My Travel Plan (USA, Ireland, Kenya, Denmark, France, Belgium)

United States

The scale of US agriculture is mind-boggling. More than half of its giant land mass is farmed and it is the biggest exporter of agricultural products in the world.

There are interesting comparisons to be drawn with our own industry – and some surprising similarities too.

South Dakota
Hereford cattle on the prairie, South Dakota

America’s farms contribute $166.9 billion – about 1% – towards Gross Domestic Product (GDP). UK farming generated £9.9 billion in 2014 and accounts for about 0.7% of GDP.

Given the sheer amount of land, it’s unsurprising that American farms produce way, way more than ours. But I was expecting them to account for a larger share of the nation’s income.

Then I looked at population statistics. Only 15% of Americans (just over 46 million people) live in rural areas.

Suddenly America doesn’t seem so different to the UK. The vast majority of land is rural, yet the vast majority of the population are urban.

Initially, I decided to visit the US because I thought the scale and power of its agricultural industry would influence its treatment in local and national news coverage; that food production would rank alongside issues like health and education.

Instead, I’m hearing that same word – ‘disconnect’. A sense that farmers and consumers speak a different language.

One rancher I’ve arranged to visit in South Dakota wrote to me: “So many of the public have been so distant for so long from producing their own food and have never been hungry, they think it will always be this way and food should be produced on their terms. Journalists, as a whole are not as interested any more in producing news as they are in advancing an agenda that aligns with their philosophy. Add to that the proliferation of social media which has no editor and no consequences for misinformation or outright lies and it’s no wonder the public has some of the screwed up ideas about farming and ranching.

So the USA is not what I had anticipated. Instead of contrast I have stumbled across common themes – just on a much bigger geographical and economic scale.

I’ll explore urban attitudes in Chicago and drive out west for the rural view; to farms and newsrooms in Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota.

Kenya

I want to examine a country with a large rural population where the economy is dependent on agriculture. In Kenya, 80% of people make their living from the land – a complete opposite scenario to the UK.

I visited Kenya in April, as part of the Global Focus Programme run by Nuffield International. It was this eye-opening experience that convinced me of this country’s enormous relevance to my study topic; so much so I am returning to Kenya in September.

Why? Because farming is in the DNA of the average Kenyan. Even those in urban areas aspire to own land and farm it. There are television and radio programmes and an eight-page weekly supplement in the main national newspaper, all dedicated to practical farming. The general population has an innate understanding of where their food comes from – irrespective of whether they live on a farm or in a high-rise apartment.

I suspect there is much to learn from Kenya.

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A herdsman counts cattle after spraying for ticks in central Kenya
 France and Belgium

Now, this is based on a hunch and needs more research. But, from what I know of French farmers they are vocal, confident and not afraid to make demands of their government. Last summer they blockaded roads and led cows through supermarkets in protest at falling farmgate prices. And the public supported them. Food is a French obsession.

Belgium is quite another story. I spent some time there recently for Countryfile and was discussing my Nuffield topic with a contact. Immediately he said: “Farmers here can be made to feel like criminals.”

And then I saw this while walking to a restaurant:

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Campaign poster by Boerenbond Belge – the Belgian Farmers’ Union

So I have a very basic hypothesis. French farmers, though they are struggling financially like many across Europe, have a healthy level of support from the public. Belgian farmers less so.

Could it have anything to do with the fact that 98% of the Belgian population are urban? Or that French farming is worth more than double to its economy than what Belgian farmers contribute to theirs? And where does the media fit into all this?

I will be brushing up on my French (and Flemish) and exploring these questions with a trip across the Channel in the summer.

Ireland

One of the most important trips I will make. It is next door to the United Kingdom but so different in terms of attitudes towards farming. Someone once told me (and I haven’t been able to confirm this so grab your pinch of salt) that on average, British people are six generations separated from their farming ancestors. In Ireland it’s just two.

As far as farming is concerned, the Irish have got it down. If the industry is anywhere near as good at PR as they are at exporting food (98% of what they produce leaves the country), then they should handle the media pretty well.

Agriculture is big business. I wonder if that carries weight in the newsrooms of Dublin? Are business editors and political correspondents expected to know their agronomics, in a way the Robert Pestons of the London news media are not?

Ireland is well and truly an agricultural economy. British farmers gaze enviously across the Irish Sea to a farming industry they believe is more influential politically and more valued economically and culturally. My plan is to talk to Irish journalists and farming organisations about how they talk to each other.

Having said all that…

One thing I’ve been advised about Nuffield Scholarships is they can change. It already has. Who knows what the next year has in store, and where in the world I’ll end up. The only certainty is that I’m signed up – and buckled up – for a big adventure.

Me Travel Plan

REFERENCES:

United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, The World Bank, GeoHive Global Population Statistics, Office for National Statistics (UK)