Contemporary Scholars Conference, Cavan

Nuffield has an initiation process. And the most important part of that initiation is the Contemporary Scholars Conference, or CSC, hosted by a different Nuffield country each year. Newly-recruited farming scholars from all over the world take part in an intense programme of presentations, discussions and workshops (and a fair bit of eating and drinking).

The 2016 CSC was held in County Cavan, Ireland last week. The UK scholars were a day late because of our pre-CSC in London so it was straight off the plane and into the deep end. We were handed a conference backpack full of information and some freebies (some seriously good freebies too – like a coat! I think the organisers had pre-empted some shivering in the Irish March weather and saw a good advertising opportunity too. My ‘This is Cavan’ coat has already been worn across Europe and the Atlantic).


Meeting 76 Nuffield scholars from 14 different countries, you suddenly realise how big this thing is. And when Bill O’Keefe, chairman of Nuffield Ireland, addressed the conference and said he expects us “to go out there and change the world”, I looked around the room full of the best and brightest people in farming and thought: “How the hell did I get here?!”

I mean, how many times do you get asked to change the world in your lifetime?

Nuffield expects great things of its scholars. Many are already leaders in their sectors, running large and successful businesses. The word ‘thousands’ features a lot in the biography section of the conference agenda – scholars managing thousands of acres of crops, running herds of thousands of animals. I don’t have thousands of anything. For the first couple of days I felt like Nemo in an ocean of seriously big fish but the more I listened and learned, the more I realised every scholar was feeling the same; irrespective of the size of their business or farm. I was surrounded by like-minded people. Curious, interested, down-to-earth, passionate (even slightly eccentric) people who want to make a difference in farming.

The agenda was packed with influential speakers from across the world of agriculture; the aim being to give us a solid overview of the global picture. It covered economics, politics and policy, sustainability, environment, education, advocacy, succession, mental health and social media. We even had time to visit some farms (thank you to Country Crest, Keelings and Ballyhaise Agricultural College for hosting us).

The word ‘leadership’ came up a lot so there was a generous helping of motivational speaking. The CSC is an intense course in confidence-building and positive-thinking. This kind of stuff:

Open your mind beyond what is comfortable.
Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. Learn from them.
A true genius admits they know nothing.
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift and that’s why it’s called the present.

If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.


Yeah, yeah – I can almost see your eyes rolling (especially if my sisters are reading this). You may think it sounds a bit corny and ‘American’ for our cynical British tastes, but you had to leave that kind of scepticism at the door in Cavan. Proceedings were overseen by a feisty American called Jean Lonie who likes to say “awesome” and an equally energetic Australian called Sally Thompson. They are a formidable partnership. Sally is the Nuffield Ambassador for Brazil and will be organising next year’s CSC (in Brazil – amazing!) Jean works for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University and is the Honorary US Ambassador to the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Programme. No matter how hungover, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived the scholars felt, Jean and Sally cracked the whip with impressive efficacy.

But the best thing about the CSC? My fellow 2016 scholars without a doubt. They are a seriously brilliant group of people. I’m sure every Nuffield year group says the same thing but there really IS something special and sparky about this lot.

The majority are Australian. I’m not sure why – maybe it has something to do with their leader Jim Geltch, CEO of Nuffield International. He is an inspirational guy and you can tell Nuffield runs through his veins. I’ve just had the pleasure of travelling with him and a group of scholars in France and Belgium on a tour of World War One battlefields (more on that here).

The rest of the conference were made up of Brits, Irish, New Zealanders, Dutch, French, Brazilians, Americans, Canadians and individuals from China, Japan, India, Zambia and Ethiopia. Such fantastic diversity but also a meeting of minds – there’s a subtle ‘something’ that ties farmers together, no matter where they’re from.

I have to admit the vast majority of 2016 scholars are men. Out of a total of 76, there are only 12 women. It did raise a few eyebrows among us on the first day, and the need to empower women in agriculture cropped up a few times throughout conference week. I don’t usually consider myself a particularly outspoken feminist but I’ve found myself fairly vocal on the subject this week. I guess working in the media, which has a great gender balance, means I’m not used to feeling in the minority.

The UK Girls: Debbie McConnell, myself and Becky Willson

On Monday, we heard presentations about more recent countries to join the Nuffield family which was one of my conference highlights.

The International Panel (left to right): Malwinder Singh Mahli, Ed Kee, Daniel Gadd, Luciano Loman, Shigeo Maeda, Shi Baoqing & Angus Nicoll

International Farming Scholar Luciano Loman introduced us to Brazil – an ‘agribusiness superpower’ which ships 44% of its products overseas (nearly half of that to China). He described 40km fields of soybeans and cotton – a scale hard to imagine in the UK with its criss-crossed network of hedgerows and stone walls. The future in Luciano’s mind, however, is even more revolutionary – he wants to explore ‘verticalisation instead of horizontalisation’. A new concept for food production.

Angus Nicoll told us about Zambia, where agriculture is a big part of the economy and small scale farming systems dominate. Landlocked by eight countries, exporting Zambian produce is a challenge. Transportation costs are high, road networks are poor and access to the ports of Tanzania and South Africa can be tricky. But this is a county abundant in natural resources which is seeing increasing investment in corporate-owned farms (which brings inevitable advantages and disadvantages).

Angus gives me a hand with my massive case which has been getting a lot of stick (I don’t think it’s that big!)

Ed Kee, Secretary of Agriculture for Delaware, talked to us about the United States. He summed up the journey of American farming since the end of the Second World War with this simple fact: “In 1945 there were 25 million dairy cows in the the US. Today there are 9 million, producing 60% more milk than in 1945.”

Ed explained his role as a State Ag Secretary and ran through the complexities of the US Farm Bill, which acts as a safety net for the economic viability of farms and to ensure affordable food for those on low incomes. Through crop insurance schemes, farmers receive an indirect subsidy (so if anyone tells you American agriculture isn’t subsidised, that’s not strictly true…except for fruit and veg producers.)

Shi Baoqing from China (who has also chosen to go by the name of Kevin to make it easier on his Western colleagues) described the development of the Chinese dairy industry. 16 years ago milk started to be sold in plastic bags instead of bottles which was significant for two reasons:
1) The container doesn’t need sterilising
2) It can be mass produced

In 2008, the Melamine Scandal hit. This was a truly terrible food scare. Milk was watered down in order to boost volumes and, to avoid detection, the protein content was topped up with a chemical called ‘Melamine’. It was later found to be poisonous and thousands of children were left with kidney damage as a result of drinking contaminated infant formula. The public, understandably, lost confidence in the industry so the Chinese Government decided to set up its own dairy farms so it could oversee the entire production process. And so began the ‘Great Expansion’.

Today China has some of the biggest dairy farms on the planet with tens of thousands of cows. Two words immediately spring to mind don’t they? Animal welfare. I asked about this and it sounds like the industry is not at a point where animal welfare can be considered a top priority. Production and expansion are still the main drivers. I find myself in a common quandary – balancing a growing population’s right to safe, fresh milk with the needs of animals. Kevin recognises that, after such rapid growth, the Chinese dairy industry has entered a phase of adjustment and correction and he’s working with the Ministry of Agriculture to explore new and sustainable ways of cow farming.

Next up was Japanese grain farmer Shigeo Maeda. What a guy! He grows wheat, Azuki beans, sugar beet and popcorn on a 330 acre farm in Tokachi District in northern Japan. His motto is “think globally, act locally” and I reckon he’s the most positive farmer I’ve ever met. He throws open his farm gates to the public and runs a ‘Wheat Camp’ to educate urban consumers about where their food comes from. “Realise and surprise,” he grins, “bread comes from wheat!”


He showed us pictures of dozens of smiling faces on his farm and PR stunts to engage people with food such as an 111 metre pizza and a “massive toast”! A shrewd entrepreneur to boot, Shigeo is currently marketing his homegrown microwaveable popcorn. We all got a free sample and I wanted to run a sweepstake on how many times he could squeeze in a plug throughout the conference. Farmers can learn a lot from Shigeo – he’s the perfect example of “not falling in love with your product, but with what your product does”.

Daniel Gadd from Ethiopia broadened our horizons about this most agricultural country. In many ways Ethiopia is behind the times – Dan showed us a video of farmers threshing with a pair of oxen (they walk over the harvested crop which separates the seeds/peas from their kernels). That method hasn’t changed since the 14th Century.

Dan believes Ethiopia has the potential to become an agricultural powerhouse driven by smallholder farmers. 85% of Ethopians work in agriculture, which accounts for a whopping 46% of GDP. It’s the world’s fifth largest producer of chickpeas, it ranks eighth in coffee production and it’s number one in teff.


Teff is the next big thing and you heard it here first…

Six million Ethiopian farmers grow this ancient grain and I’d never heard of it. Once baked, it looks like a tortilla or chapatti and it’s gluten free and nutritious. How many people do you know that have gone gluten free? I could seriously see the health-conscious foodies of Bristol going mad for teff.

I’m not sure the wheat growers among us were too impressed though. One Australian grain farmer said to me last night: “My two least favourite words are ‘gluten free.”

And last but not in any way least is Malwinder Singh Mahli, Syngenta’s project manager for northern India. Mahli is from the Punjab and explained some of the challenges facing rural communities. He is particularly worried about young people migrating to the cities, leaving a brain drain and labour shortage in the farming industry. More than half of India’s 1.7 billion population is still involved with agriculture but Mahli believes it could contribute much more than the current 13.7% to GDP. He wants the Government to do more to encourage young people to stay in farming. His words struck a chord as this is a problem across the industry globally.


Ed Kee says they are tackling it in Delaware. Four years ago they started a programme where new entrants can borrow up to $100,000 at 0% interest for 30 years. The applicant has to be qualified or trained in agriculture and there must be a covenant in the deed to say that farm is reserved for agriculture in perpetuity. It can sold to another farmer but not for development. The average age of a farmer in the US is 57 or 58 so they have a very similar situation to the UK. Could a scheme like that work for us?

Overall, the thing that struck me most about these presentations was the positivity and ambition coming out of the developing nations. It was humbling actually and made me question our readiness to moan about low milk prices and bad weather in this productive, fertile land, and with the protection of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Which brings me on to subsidies…do not talk to Australians about subsidies. They hate them. Many found the system here completely barmy and, on hearing the average size of a beef herd in Cavan was just 10 to 12 cows, I did hear someone scoff (which I was quick to challenge. That’s another thing I learned this week – Nuffield Scholars aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in, me included).

There were a few heated debates throughout the week about the perceived madness of ‘feather bedding’ inefficient and unprofitable farms. I could see their point but I haven’t budged from my viewpoint that the CAP exists to subsidise more than just food production. We value our small, family farms in Europe. They are an important part of our landscape and culture and preserve the balance in our countryside. Having said that, I did not envy Thomas Tynan from the European Commission who came to talk to this fairly tough crowd about European Ag Policy, export markets, trade agreements and the CAP. He fielded some challenging questions and, while he admitted mistakes had been made in the past, he was a passionate defender of the current system. And added that 62% of European taxpayers support the CAP as long as it’s orientated towards protecting the environment and tackling climate change.

I was determined this would be a short post but it turns out blogging is a great way to pass the time on a nine hour flight to Miami (I’m about to start my Global Focus Programme – six weeks of intense travel, visiting farms all over the place with seven other scholars).

I will mention one more session from the CSC that left a lasting impression. A talk by Canadian dairy farmer and industry communicator Andrew Campbell. You may already follow him on Twitter – check out @FreshAirFarmer

@FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell and I at the Gala Dinner

This is a man who randomly decided to Tweet a photo of his farm every day of the year. And it went viral. He was on national news and became a bit of a celeb (like our own farming Twitterati in the UK, the likes of @HerdyShepherd and Gareth Wyn Jones).


But he also experienced the downside of notoriety when he attracted attention from animal rights activists. Accused of running a system that ‘raped cows’, Andrew and even his wife and children found themselves in the political spotlight and on the receiving end of some pretty nasty threats. How to deal with that kind of unwanted attention? Honesty, openness and a proactive attitude (except with the trolls – don’t engage with trolls on social media). Andrew carried on posting photos of his farm and as his Tweets became increasingly popular around the world, so too did Andrew. He now travels around giving frank and open advice to farmers wishing to connect with the public and advocate farming. He said: “In this industry we need to do a far, far better job of rallying the troops. Some people [wrongly] assume the animals are an object, the soil is just an object for us to make money from. We need to build trust and relationships.”

And far from being an instrument of torture, Andrew suggested the media can be an asset which has “tremendous power in shifting public perception”. My ears pricked up at that and I’m now planning to visit Andrew, and some Canadian scholars, in Ontario later in the year.

And that’s how Nuffield works – you meet, you talk, share and learn. In the space of a week this network of international farmers has opened my eyes to so much and put me in a better position to at least have a stab at changing the world.


Below: Dutch scholar Willem Van Der Schans shows his special CSC clogs to Roger Mercer, chairman of Nuffield International. Naturally I had to try them on.

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