Archive for March, 2010

Cut off

For the past few weeks Chez Stocks has been internet-free thanks to British Telecom taking eons to change over the broadband account after my housemate (the one responsible for Lentil Gate, for those who followed on Twitter) moved out.

I like to think of myself as the kind of gal who isn’t materialistic and could get by without all the luxuries of modern life if need be. Heck, I even went camping with Gob of the Wash last year and didn’t use a hair dryer for four whole days.

However, not having t’interweb has proved that I am shamefully addicted to technology and electronic communication. How on earth did we get by in the olden days?! I’m actually having to make phone calls if I want to talk to people, I’m having to stay late at work so I can blog and I had to physically go into a building society today to pay a bill because I can’t do online banking. It’s like living in the Dark Ages.

Anyway, over-dramatics aside, my current situation has given me a whole new appreciation for how people in rural areas feel when they live without broadband or with temperamental dial-up access. It’s actually pretty isolating not being able to communicate with people as I’d like to, or find information as soon as I need it.

That’s why being told they have to fill in their myriad of government forms online must make so many farmers want to scream. Yes, it’s great to not have to faff about with bits of paper and envelopes and the useless mail system, but the move to an electronic world only works if everyone is on an even footing in terms of access.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like the government’s quite got its head around the idea, and it’s latest wheeze is that farmers have to fill in their tax forms online if their turnover’s more than £100k. And if you haven’t got broadband to do it? Well, you can just nip round to a friend’s house and use their computer, apparently. Handy suggestion, if your nearest neighbour’s an hour away.

Maybe I should drop HMRC an email when I get home to tell them what a bonkers idea it is. Oh, wait…

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Flashy

I’ve spent the last few days emailing what feels like every agricultural organisation in India in a bid to sort out the next stage of my Nuffield scholarship.

I want to go to India to learn about some projects out there that are encouraging farmers to use mobile technology to share information and trade. It’s a country that has crummy internet connection in rural areas, but due to mobile phone networks being run by private companies, apparently has tip-top mobile reception, even in remote spots.

Anyway, despite few farmers using the t’interweb, the interestingly-named Department of Agriculture and Co-operation (can you imagine ‘co-operation’ ever being tacked onto the end of DEFRA?) still has it’s own website, and it ain’t half flashy*.

And farmers in England complained about the DEFRA site….

*Health warning: don’t click the link if you’re affected by super-high-speed graphics and images

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Changing Times

So Rupert Murdoch has finally decided to make good his threat of charging to read his Times and Sunday Times websites.

From June people will be have to pay £1 a day or £2 a week to access news across the sites, which currently attract about 20m readers.

The debate about paywalls has been going on for ages so I don’t really want to get into it too much here. In a nutshell the grab-it-all consumer in me wants something for nothing – especially if I can get more or less the same thing on other news sites, blogs and social media without charge – while the journalist in me knows media organisations can’t keep churning out high-quality content for nowt.

Like farmers, in an ideal world I want what I produce to be valued and to receive a fair price for the energy I expend on it. In reality I wonder how much value people put on information – we certainly couldn’t live without the food and energy farming produces, can the same really be said about the media? A lot of the comments on the subject perhaps suggest not.

This perhaps sounds a bit gloomier than I mean it to. I actually think I’m a journalist in one of the most exciting times imaginable – the media organisations that fail are going to be the ones that don’t change and try new things quickly enough (what’s that Abe Lincoln? We need to ADAPT, INNOVATE and OVERCOME?). It’s going to be about providing unique, value-added content that really offers something to audiences – in that respect, I’m probably going to part with my £2 each week to read the Times because I really rate the music journalists who write for it and I think their output is worth paying a premium for.

Times music site

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens, but come June it’s going to be fascinating to see just how the Times copes – if it’s successful it’s no doubt going to be a model the majority of media organisations will follow.

It’s weird how your thoughts come together as you write blog posts. Who’d have thought when I started that I’d end up wondering whether Rupert Murdoch is the Abraham Lincoln of the modern media world? Maybe I should go and have a lie-down.

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Painting the friesians blue…

I was looking through some old copies of FW yesterday and came across the interview I’d done with one of the chaps from the Royal Agricultural Society of England last year.

I did the interview the day after it’d been announced that the Royal Show, once the jewel in the crown of agricultural shows, was no more. He reckoned people weren’t interested in a major ag show and there just wasn’t an audience for such events in England.

I remember thinking at the time that this was nonsense and that RASE just hadn’t struck on the right attraction to get people flocking to the show. Well, thanks to my Aussie twitter chum, Big Norm, I now know where the answer lies. Robots.

Check out the things that are going to be at Sydney’s agricultural Easter Show next month:

He eats cars!

Ok, so I know I’m being flippant, but this show attracts 900,000 visitors over two weeks – fire-breathing robots are undoubtedly a pull, but once at the showground there seems to be loads of great farming content that’s obviously appealing to the public.

How the chap from RASE I spoke to reckoned people wouldn’t be interested in a milking display or a petting area, I’ll never know. While they might not like it and think it’s dumbing down, people in charge of shows and farming organisations have to realise there’s such a massive disconnect between food production and the public that they have to start with stuff that grabs the attention and then move up from there.

I spoke to the very lovely Judith from Mr Moos Icecream in East Yorkshire earlier today, and she said kids who visited her farm this week were astonished milk came from cows (and that they weren’t blue, like this one). I assume she set them straight and she’s not decided to give her friesians a lick of paint instead…

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Bad(ger) hair day

I love it when celebs get involved with farming issues.

Sometimes I’m impressed that they’re having a go at trying to get people interested in food and the way its produced. I mean, just look at the great work of Nell McAndrew, or Cheggars perhaps…

Ok, I lie. I usually get incredibly wound up that they’ve got the wrong end of the stick, they’ve over-simplified things, or they’ve just made the industry feel cringe-worthy. I mean, really – what were Westlife thinking?

Anyway, aged rocker Brian May’s squeezed his farming hat over his frizzy hair this week to stick his two pence-worth in over plans to cull badgers in Wales. He reckons the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans to carry out a targeted cull in a bid to eradicate bovine TB is ‘genocide’.

Not knowing when to stop (perhaps Freddie taught him something about that), he went on to liken the plans to killing ginger-haired people in a bid to rid the world of smallpox. Excellent analogy, Bri.

I’d been trying for a few hours to rack my brain for a pun about Queen, Brian’s barnet or badgers to end on. Being a bit short on inspiration I gave Gob of the Wash a call on my way to FW Towers. He claims his mind’s solely on daffodil harvesting at the mo and that’s the reason why this was the best he could come up with:

Bohemian-twat-sod-off.

Perhaps he’s not the only one who should stick to the day job…

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Dairy inquest

Another report into what went wrong with Dairy Farmers of Britain was released today, this time by a bunch of MPs from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

For those of you who can’t remember as far back as last year (and for my international reader[s]), DFoB was a farmer-owned dairy co-op that went pear-shaped last June. Its 1800-plus producers were left with nowhere to sell their milk, members lost an average of £60-65,000 each and more than 1000 people lost their jobs as processing facilities were closed overnight.

As this latest report says, the co-op was seen as an opportunity for dairy farmers to have more control over their business and get a better milk price. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way.

It seems a number of factors brought about the co-op’s downfall – bad management, bad choice in acquisitions and lack of capital all feature in the document.

But the thing that exacerbated these issues was poor communication. DFoB’s board kept schtum while suppliers’ concerns about the state of the co-op started circulating in chat rooms and the farming press. As rumours flew and suppliers’ confidence – rightly or wrongly – started to nosedive, customers started to back away too.

DFoB got caught in a vicious circle – it couldn’t rectify the relationships it had cocked-up with retailers because it left it too late to talk about its problems. If it hadn’t got it’s owners on-side, what chance did it have with presenting a united front to customers?

Who knows whether DFoB could’ve sorted itself out by being more open, but burying its head in the sand certainly did it no favours.

I’m always harping on about smaller farmers uniting to become more powerful, so I hope the experience of DFoB doesn’t put people off the concept of co-ops. Farming isn’t always the best at learning from its mistakes, but this is one occasion it really needs to sit up, take note and talk about how to avoid this happening again.

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Saturday rant

So the debate about the UK’s first super dairy rumbles on. Politicians have now signed an early day motion against the proposed £50m, 8000-head unit in Lincolnshire, while environmental and animal welfare groups like the RSPCA say they’re ‘very concerned’ about the plans.

The British public has got its knickers in a twist over the whole thing too (warning: that’s a link to the D*ily M*il. Sorry, but the comments are worth looking at).

With so much negative feeling towards it, you’d think it’d be the perfect time for the farmers behind the Nocton super-dairy to talk to the public openly about their plans and address those concerns.

But what did the Nocton chaps do? They cancelled the public meeting and held a secret discussion for a few locals in a village hall. Yes, it meant they steered clear of the protestors, but from an outsiders point of view, didn’t that make it look like they had something to hide?

My feelings towards super dairies have changed since reading more about US versions and going to look around this 4000-herd one last week (there’s a terrible, mortifying version of this video on the Farmers Weekly site where I sound like I’m giving a commentary to a blue movie, so you can just have this silent version):

While I’m not necessarily behind this kind of system, it’s only through tours like this one  and talking to farmers that the public’s going to understand the industry and realise why it’s having to go down this ‘super production’ path. I’m not sure the farming sector can really criticise consumers for not realising how food’s produced unless it gets better at communicating with them – even if that means getting into a few good debates along the way.

Sorry, that was a bit ranty for a Saturday afternoon. I’ll talk about dogs in hats or something next time.

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At least it came with vegetables…

Thought my Aussie chum might like to see the meal I was served at a lunch meeting yesterday:

Sausages, mash, gravy and salad

Yes, that is gravy on my salad. I had been joking when I suggested last week that I put gravy on all of my meals, but it seems the restaurant saw the northerner coming (and I wasn’t even wearing my flat cap). It’s almost a good job I still have no appetite post the US grease-fest.

As I was walking through London later I passed the Irish embassy. Is this what they call shabby chic?

Irish embassy

Not quite on the scale of the Canadian one we visited last week in Washington. Maybe they’re too busy drinking cloudy beer with orange slices to worry about peeling paint. And not a boy band member in sight either…

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TTFN

If there’s one thing I’ve loved about the last week, it’s been listening to our fellow scholars from around the world. It’s been great to get a feel of what the issues are for farmers globally, to hear about different crops and scales of production and – most importantly – to hear the brilliant accents and sayings. Fair dinkum, Cobber?

My favourites have been the current Aussie Global Focus group’s attempts at trying to get to grips with the Welsh language. Here’s a poor quality video in their honour:

I’ve met some brilliant people this week who I’m sure I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life. I’ve added a few of them to my blog roll so you can read about their travels too. Big kisses to Princess, the boy band and my back of the bus buddy for making it a trip I’ll never forget. Cheers x

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Catching up with the Amish

Today I learnt I definitely wouldn’t want to live near a composting facility. Be thankful these photos come smell-free:

CompostCompostingComposting 2

The visit here was part of learning how mushrooms are produced – apparently Pennsylvania accounts for 35% of all the fungi produced in the States so they need a lot of compost to grow the things on. The second part of the tour was much more enjoyable, but I’m still not convinced fungus would be my career move of choice – picking these by hand is about as appealing as the prospect of self-pollinating plants every day a la our tomato-growing Aussie friend…

Mushrooms

Perhaps the most interesting part of the day though was this morning’s visit to an Amish farm. Seeing people produce food with so little machanisation was fascinating, if not a little strange considering our host told us he used GM crops. Who’da thought it’d be possible to say the Amish community had overtaken UK farmers in terms of technology…

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