This week I packed the last of my belongings into my car and left Bristol to start my Nuffield journey. As I’m taking the best part of a year off work it makes financial sense to go home to the family farm (yes, at the age of 34 I’m back in my childhood bedroom and the majority of my possessions are in storage.)
But it feels right to return to my rural roots this year, to be surrounded by family, countryside and the daily workings of the farm which inspired this adventure. So I filtered on to the M5 and headed for the Severn Bridge, one last look in the rearview mirror at the Bristol skyline disappearing behind me. I had a meeting with one of my sponsors, the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society in Builth Wells, so drove northwards through the Brecon Beacons.
Thanks to a road closure near Crickhowell and a sat nav malfunction, I was a few minutes late to meet chief executive Steve Hughson, fellow Nuffield Scholar and assistant chief executive Aled Jones and marketing officer Katie Williams.
“We’re more than just a show,” was the resounding message I took from our chat.
Steve has a long-term marketing strategy and it quickly became apparent that my Nuffield is expected to feed into it. At first I was a little intimidated. I don’t know anything about marketing and PR – as a journalist I sit on the other side of the fence. What words of wisdom could I offer to these eager ears across the table?
The RWAS has a few communication challenges (people thinking they are just a show for starters) and sponsoring a scholar to investigate how agricultural organisations in other countries engage with the press, and the public, could throw up some valuable learning opportunities.
“Some think we’re only here four days a year,” said Steve.
The truth is they have 21,000 members and events throughout the year. The Royal Welsh Show is the largest agricultural show in Britain and one of the biggest in Europe. Last year 241,000 visitors flooded through the gates – the Prime Minister David Cameron among them.
But Steve tells me they struggle for coverage on network TV programmes; the likes of BBC Breakfast and even the production I work for – Countryfile.
“Carol Kirkwood seems to do the weather from every other show,” he laughed. “Is it because they think we’re only for Wales? And we often wonder why the likes of Countryfile wouldn’t call us if they’re looking for a farmer?”
I suddenly realised that I’m going to get a lot of questions like this – and unfortunately I don’t have all the answers. There could be 101 reasons why Carol Kirkwood hasn’t done the weather forecast from the Royal Welsh (most likely logistical). And with Countryfile Live coming up this year at Blenheim Palace, I’m sure they have more than enough on their plate.
But I had to hit back with some of the problems we often run into. “What if farmers don’t want to talk to us Steve?”
And from there our conversation turned towards that deep-seated issue which exists between my world and theirs – disconnect.
“The scars of BSE, CJD, Foot and Mouth are still there and it was quite damaging,” Aled suggested.
Steve nodded in agreement and pointed out that some in the farming community are reluctant to speak up or stand out. But is that starting to change? He asked if I’m planning to meet Gareth Wynn-Jones during my study (expect my call Gareth!) He’s the Welsh hill farmer who shot to fame on Twitter during the late spring snow of 2013 which claimed the lives of thousands of sheep, cattle and ponies in the uplands.
“He’s part of a new crop of farmers who want to communicate, who are siezing an opportunity,” Steve pointed out.
Again, the picky journalist in me had to pipe up. We love the Gareths of this world, and the Adam Hensons and James Rebankses – the vocal few who bring their passion to the public. But every TV researcher and director wants to find the hidden gem. The farmer who’s never been on telly but whaddaya know, he/she’s a natural!
With the RWAS’ 21,000 members – many of whom are the ‘hidden’ characters we’re so desperate for – I found myself asking why I hadn’t exploited this mine of information more in the past. Possibly because I’d also fallen into the trap of thinking agricultural societies are only open for business during show season. So I’d dial my regular and ever reliable contacts at NFU Cymru or The Farmers Union of Wales instead.
“I can think of eight to 10 brilliant people straight off the top of my head,” he said, “and farmers who aren’t all over Twitter and Facebook too!”
How to connect with farming in the mainstream media? Steve is convinced the celebrity chefs and food programmes have a big part to play: “Food is the key thing,” he insisted. “That’s the link into farming. Without the farmer there’s nothing on your plate.”
Just in those couple of hours over a cup of coffee in Steve’s office, I’d chatted more openly with an influential farming organisation than ever before in my career. Let’s face it, there’s never time for a chat when you’re chasing a deadline. It made me feel very excited about the dialogue my Nuffield could open up.
We talked about my upcoming travels, which the RWAS along with the Trehane Trust, are very generously sponsoring. Next week I’ll head to the Contemporary Scholars Conference in Ireland followed by an intense eight-week group tour called a Global Focus Programme. Together with scholars from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil and Ireland, I’ll have a whistle stop tour of farming systems in Europe, the United States, Kenya and South Africa. From cattle ranches to avocado farms, meetings with Monsanto to macademia factories – it sounds intense, diverse and utterly amazing.
Aled advised that the New Zealanders and Australians have a very analytical, business-focused approach to farming. “They’ll want the figures, the numbers, the cost of production, all the stats – you’ll really notice that when you travel.”
Here in the UK we can be more focused on story, heritage, the emotion of farming, that ‘way of life’. There was agreement around the table that this hinges on the Single Farm Payment; that subsidies preserve the traditional farming model. The Aussies and Kiwis farm without subsidy – efficiency and profitability has to be their driver.
“Without the SFP, the majority of farms in Wales would struggle to make a profit,” said Aled.
Well, this blog post is long enough without delving into the debate over the future of subsidies – but I know it will crop up again. Especially when I’m spending two months on the road with scholars from Down Under.
More on the GFP and the CSC coming soon (and get used to these acronyms – Nuffield’s all over them!)