Thursday, 25 February 2010
Today the NFU communications team very kindly invited me along to find out more about what they do, and attend their team "wash up" meeting, to review the conference. It was fascinating to hear the inside story on such a successful event, and the tremendous amount of work and planning that went into it. I have come away with plenty of ideas about how we can feed into their organisation, and NFU publications that we can pitch ideas to. I also noted that they have really nice chocolates at their post-conference team meetings, another idea we could usefully copy. Tomorrow I travel back northwards to Newcastle.
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
It was gratifying to hear speakers and delegates comment several times over the course of the two day conference on the need for more research if the agricultural industry is to be sustainable and feed the world in an era of climate change. Sometimes we assume that farmers think all scientists exist in an ivory tower but the delegates at the NFU seemed very ready to support research. At this afternoon's political 'Question Time' one urged the funding of more teams to work on problems relevant to agriculture. He pointed out that successful research teams often have to waste time working on applications for grants, or disband to do other work - a situation academics are all too familiar with. So farmers are ready listen and to get results it into practice, as long as we can talk to them in language that is accessible and provide information that is useful to them.
Speakers from the EU, the Scottish Agricultural Colleage and Defra argued that it is in farmers' interests to put animal welfare high on their agenda. Not only is it a concern for consumers, it can lead to better animal health and productivity and tastier meat from unstressed animals. This is a welcome message. As one delegate pointed out, a recent survey found that a large proportion of young people think bacon comes from sheep. People do need to know more about where there food comes from and more information about how it is produced. Farmers have a lot to be proud of, particularly as our welfare standards are probably the best in Europe. They should be telling that good news story.
Robin Tucker of Natural England must have known he would have a hard time at the NFU conference breakfast session on the uplands. I had a lot of sympathy for him. 7.30 am is too early for a fight. It was clear that members regard Natural England with suspicion and some resentment. Seeing them in charge of decisions about financial support for upland farmers makes them anxious. One accused them of acting like the SS and wanting to drive farmers from the hills so they could rewild large areas, which Tucker denied. What came over very loudly, is that farmers in the uplands want to produce food and hate the jargon of government organisations. Talk of 'ecosystem services' turns them off. That could be a lesson for us all.
Tuesday, 23 February 2010
The average farmer may be old enough to have grown up with the Beatles but Paul McCartney will find few fans among livestock producers. At their workshop today all were aghast at the suggestion of 'Meat-Free Mondays' although most reluctantly admitted that they would need to take the climate change message on board, if only because of government or consumer pressure. NFU Livestock Chairman Alistair Mackintosh played heavily on grassland as a carbon store but agreed that a concerted pr campaign might be necessary to counteract the influence of veggie celebs such as Sir Paul and to explain the complexities of greenhouse gas emissions to a public looking for quick-fire solutions.
After the politicians came the real business - commodities. Paul Kelly, who developed the Kelly Bronze turkey was the most interesting speaker for me. As a marketer of his product he is a genuis, and bursting with enthusiasm. I loved the moment when he told us he had ignored pr advice that livestock producers should never show pictures of the animals - consumers can't take the idea of eating them apparently. Kelly didn't agree and his publicity is full of happy turkeys. I would like to have told him that I (a non-farmer and self-confessed townie) wrote a viewpoint article for Farmers' Weekly urging farmers to be more up-front about meat production and show us their animals. If meat eating, and livestock production, is to survive, we have to be more honest about it. I am interested in food and cooking and I am a committed carnivore. But I do want to know where my dinner comes from, and how it lived. Paul Kelly says that he wants consumers to be able to come to the farm where his turkeys are raised at any time and have all their perceptions about the brand confirmed. That is of course the secret - you have to be confident that your standards meet customer expect
ations. I applaud his confidence.
Peter Kendall was upbeat on the future of farming when he opened the conference this morning. Food production has risen up the political and public agenda and put farming under a brighter spotlight than it has enjoyed for years and the NFU seems to be revelling in it. Kendall is an impressive speaker and he made some intersting points about the need for the industry to invest in its own future and the opportunities for on-farm energy production - he feels that the government has missed a trick in not putting enough incentive farmers' way on anaerobic digestion. Both he and the subsequent speaker - Secretary of State Hilary Benn - mentioned the need for investment in science but only the latter was barracked. Or perhaps badgered is the right word. No news there, but the black and white issue did overshadow Benn's comments on the importance of food production in an era of climate change and his measured comments on cost sharing for animal disease. Nick Herbert, his Shadow, on the other hand, was wooing his natural constituency and promising to 'put the farming back into Defra'. He popped off a few shots at bureaucracy and red tape and the Rural Payments Agency which went down well. He supported cost sharing but on the basis of giving farmers a bigger say and controlling badgers in high TB areas. He is the darling of the conference - for this year at any rate.
Monday, 22 February 2010
My bags are packed and I am setting off on the train to Birmingham today. NFU insiders tell me that I won't need to wear tweeds or a Barbour jacket in order to blend in, but when deciding on a suitable bag for hauling my laptop around the conference venue I have to admit that I did choose my "Riverford Farm" hessian carrier rather carefully. Several members of the NFU communications team have been touch and I'm looking forward to meeting them. They have an exciting timetable of activities lined up for me. As well as attending some of the sessions as a delegate I will be helping to register members of the press, spending time on their campaigns stand and writing short pieces for the NFU website. It sounds as though it could be a busy couple of days.
Tuesday, 16 February 2010
Next week I will be work shadowing in the NFU Communications Department. I am looking forward to spending a couple of days at the NFU conference in Birmingham, then visiting their headquarters at Stoneleigh. I want to find out more about what they do, the ways in which they communicate with their members and what we could be doing better at Relu. Over the course of the week I will be posting some blogs so hope you will join me then.