Archive for the 'Communication' Category

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.


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.


Chapters 1 - 7 of my report


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.


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…


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.


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….


Aussie Tweet-up

Guess who I bumped into today?

Norm and goat

That’s right, only Big Norm ‘off of’ Twitter.

I’ve headed about an hour out of Sydney to Richmond to say hello to Norm and his goats.

While he may type that way, Norm doesn’t speak in 140 characters or less, so we had an interesting evening putting the world to right on climate change, social media, rural internet and asteroids.

Goodness only knows what the goats, and indeed Mrs Norm, thought of their strange visitor. The place’s other residents didn’t seem too impressed, anyway:



Radio baa baa

Back home whenever BBC reporter Robert Peston comes on the radio I have to switch him straight off.

I’ve always thought he was putting on a ridiculous voice as there was no way anyone could really speak with such a daft tone or drawl, or without any concept of where commas and full stops should be in sentences.

Turns out they can. And I’m one of the people who can manage it.

We stopped off at a sheep sale this morning so Brad’s livestock agent, Rob, could check out some lambs for another client.

Australia’s sheep flock is at it’s lowest for over a century as the drought has forced people out of production, but with those conditions well and truly reversed this year, people are thinking about restocking to take advantage of the feed and silage available.

As a result, Lamb prices are going crazy at the moment after years of them fetching a pittance – average prices are about $150/head, while I’ve read some reports of lambs fetching as much as $300.

Anyway, having no interest in sheepsies, Brad arranged for Warwick, a local ABC radio reporter chum, to come down to the sale to have a chat with us. Apparently regardless of the nonsense I can spout, people “like hearing an accent” so Warwick thought I’d be a good person to interview.

Warwick and Brad
Hmm, right. Conscious of how much of a pain it is to edit out, I tried my best not to say ‘erm’ too many times. As a result, I filled the gaps where I would usually say ‘erm’ by elongating my words in a Peston-esque way.

Warwick is nooooooooooow. The (probably not so) proud ownerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Of  a ten-minute interview. Of meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee waffling about international farming. In a way. That soooooooooooooooounds like. This.

I’m sticking to writing from now on.


Hats off to a Tweeting hack

Having experienced magazine envy last week, today I experienced envy of another kind.

Latika Bourke is a political reporter for 3AW, a radio station based in Melbourne.

Her job is to while away her hours hangin’ out in the Parliament building in Canberra, covering all the goings on in the senate and house of representatives.

And pretty good at it she is too – so good in fact, that a few months ago she was named young political reporter of the year.
Latika pretty much won be over straight away – not just because of her snazzy dress sense, but because, unprompted, she started telling me how useful Twitter was to her work.

I’m always bangin’ on about how much I love using Twitter for finding stories, contacts and talking to readers, so it was good to hear how someone in a different branch of the media utilises it.

Firstly, Latika uses Twitter to grow her ‘brand’, giving her followers a glimpse of her life so they feel like they get to know her and trust her. That way, when she Tweets a work-based story they are more likely to see her as a credible source and follow any links she posts.

She also uses it to monitor reader response so she knows what interests them, what angles she should take and what readers want to know.

Latika isn’t the only Canberra-based political journo using Twitter either – pretty much every member of the reporting pool uses it to follow trends, find stories and hunt out contacts.

Therefore, Latika says, it should make perfect sense for farm organisations to use it too so they can become part of that information and contact source.

So the envy? Well, Latika does have a pretty cool job – she was rushing back to the house after our meeting to cover the delayed universal broadband bill – but my jealousy is one I obviously share with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

If only I could get away with wearing a fedora in FW Towers.


Green with Outback envy

Today I experienced a new emotion: magazine envy.

It wasn’t a pretty sight either. Goodness only knows what Mark, the editor of Outback, thought  as I sat stupidly gaping as he brought out issue after issue of one of the nicest-looking publications I’ve ever seen.


(I realise I’ve broken a load of copyright/reproduction laws here, but I’m hoping Mark won’t mind – I just wanted you to get some idea of what I’m talking about).

I’m guessing this post is of no interest to normal people, so you might want to skip along here. Apparently there’s a rubbishy cricket match on, maybe you can go and watch that for bit. For the print media geeks among you, you would love this.

Continue reading “Green with Outback envy” »


Resc-ewe mission

It may have kicked off slowly for some (it’s such a hassle when your blood sugar levels drop and give the symptoms of a hangover, innit?), but today I had a whirlwind education on the world of Australian sheep production.

merino sheep

I’d gone along to Meat and Livestock Australia, who are a levy board pretty similar to EBLEX in the UK and look into research, development and marketing of beef, sheep and goat meat across the country.

Funded by the 180,000 livestock producers in the Australia through a compulsory levy, the MLA is doing some interesting things in terms of telling its 48,000 members (who represent about 80% of livestock production in Australia) about the research it’s doing.

Alongside publishing magazines and articles on its website, the MLA has also started producing a magazine-style show which it sends out to members on DVDs.

I’m not totally convinced about how many people would bother playing the DVD in relation to it’s cost of production and distribution, but one chap from the sheep meat council told me some illiterate farmers have said the videos give them access to science they otherwise can’t obtain.

Anyway, it’s been a couple of interesting days and I feel like I’ve got back on track with things after the randomness of Brisbane. It certainly wasn’t a rescue mission though, okay? And I won’t listen to any claims anyone flew the equivalent of London to Russia to come and sort me out. Thanks though :) x


Sheep and a colour-blind scientist. I hope.

Fed up with the bedbugs and in need of some fashion tips, I flew to Sydney yesterday to catch up with my favourite sparring partner, drinking buddy and wannabe cowboy, Rob.


Rob was over from Perth for a sheep CRC meeting (of which he’s a board member), and had invited me along to an evening soiree to nibble canapes, talk sheep with industry’s great and good and deflect attention away from his wonky mo.

The Sheep CRC (Co-operative Research Centre) is a mostly industry but also part Government-funded organisation that does research into the broader issues affecting Australia’s sheep industry. As part of a seven-year project, it has $111m to spend on sheep-based research in a bid to make the country’s producers more competitive and productive.

Discounting a near-miss with a lump of smoked salmon and a sheep geneticist’s loafer, I managed to sail through the evening almost looking as though I knew something about sheep, trade barriers and measurement of wool fibres.

I also had some interesting chats about how the CRC is getting it’s research findings out to farmers, and how sheep farmers within the organisation go about discovering new information.

As with the UK, it seems there’s a wealth of information out there, but none of the really useful, scientific, business-changing stuff is simple to access. There seems to be a gulf between the researchers and the people who could benefit from their work as – so far – no body’s really acted as a mediator between the two.

Maybe the CRC will help change that, but if not, there’s an apparent red-head who wouldn’t mind a freelance job…

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