Archive for the 'Agriculture' Category

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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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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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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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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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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The funny side of farming

I managed to hold it together until the stereo started blaring out “Where’s your sausage gone?” to the tune of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.

It was at that point – stood outside Downing Street in front of a 16ft, shiny, hovering sausage – that I collapsed onto the floor in hysterical laughter.

sausage

You have to hand it to the pig industry – they certainly have a sense of humour.

At a time when producers are leaving the industry in droves thanks to spiralling input costs and appalling returns from retailers and processors, they went for comedy to make a very serious point.

At least, I hope they were trying to be funny.

Anyway, it certainly succeeded in being one of my more surreal days as a journalist. When I was at university learning the finer points of media law so I’d be able to bring down governments without getting done for libel, I thought I could only dream of being shouted at by Christine Hamilton for not wearing any gloves on a freezing day in March. Or asking the chief executive of the British Pig Executive in all seriousness how big his sausage was.

Much like the country’s pig producers, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry…

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A possible hairy situation for the NFU

Dear oh dear. I can’t image the NFU team are a bunch of happy bunnies at the moment.

Having given DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman a telling off this week for not taking farming seriously enough, this morning it’s emerged government plans for a badger cull to tackle bovine TB are being delayed.

Badger

The setback until May is supposedly so the DEFRA team can make doubly-sure the plans would stand up to any legal challenges (though it would handily coincide with the end of the local elections). But the delay means this year’s culling window will probably be missed, pushing a possible badger-cull programme back to spring 2012.

To potentially add to the DEFRA woes, Cazza Spelman’s decision to backtrack on plans to sell off England’s woodlands after Middle England threw its toys out of its pram means the department will lose out on about £80m it had expected to pocket from the scheme.

While nothing has been announced yet, there’s already chatter amongst government mandarins over where DEFRA will look to to fill the budget hole. NFU president Peter Kendall must be glad he really gave Cazza a good talking to over the importance of agricultural expenditure on Tuesday.

But while things are looking dodgy for the NFU on the DEFRA front, things are looking even worse on its own doorstep

Gwyn Jones NFU

It turns out that Gwyn Jones, the union’s vice president, is facing criminal charges over claims he used an unlicensed labour provider to employ migrant farm workers.

Whether Gwyn will feel he’s able to stick it out in the position while he’s going through a legal battle remains to be seen.

The situation throws up some real conundrums for the union. I spoke to several farmers at the conference this week who were concerned about the future of the NFU’s senior team.

With no obvious high-fliers coming up through the ranks, who is most likely to take over from Peter when his current term comes to an end?

Gwyn was named as a potential candidate, but if things go wrong there the NFU faces going into one of the most important periods of its history – CAP reform, badger culls, agriculture spending cuts and so on – without the kind of statesman it needs.

So does that mean Peter’s going to have no choice but to hang around a bit longer? Would he even get the necessary 75% of votes he’d need to keep the top spot?

Most importantly, is Mrs Kendall going to let him stand again? Something tells me he’s going to have some buttering-up to do…

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The day I met a proper journalist

Had I not chosen a career path which had taken me down a bizarre route into a niche avenue of journalism, I would have like to have become a proper writer on a national newspaper. Like John Pilger, perhaps. Or Jay Rayner.

Marco_Pierre_White
Y’know, Jay Rayner. The one who’s the stunt double for Marco Pierre White on those Knorr stockcube adverts?

You must know him – he’s that restaurant critic with over 17,000 followers on Twitter, the Observer column and his own slot on the One Show at 7 o’clock on Fridays?

The Jewish one who didn’t go to Oxbridge and lives in Brixton?

Jay Rayner
Yes, that’s him.

Anyway, it turns out Jay is in Birmingham to speak at the NFU conference today. Hopefully he’ll whip up the audience into a frenzy over his views on organics, food security and the (lack of) meaningful policy changes the coalition government’s made to enhance  UK agriculture since it came to power. Or he might just give us some anecdotes of when he met the president. Or the pope. Or whoever it was.

Pig-tail pulling aside, I actually had quite an interesting chat with Jay in the NFU conference bar last night. Once I’d got past his insults, it was nice to see there’s someone with a national media profile who actually understands and supports British agriculture.

It’s even better that he’s a proper journalist, with a real notebook and everything. Fingers crossed he takes good notes and feels inclined to share his thoughts with more people in the real world.

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The DEFRA love-in turns sour

After the glamour of the Soil Association conference in Manchester last week, this week I’m at the NEC in Birmingham for the National Farmers Union’s annual meeting.

With no general election on the immediate horizon, union president Peter Kendall in the hot seat for another year and a DEFRA team widely seen as sympathetic towards farming, I was all prepared for a Caroline Spelman/NFU love-in.

Only it didn’t quite work out like that.

With his sleeves rolled-up to show he really meant business, Peter took to the conference stage and spent a couple of minutes praising Cazza and her team’s efforts to cut agricultural red tape, tackle bovine TB and protect research and development from budgets cuts.

Peter Kendall

But like a cat playing with a mouse before chomping its head off, Peter swiftly launched into attack over DEFRA’s lack of direction and it’s failure to have a proper plan for the future of food production in the UK.

Rising grain costs, low meat and milk prices, CAP reform and the country’s increasing reliance on food imports meant agriculture was facing huge challenges which needed urgent and immediate action, he said.

Cazza got up and tried to ease the tension, pleading the ‘I’m one of you’ line by mentioning her NFU credentials no less than three times. NFU credentials, I might add, that reach back to the year I was born.

Like a school girl who’d had a telling off, she attempted to coyly tilt her head and smile her way out of the situation, claiming the government had its head screwed on over farming and had got a food plan in the shape of the Food 2030 strategy.

So that’ll be the same Food 2030 strategy that was written by the Labour government then, Cazza? The same strategy that features your predecessor?

Hilary Benn Food 2030

Oh, and Gordon Brown?

Gordon Brown Food 2030

Something tells me we won’t be seeing any of the current DEFRA lot brandishing a copy of that any time soon.

Cazza may have expected the honeymoon period with the industry to continue for a bit longer, but after nine months in office, farmers are expecting to see some action pretty soon. Let’s just hope her department’s upcoming TB and red tape announcements don’t give them grounds for divorce.

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