I was worried I’d got confused and accidentally come to work on a Sunday.

The supply of serious news always tail off during the summer months thanks to the end of the parliamentary session and people swanning off on holidays. However, in agriculture the ‘August effect’ is always compounded by the fact that farmers are too busy harvesting to bother ringing to tell us what DEFRA’s done to annoy them this week.

But while the good journos of FW are left with slightly sweaty palms as we try to dig out a collection of worthy stories to fill our news section, for the national media agriculture is a rich source of summer-time stories.

As I type, ‘Silly cow’s head stuck in a ladder‘ is number three on BBC online’s most-read list, while the tale of Yvonne the Bavarian cow’s rescue mission has appeared on so many news sites that I’ve lost count.

Cow in ladder

Alongside those I’ve read dreadful puns about mushrooms the size of babies, animal rights protesters hanging signs on cow sculptures and bovine pedometers.

Last year I was interviewed by a journalist in America about the prominence of farming stories during the so-called ‘silly season’. She wanted to know why agriculture was the go-to subject for desperate journalists  and tried to steer me towards saying it was due to city-centric media types finding farming so alien and ridiculous that they looked to the industry as a sure-fire source of comedic stories.

If I’m honest I don’t know what the answer is, but if I was a farming organisation I’d make sure I held onto my best press releases until July or August to improve my chances of  bagging some media coverage (rural insurers NFU Mutual did a good job of this last week).

Bonkers, quirky stories are always going to appeal to journalists on under-staffed news desks during the holiday season. But as a journalist who is currently cringing at having written up the tale of Yvonne the Bavarian cow herself, I know I’d much prefer to be writing a worthy story.

Anyway, I’d love to hang around and debate this some more, but I need to crack on. This story about a cow made of butter standing to be US president won’t write itself…

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Making a statement

So my efforts to resurrect my blogging career failed miserably. I have an excuse though – I’ve been busy buying my first house.

I’ve decided this is the one and only time I’m going to do such a thing. Not only have I found it incredibly stressful, it’s turned me into a bit of a fruitcake.

Not only have I developed a weird interest in ridiculously termed ‘statement furniture’, I’ve started spending hours poring over soft furnishing websites. And I’ve gone slightly insane looking at colour swatches trying to work out what the difference is between heather, amethyst, slate and dove grey.

colormap

My interior design and furnishing madness peaked yesterday during a conversation about the London riots.

“If I was going to bother looting somewhere, I wouldn’t bother with a sports shop in Clapham Junction,” a friend said as we watched a load of idiots smash up our nearby borough on TV. “I’d go to the Westfield Centre so I could at least loot a decent shop.”

“Yes,” I agreed fervently, thinking of my dream Supermarket Sweep-esque looting experience. “There’s a Laura Ashley there.”

My cringesome middle-class sensibilities should have made me a perfect candidate for the random interview I found myself doing at 2am this morning.

After eight hours of watching people ransack shops and destroy areas about a mile away from my house, listening to sirens and watching police helicopters overhead, I got a phone call from a radio journalist in Australia who wanted to record an interview about what I’d seen.

By this point the gym across the road from my flat was on fire, so I was able to provide the drama and colour he wanted. What he probably didn’t want was my refusal to agree that what is going on is down to racial and social tensions in my community.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not so much of a clueless yuppie to know that there aren’t problems in London – heck, I lived in Peckham for two years and I hang out in Stockwell and Brixton – but to try and pin this on people making a social statement is just a complete nonsense.

What happened last night was the result of mindless opportunism. Those kids out pinching trainers and flat-screen tellies were just after a freebie, taking advantage of a stretched police force who couldn’t protect all of the areas under attack.

The real social statement about the area I live in came this morning from the hundreds of people who went out on the streets armed with brooms and mops to clean up the mess left behind by the morons.

Clapham riot clean-up

Anyway. You can listen to the interview here, I’m about five minutes in. I particularly like the glass-shattering and yelping they decided to play over it, because apparently there wasn’t enough drama last night so a soundtrack’s obviously vital.

I’m off to look at colour swatches again now. That’s really all the excitement I need tonight.

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A-maize-ing

Today, I discovered that I like flying in helicopters over farmland.

sheeo maize maze
Sometimes my job’s pretty good.

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The mega WI

“You youngsters like things big,” the old dear in the back of the taxi said to me yesterday morning, sucking in her cheeks. “We prefer small things – small businesses, small farms.

“Whole villages will be ripped up to make way for those giant diary farms, it’s disgusting. I hope the resolution gets passed.”

I’d thought it was going to be a fairly despairing day after it started off like this. I’d arrived in Liverpool for the Women’s Institute AGM to hear whether the organisation was going to pass a resolution which would in effect lead to the WI campaigning against so-called ‘factory farms’.

“This meeting abhors the practice of factory farming particularly large animals such as pigs and cows,” the resolution said.

“[It] urges H.M. Government to ensure planning permission is not granted for such projects.”

Tough stuff from a group of ladies who I always assumed just got themselves involved in jam-making and singing Jerusalem – which the 4500 members at the Liverpool Echo Arena did do – and very nicely, I might add:

I should probably point out at this juncture that I’m not actually pro- or anti-large-scale farming. I’ve visited a 10,000 indoor dairy unit in the US which made me cringe because – while its hygiene and welfare was impeccable – it felt clinical and like a factory. But I’ve been to another which was so airy, pleasant and homely that I would’ve preferred shacking up there than in my flat in London.

On the same front, I’ve seen some dodgy small-scale, family farms which I wouldn’t feel particularly happy knowing the foodI consume came from them.

(You might be happy to know that no splinters were sustained during that moment of fence-sitting).

My issue with the resolution was its inflammatory language, and the fact that few of the women I spoke to at the AGM yesterday rarely had any clue about what they were supposed to be voting on.

Like my taxi friend, several of them had got completely the wrong stick about the reality of the state UK agriculture, while one woman admitted she didn’t really feel happy about voting on it because she didn’t understand it.

Luckily, it turned out that the majority of the 4500 ladies at the AGM didn’t feel comfortable casting their vote either way, and the lovely members of the WI made history by refusing to vote on the resolution.

The farming industry has got off pretty lightly this time, but that doesn’t mean it can just sit back and relax now.

Judging by the amount of feeling in the audience and the debate that’s raged on for the last few months, this isn’t a subject the WI is going to let drop.

The organisation’s chairwoman said the resolution’s collapse should mark the start of an open debate about largescale farming, and past experience has shown when the WI’s 200,000+ members get behind something, they can really generate attention and make changes. I really wouldn’t be surprised if this resolution popped up at next year’s AGM, albeit in a differently-worded way.

Farming’s really got to make an effort now to engage with both the WI and with pressure groups – some of whom are being very vocal with messages which are often based more on emotion than truth. Regardless of the outcome, the future of UK agriculture should be based on facts, and not on the thoughts of ill-informed ladies in the back of cabs.

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An attempt at resuming normal service

Avid fans will notice I’ve haven’t been hangin’ around here much lately. I’ve been lacking a bit in the creative-writing inspiration front so I thought it was best to steer clear until my writer’s block disappeared.

I’ve not been completely lazy in my absence though – my blogging time has been filled with Nuffield report writing. I’m now the proud parent of a 10,000 word report which I’m sure will fascinate, excite and enthrall the tens of people I envisage will read the whole thing.

I actually enjoyed going backthrough my notes and reminding myself of all the things over the past year, so I hope at least a few people will take the time to flick through it to see what I got up to – even if it is only to look at the pretty photos.

Documents

Chapters 1 - 7 of my report

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Naked ambition

I have a confession to make.

If you were at the Farmers Club lunch in London yesterday listening to me speak, in my head you were starkers. Yep, that’s right – completely nakey. Even the tablecloth didn’t spare your blushes.

Imagining your audience is naked is one of those age-old tips that’s always bandied about whenever you mention that you don’t like speaking in public. In theory it’s meant to make you feel like everyone in the room is more vulnerable than you.
public speaking

But in practice it turned out I started worrying about why everyone else was naked while I’d turned up in a dress.

Had I inadvertently turned up at a naturists’ convention? Were they judging me for not being a brave exhibitionist like they were? Did the man by the window really have a birthmark in the shape of Bart Simpson on his chest (really, my imagination is far too active).

I’d been invited along to a South East Nuffield group lunch to give a talk about my Nuffield travels. My brief was to be “funny and entertaining, like on your blog”. I didn’t dare try to explain that while I sometimes manage to be amusing in print, in real life that certainly isn’t the case.

It probably didn’t help that I’d expected a group of five or ten people sat in comfy arm chairs while I told a funny story about the day I thought I’d been kidnapped. Instead it was a formal affair with about thirty people sat around a fancy table staring expectantly at a wonky slideshow screen.

Weirdly, I was actually looking forward to speaking until I stood up in front of them. I even felt calm as I opened my PowerPoint presentation and started to speak. But for some reason my voice came out in a shaky, wobbly, squeaking noise.

It was at that point I fell apart.

“Why is my voice doing that?” the little voice in my head said. “Does that squeaking mean I’m actually nervous?

“Well I can’t be nervous, otherwise I’d be shaking uncontrollably. Oh, look, my hand is shaking.

“Oh no, now my throat’s gone all tight. Oh, it’s okay though, someone’s bringing me a glass of water. But why’s he naked? Argh! A naked man’s bringing me water! Those ice cubes are far to close to his….”

With all this going on in my head, it’s no wonder I barely managed to get any words out of my mouth, let alone tell a story or come to any meaningful conclusions about four months of study.

I have no doubt the group of people I was speaking to were as confused as I was about what was going on. “Why is that shaking girl trying to compare farming to an emu?” they were probably thinking. Don’t worry guys, I was thinking that too.

emu

I have seven months before I have to give my main Nuffield presentation in front of several hundred people in Lincolnshire, so my ambition is to have a few more trial runs to get better at speaking out loud.

Unless I’m the one who turns up naked next time – then perhaps people won’t notice my shaky voice…

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Toilet break

I only ever come to Brussels for work-related stuff, so tonight I decided to see a bit of the city and leg it around the touristy spots before the sun went down.

It turns out the place is titchy, and unless I managed to miss a massive chunk of the city out somewhere, I saw pretty much everything the guidebook recommended.

Perhaps a little unfairly, Brussels has a bit of a reputation for being a dull place. Full of diplomats and government buildings, much of the characterful buildings have been overshadowed by large office blocks and glass and metal-covered towers.

But in the centre, in the Grand Place, there are some really snazzy, historic buildings which – coupled with its cafe culture – give the city a really nice feel.

The most famous touristy bit of Brussels though isn’t a big, impressive building. Instead it’s a titchy statue of a peeing boy.

Mannekin Pis

To be honest, I didn’t really understand the attraction. I certainly didn’t get why people were queuing up to have a family snap in front of it:

Family Pis
But I had to give a thumbs up to the nearby witty chip shop owners for making the most of its weird, crowd-drawing neighbour:

soggy chips
Not sure I’d want to eat there though. I hate soggy chips.

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The language of the CAP

I can’t remember any German when I need it, but every time I come to French-speaking  Brussels it seems to be the only language that leaves my mouth.

Having got off the Eurostar I couldn’t even seem to remember how to ask where the taxi rank was in English.

Instead I frightened a poor, unsuspecting woman with a series of windmill movements and random, broken (and entirely useless) German words.

“Zug nach centrum! Nein, taxi nach centrum! Wo! Canst du ihren helfen? Wohnwagon! Ich decke den tisch!”

It’s no wonder she edged away from me with a look of panic on her face.

Luckily I’m not the only British person who seems to have linguistic issues when in Belgium.

brussels

I’m here for a meeting between international farming journalists and the European Commission to talk about reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

As well as having a chin-wag with farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos, we’re going to talk about how to set up a communication network so the Commission can let us know what’s going on between now and the policy being reformed in 2013.

The main meetings don’t start until tomorrow though, so today I met Will, who’s an ex-journalist friend from London who has come over to Brussels to work for the NFU.

Will’s worked over here before so I expected his French to be impeccable, but he made me feel so much better about my earlier language disaster when he tried to order his lunch in Spanish.

Luckily, Will’s day job of dealing with MEPs and other Euro big-wigs is entirely English-based. He’s part of a team of five people the NFU has permanently based here in Brussels as part of a lobbying and communications team.

Basically their job is to let farmers back in the UK know what’s going on over here and how European policy decisions will affect them.

But they also have the rather unenviable job of trying to encourage politicians to listen to them over farm policy in the hope that they’ll support British farmers when it comes to policy discussions and votes.

The idea is through building relationships with MEPs, the NFU and in turn farmers can have a direct impact on the rules and regulations that are made here.

I doubt many farmers realise they have an effect on the content and wording of European policy, but it’s something the NFU is taking even more seriously in the run-up to CAP reform proposals being published in October.

Anyway, just be thankful us farm journos won’t be asked for our views on the policy’s wording. If I have anything to do with it there could be some very random German chucked in there for good measure….

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Mercosaur sighting #2

I wonder if the artist who drew the illustration for page 20 of this week’s issue of Farmers Weekly had seen my Mercosaur picture.

Mercosaur Dalmatian Cow

Coincidence?

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Doing porridge for a farm photo

When I was on holiday in Florida a couple of years ago, I managed to convince my friends to pull our hire car over so I could stop off to take some photos of an orange grove.

Not being farmer-types, they had a bit of a whinge about the delay. They couldn’t have cared less about orange harvesting and just wanted to hot-foot it to our hotel so they could kick back on a lilo with a mojito and a slab of key-lime pie.

Turns out if I did the same thing this year, they might well have had a valid reason for moaning – I could’ve got us locked up.

This bill has just been introduced by the Florida senate. You can read all detail if you click the link, but in essence it says:

  • A person who enters a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative), commits a felony of the first degree
  • A person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner (or a representative) commits a felony of the first degree

So that’s a first degree felony for photographing a farm, regardless of whether you’re actually trespassing or standing on a road peering over a fence.

A first degree felony which, as helpfully defined by law blog  The Volokh Conspiracy, is the highest degree felony other than capital crimes and ‘life felonies’, which carry a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.

The terms of imprisonment would be dictated by the Florida Sentencing Guidelines, but the maximum would be 30 years.

Farmers in the UK often complain about rights of access and people wandering across their land, but this seems a tad extreme to me.

Anyway, being too scared  to share the offending orange grove photo with you in fear of being banged up, I’ve had to illustrate this post with a different picture of my Florida trip. Just be thankful it wasn’t me in a bikini.

me and pluto

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