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….
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.
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…
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.
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?
Oh, and Gordon Brown?
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.
Obviously, this is Grotbags and not me. As if I’d wear a hat like that. I’m referring more to the green skin.
It’s a good look, and one I managed to achieve pretty well thanks to an hour-long crossing from Adelaide on the Kangaroo Island ferry.
Kangaroo Island is the last stop on my tour of Nuffield chum’s homes on this side of the country, and is home to Ben Tyley, his incredibly glam and beautiful wife Kerry and their boys, Damon and Jae.
Ben is a cray fisherman and can usually be found in his shiny silver boat up to 30 miles out to sea waiting for crays to crawl into the pots he chucks into the sea.
Things aren’t quite going that way at the moment though, thanks to an import tariff being imposed by Australia’s largest importer of crays, China. Having already been hit by quotas, which were implemented about a decade ago and immediately knocked two-thirds of the profit out of the industry, the latest debacle has all but brought cray fishing on the island to a halt.
It seems Australian fishermen have been trading crays with China on the black market for years, and finally the Chinese government has cottoned on to what’s been happening.
Narked that it’s been happening under their noses for so long, and that it can’t settle an agreement with the Australian government right away, China has whacked a 100% import tarrif on the fish. Quota on the same imported crays from New Zealand is just a fraction of that.
Overnight the price of crays has plummeted, meaning it’s barely worth Ben and his fellow fisherman going out to fish – with a $28/kg cost of production, a price of $40/kg on such a limited quota just isn’t enough to be viable.
Ben now has to play a tricky game of waiting to see if a trade agreement can be sorted so the price increases. However the longer he leaves it, the closer he gets to the end of fishing season, meaning he might not make his quota before he has to bring his pots back in.
If he goes out fishing tomorrow Ben’s promised to take me on his boat to show me what he he gets up to on the ocean. That’s what he claims anyway, I reckon he just wants to see just how green my face will go.
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.
Three hours south of Sydney is a little place many Australian’s seem to hold dear.
“What are you going there for?” one friend asked when I told them of my planned trip.
“Don’t stay for longer than a day,” another said. “Nothing happens there.”
Not quite what you’d expect to hear about the capital city of a country as big as Australia, but Canberra seems to have as big a place in Aussies’ hearts as somewhere like Milton Keynes does to people in the UK.
Similar to ol’ MK, Canberra was an entirely planned city. It was built in 1913 by a couple of American architects who helpfully based it on a load of confusing concentrically-circular and hexagonal road systems and tree-filled areas. It’s home to Australia’s parliamentary buildings, as well as a load of galleries and buildings which have seemingly sprung up because they felt obliged to be in the capital, and not because they thought anyone would actually visit them.
The city replaced a load of sheep farms and agricultural land and, according to the plaque on some street art, it’s described as “a good sheep station spoiled”. Randomly, there is still farmland less than a couple of minutes out of the city centre, with huge irrigators set up to water field after field of turf.
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…
Have you missed me? I’ve been out at the sticks checking out farms and they don’t tend to have much tinterweb access there. Or electricity, for that matter…
I know I’m pretty lucky to be seeing parts of India that your general tourist wouldn’t have a chance to see, but I wish visiting these places didn’t involve staying in ‘hotels’ with doors that weirdly only bolt from the outside and open onto a street like this…
Or eating by yourself in dodgy restaurants who seem angry about having to serve outsiders and give you an extra bit of protein baked into your naan:
I’d travelled just over 300 miles east of Mumbai to a place called Baramati, in Maharashta state. Maharashta is a key agricutural region, with farmers here taking advantage of the warm, tropical conditions to grow things like mangoes, bananas and sugar cane
The six-hour journey through the mountainous, jungle area and then on through grassland was much smoother than the drive in Delhi. Traffic seemed calmer and the roads were pretty decent – there were men quarrying (by hand) at various intervals, with the stone being mixed with tar and poured into the potholes caused by the monsoon rains.
The mammoth drive was in aid of visiting somewhere called Krishi Vigyan Kendra – a government-supported but otherwise independent farm science centre which offers help, training and advice to farmers in the region.
The idea is the centre takes all the latest crop science, technological advances and scientific research from universities and research institutes and passes it on to farmers through workshops and training days.
Experts in the centre all also involved in something called the aAqua scheme – a portal providing information and advice to farmers who post questions online. Through the scheme and the work at centre, KVK helps out about 60,000 farmers every year.
The centre has various faculties looking at different areas of production such as soya, pomegranate and figs. The idea is the 30 or so researchers here test out the latest science and work out how producers can quickly apply it to their farms and help boost production.
On Thursday I stopped off at the sericulture unit to look at the work being done there. For those of you who aren’t big on your larvae cultivation, sericulture is the rearing of silkworms for the production of silk. Farmers have between 0.5 acres and 5 acre sheds with wooden bars where they let the little moths hang out and pupate before they are picked, boiled and unravelled to be spun into silk thread. Each cocoon produces about 700m of silk thread, which is spun on a loom and then sent off to be dyed.
KVK has it’s own little silk production unit (it’s one of the ways it helps raise money to pay for the centre), taking cocoons from 1000 farmers in the area and producing 16m of silk a day. All the silk is sold at the centre, mainly to the farmers who come here for training or to buy the fertiliser, seed and pesticide the centre also produces. Any profits go back to the government, who in turn (supposedly) pump it back into the centre.
It’s a nifty idea and one that – set within the entire KVK structure - really seems to be making a real difference to farmers in the region.
So had I a bit of a wobble yesterday. The stress of nearly being kidnapped, coupled with a hair-raising five-hour drive from Hisar back to Delhi so I could catch a flight to Mumbai (or Bombay, if you insist on being colonial) got to me.
It’s a tad exhausting being on edge for hour after hour, expecting to be smashed into as cars come onto the wrong side of the road as they try to overtake buses which are in the process of trying to overtake lorries.
Almost as bad is the constant fear you’re about to squish someone who has either fallen off the top of an over-crowded bus, randomly wandered into the street, or fallen off their motorcycle (few bikers have licences, or road sense for that matter, and very few wear helmets. Apparently by law men should wear them, but women are exempt because wearing one “would mess up their hair”).
By the time I had nearly missed my flight, had a run-in with a load of security guards with automatic rifles at the airport, landed in Mumbai in a giant electrical storm, survived an attempted swindle by a gang of dodgy men at the taxi rank, got stuck in a traffic jam for two hours and then arrived to my hotel to find the front of it had been demolished, I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. Poor old Sissy Joanne, Mr Geography, Gob de la Wash and Wooster had the joys of trying to calm me down. What people did before Skype, I don’t know.
I’m cross with myself for ending the day on such a rubbish note, because the morning had been really interesting. I’d been taken to Haryana Agricultural University in Hisar, which is one of the largest ag uni’s in Asia. I was shown around by the very lovely Professor Mahajan, who is THE big cheese in animal disease research in India and is also the first Indian I’ve ever seen with blue eyes.
Prof Mahajan does a lot of work with poultry, but he and his team of researchers are also looking at the way diseases the country has problems with – such as TB, foot and mouth and bluetongue – move between species and mutate. They’ve been doing some research with scientists at Pirbright in the UK and they seem to be making a lot of progress in teaching farmers in India about bio-security and reducing disease risk.
What I found most interesting is that Prof Mahajan and the other people at the university are all civil servants. The government funds most of the universities and a big part of their job is to share the findings from their research with farmers – which means holding workshops and making many farm visits throughout the year. That way farmers have very close links to research institutes and regularly get in touch with them to ask for advice.
DEFRA cuts in research spending (albeit not as bad as expected) mean it’s pretty unlikely we’ll ever have a similar system in the UK, but the work Prof Mahajan is doing is really impressive. Maybe once he’s finished teaching people about animal disease safety he could use his skills to teach them a little something about road safety too…