There has been a fantastic response to my articles in Farm Business and this week’s edition of Farmers Weekly (May 11th), about bridging the disconnect between farmers and the mainstream media. I’ve been getting so many tweets and emails from people volunteering to be part of my new communications project, Just Farmers, which is brilliant and very exciting. Thank you!
I’m still getting things set up – with a website coming soon – but I know you’re eager for more details so I thought a blog post would answer a few questions in the meantime.
What is Just Farmers?
This summer I am recruiting a small but diverse group of farmers from around the UK, representing the following farming sectors:
- Arable (conventional) • Arable (organic) • Dairy (housed) • Dairy (grass-based) • Pigs (indoor) • Pigs (outdoor) • Poultry (indoor/enriched colony) • Poultry (free-range/extensive) • Beef • Sheep • Horticulture (conventional) • Horticulture (organic)
Post-harvest, I’ll be running the first ever Just Farmers workshops and together we will explore how the media works – learning to understand the news agenda, story angles and the tools journalists need to do their jobs well. We’ll be learning how to make ourselves heard, while still listening to others, and stepping outside our comfort zone into situations which may not feel familiar or comfortable. This will be an urban experience, as much as a rural one.
Being part of Just Farmers is about speaking from the heart about what you know best – your farm. Explaining the complicated things you do in a way that makes sense to everyone. Embracing scrutiny and welcoming challenge. Being ready for the tough questions and being happy to answer them. Telling your own story without a hidden agenda.
The aim is to build confidence among farmers and growers and help members of the media, predominantly in news and current affairs, connect with people at the grassroots of the industry.
This is only possible thanks to a bursary from the Frank Parkinson Agricultural Trust. I am hugely grateful to them for supporting this project.
What kind of farmers are you looking for?
Just Farmers are unknowns. And I mean that in the nicest possible way! They are not office holders in farm unions or trade organisations; or indeed media personalities in any way. They are literally Just Farmers.
This is about helping the media reach farmers and growers they would otherwise struggle to find. So if you’re already writing a regular column, or have been interviewed on national TV and radio numerous times, or present a programme, or have thousands of followers on Twitter – then you don’t need my help. You’re already flying – and please keep doing what you’re doing!
But for those who want to engage with the media in a constructive way, but may feel reluctant, nervous or unsure about sticking their head above the parapet, or just haven’t had the opportunity – this could be for you. Perhaps you’ve already done a couple of interviews locally or enjoy engaging with people on social media, and fancy doing more. If you’re passionate about your farm and your way of life, and want to share that passion with others, let me know. If your friends and family say “you’re good with people” and “have a way with words” – I want to hear from you. And if you’re as good at listening as you are at talking – that’s equally important for Just Farmers.
In short, if you feel voices like yours aren’t being heard in the mainstream media – now’s the time to step forward.
Why can’t you work with the NFU or another industry body to do this?
This is not an industry initiative. The NFU and other farming organisations are doing the vital job of promoting British agriculture and making sure the industry’s voice is heard at the top of Government.
But the media is a different beast. Journalists can sniff out a lobbyist, a PR campaign, a ‘sell’ in seconds. I know, because I have a well-honed sense of smell myself. I am not a PR person. I am a journalist. I want Just Farmers to stand up to the most severe scrutiny – to be genuinely independent and non-political.
When a news story breaks, reporters and programme-makers look for case studies to provide context, colour and personal testimony. The aim of Just Farmers is to help the media connect to individuals – case studies – at the grassroots of farming, who can talk about their farm, their job and how a story affects them personally.
They make a commitment to be available for interview, to open their door, even if the wider context is controversial. There is no rehearsed message and the farmers are free to say what they like, to who they like. But there are two simple rules, providing a guiding light:
1) Just Farmers do not promote one farm by denigrating another.
2) Just Farmers are individuals, not industry commentators.
There is no lobbying position here. Just Farmers speak in addition to, not instead of, the voice of industry, farm unions, NGOs, campaigners and so on.
Can ‘Just Farmers’ be NFU members?
Of course! I appreciate that most farmers and growers are members of unions and/or trade associations. So where’s the cut off? Well, if you speak publicly on behalf of an organisation, either at regional or national meetings, or in the media, then you are already playing for a team. You could find yourself conflicted in an interview situation which is why I’m asking only grassroots members apply for Just Farmers. This also applies to the top tier of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC), but not at a regional level (including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). I’m very keen to hear from young farmers. It’s also OK if you’ve previously held office at a farming organisation, as long as you have stepped back from those responsibilities and any active lobbying.
How do I apply?
Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to put yourself forward. I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
The search will start in earnest in June 2018, when I’ll be reaching out to farmers and asking those who volunteer to fill in a questionnaire, so I can learn more about you and your farm. Selection will happen in plenty of time for the first workshops in September.
Where did the idea for Just Farmers come from?
Journalists, radio producers and TV researchers work hard to find good interviewees. It’s not easy – especially when you’re on deadline. And it’s getting harder to persuade farmers to go on the record – many are afraid of saying something wrong or being targeted by activists.
I think back to all the times I’ve searched for case studies, wishing there was some kind of ‘casting agency’ for farmers; somewhere I could find good talkers without political agenda or a rehearsed message. It would be a diverse network, representing the various sectors of British agriculture – conventional and organic, large and small scale, housed and free-range, upland and lowland. Neutral voices speaking from personal, visible, tangible experience.
It’s an optimistic vision – one that has been politely dismissed as cloud cuckoo land by countless people I met during my Nuffield Scholarship when I studied the coverage of agriculture in the mainstream media. But on my final research trip to France, exactly one year ago, I found what I was looking for. And it’s working.
Jean-Marc Beche works for CNIEL, the umbrella organisation for the French dairy industry. He is the founder and director of a national ‘farmer witness network’. It’s a group of 35 dairy and beef farmers from all over France, trained to communicate with the public, via the mainstream media.
In very simple terms, Jean-Marc’s scheme provides media training – but this is a tool, not an objective. The aim of the network is to offer an authentic, personal insight into farming issues. The media training is about learning to relax and be yourself on camera or in front of a microphone – not how to dodge questions or push a party line.
“The journalists appreciate it,” Jean-Marc told me that day in Paris. “They always have a last minute deadline or a topic they have to turn around quickly. I give them the contact and they always call back afterwards and say the farmer was a good one.”
I was so excited to meet Jean-Marc. His ‘farmer witness’ network was the proof I needed to convince myself that something similar could work in the UK.
Now, I’m going to make it happen. I hope you’ll help me…