Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Make the most of what you've got [farmers]

To farmers a badger set is at best a minor irritation and at worst the source of constant worry; in extreme situations, there’s severe economic and emotional loss if Bovine TB strikes.

For a growing number of landowners, badgers are a money-spinner. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust website invites you to “visit the Margaret Grimwade Badger hide for an intimate evening with these sociable mammals” at a cost of £10 for adults and £5 for children, the hide is Spartan and without facilities.

To farmers, the birth of a lamb is just a part of the farming year, whilst to a mother with young children, watching the newborn’s arrival is something wondrous, an event that they will gladly pay to see.

My point is that many of us see the countryside through our farming eyes, in doing so, we may miss the wider opportunity.

In Australia, there’s a small outback, town called Winton which is built on farming’s economic ups and downs. It is remote, arid, and if you drove through it at 5am on a Sunday morning, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is one of those wild frontier, one-horse towns we’ve all seen in the old Westerns. First impressions couldn’t be further from reality.

Winton is a town that has recognised, and built prosperity, from what it has. Its Outback Music Festival – borne from it being the place where the ballad Waltzing Mathilda was written - attracts close to 10,000 people, its Outback Film Festival capitalises on its majestic landscape, welcomes 3,000 visitors and Winton’s investing in a lairage and motel facility to provide an overnight stop for the many ‘road trains’ driving through Australia with freight and livestock.

In Scotland’s countryside, the opportunities are there to be grasped as consumer’s appetites for ‘authentic experiences’ grow. And many of these are easily delivered. For £25 a head you could combine the sharing of your farm and family’s stories on a farm walk, followed by lunch around your kitchen table.

You could copy the badger hide experience by hiring out a simple shelter for ‘twitchers’ to watch birdlife. Or put up a wooden shed and they could stay longer, willingly parting with £500 for a week ‘off-grid’, without mobile phone signal, electricity or running water.

I believe that as we face the inevitable changes resulting from Brexit that tapping into the psyche of our country’s consumers will be a crucial, bringing new income streams for the imaginative. My neighbours think I’m mad in my quest to renovate two old caravans – I will call them retro, glamping accommodation with the most amazing views of Aberdeenshire.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Is external investment in farms such a bad thing?

External investors in farms and farmland are frequently viewed with scepticism, and sometimes contempt, by the farming sector, particularly when they are perceived to have pushed up local land prices, or excluded a keen new entrant from farming. Sometimes this sentiment is warranted, but, increasingly, I’ve seen some positive examples of welcome change with the influx of ‘outside’ money.

Andrew Reid owns land in north west London. He’s not from a farming background, but he loves the sector and has turned over some of his farm buildings and land to a childrens’ farm called Belmont. His young, enthusiastic team, many also not born to agriculture, have a passion for education and sharing their knowledge with inner-city children, young adults and charities.

Belmont’s contribution to London’s complex society, and to the communication of UK farming, is a pocket of wonder. Observing Jewish and Muslim teenagers, with absolutely no farm experience, laughing and working side-by-side, without any antagonism shows the power of green space and animals in healing divides.

Larger-scale acquisitions with ‘outside’ capital can also bring unexpected local, as well as potential industry-wide benefits. I was intrigued earlier this week to attend a Worshipful Company of Farmers’ visit to Beeswax Dyson Farms in Lincolnshire.

The farm is owned by the serial inventor Sir James Dyson who is putting meaningful investment into the land, soil and farm infrastructure. Sir James now owns 33,000 acres of farmland in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Lincolnshire. He has employed some of the best farming and land managers in our sector to produce food, biodiversity havens and energy.

His desire to farm is driven by his passion for farming – but not just the chocolate-box image of what agriculture should be – but rather a proper, prospering farming business. Of course he has capital to invest, but he is doing so with a view to creating an efficient, profitable business.

As you might expect from someone so ingenious, he is challenging the agricultural status quo, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and exploring how technology could improve farming. He instils an intense curiosity and attention to detail amongst his team, to make his farmland more productive and at the same time make a greater contribution to the environment. He’s introducing livestock back into the rotation and giving new entrants opportunities.

I’m fascinated by how a pioneer like Sir James Dyson can help to progress farming practices and thinking – sometimes the best advances in any industry come from outside thinking.

I’m certain that both men I’ve outlined in this short feature will bring important gifts to our sector, such as encouraging a better public understanding of what we do to produce food and why, investing in tired infrastructure, inspiring bright ‘young things’ to build their future within agriculture’s wide employment offering and to keep farming’s potential front-of-mind with policy-makers and the business leaders important for the countryside’s fate.

So, whilst outside investment isn’t always good news, perhaps as an industry we should embrace those who want to keep farming relevant, progressing and pioneering.

Jane Craigie
Jane is a marketer with a background in farming. She lives near Aberchirder, is British representative for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a Scottish Enterprise Rural Leader and undertakes marketing and media work for clients including The Oxford Farming Conference, ABP, Harbro, Agrovista, BASF and diversified farm businesses.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Food unites the people of Beirut – what can we learn from them?

Last Thursday, whilst drinking very strong, sweet chai (tea) in a Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs of Beirut, many of my perceptions about the Middle East were challenged.

I went to The Lebanon to spend time with Kamal Mouzawak, an incredible man whose mission has been to unite The Lebanon’s war-torn people through food and the shared history of food traditions. We met when he spoke at an event called The Do Lectures held in Wales last summer.

Lebanon’s civil war raged from 1975 to 1990. The country is now relatively peaceful and prosperous, despite its complex religious landscape [18 million official religious sects], its bordering nations [Syria and Israel] and the recent migration of two million Syrian war refugees, burgeoning Lebanon’s population to 6.5 million.

Kamal, a farmer’s son, set up a farmers’ market in 2004 in downtown, trendy Beirut.  The market, called Souk el Tayeb [‘souk’ means market, ‘tayeb’ translates to good], has grown to over 85 stalls, attracting up to 3,000 shoppers during the peak months from October to May. The stalls are all run by small farmers and producers from all over The Lebanon.

The souk’s slogan is ‘make food, not war”.

Kamal’s vision is that social and religious divides can be bridged through the sharing of food by the people who prepare and serve it.

He said to the Irish Times in 2013: ““Food is not a commodity you can buy on a supermarket shelf. Someone has to plant, produce and cook that. If you are not doing it yourself you need to at least have a direct contact with someone who is.”

The parallel of the ability of Scotland’s many farmers’ markets and farm shops to build mutual understanding between consumers and our industry wasn’t lost on me.

Souk el Tayeb’s social endeavour hasn’t stopped with the market. My chai-drinking visit to the Palestinian refugee camp - Borj El Brajneh – was to meet a young woman called Mariam Shaar who was born in the camp, as was her mother. Her father arrived there in 1948, aged six, when the camp was newly opened. It is shocking to think that three generations of the same family have lived their whole lives there.

The camp is ramshackle, hugely overcrowded and residents live hand-to-mouth; the women rarely work and struggle to make ends meet.

With the help of Souk el Tayeb, Miriam has set up Soufra, a food catering enterprise with 20 other women from the camp. The team has learnt how to prepare and make food to a professional standard. They now run a food truck and are selling traditional Palestinian foods to the general public and organisations outside the camp. Soufra has given the women meaning and purpose in what would otherwise be a diminished and sometimes demeaning existence.

On my flight home, my trip made me think about what we can learn from Kamal and Miriam, despite our cultural differences. It strengthened my belief that engaging with Scottish consumers by sharing our food and food stories is hugely powerful; it demonstrated how making and eating food with interested people – whatever our differences with them – can build strong and lasting relationships and it confirmed something we all know so well, food brings happiness. 

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Where might farming’s innovation come from?

For centuries, new technologies and creative innovation have been pivotal for agricultural progress. Without the advances of scientists, inventors and geneticists, we’d be in a woeful state if we were still farming the 10,500-year old ancestors of our current breeds; or were still growing the ancient wheat cultivars dating back to 10000BC.

Agricultural progress has been staggeringly clever and rapid over the last 100 years, benefiting the whole of society and the food supply chain.

As food producers and environmental managers, farmers have some mighty challenges ahead, so, what’s the innovation horizon looking like for the coming decades? Could post-Brexit policy changes improve technological access for UK farmers?

I have a visceral objection to leaving the EU. But, having made the decision to leave, we now have to move forward decisively to make sure that UK farming can operate within a pro-innovation political environment.

I think there are two points we should be pressing our Governments for. The first is that new technology approvals should be based on science. Many of the EU’s revocation decisions, e.g. on agrochemicals, have been driven by emotion and public sentiment, not fact.

The second is that we cannot approve new technologies that could create barriers to trade, nor harm our strong Scottish food and drink brands, given our need to trade with Europe and new global markets.

For this reason, traditional biotechnology may be permanently unacceptable for the UK, which may not be a bad thing, given the advances being made in other areas. Here’s a few contenders for our future.

Monsanto has been researching RNA Interference (RNAi) biotechnology. It is a technique that was founded 15 years ago for medicinal targeting of cancer genes. Put simply, the RNAi works by silencing genes that cause disease. And unlike the cell-level manipulation of GM, RNAi could be sprayed onto a crop to control a pest or weed.

CRISPR is another recent innovation with the capability to replace undesirable DNA sequences with desirable ones by specific gene-editing in any species of animal or plant. CRISPR has a couple of winning arguments when it comes to regulation; one, it could be hugely beneficial for treating human diseases and, two, it avoids the controversial inclusion of foreign species DNA so widely detested in anti-GM campaigners.

Nanotechnology could be another fascinating tool for farming. Nano ‘sensors’ are particularly intriguing. These ‘micro-recorders’ could monitor soil moisture deficit to automatically control irrigation systems, or could be used in food packaging to indicate food contamination.

Finally, 3D printing could both help and compete with conventional farming. On the plus side, we can already print spare parts for machinery. But, a threat could come from the 3D printing of foods…in addition to the successful printing of fruit, there is even a company called BeeHex that has installed a 3D pizza printer in a New York restaurant chain. Food for thought… excuse the pun!

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Resilience lies at the heart of rural places

Living and working in rural areas can be challenging. Severe weather can isolate communities from the outside world, inadequate infrastructure can take its toll practically and economically on businesses operating in the countryside, and a lack of funds - public or private – can make survival at best difficult, or at worst impossible for some.

Yet, in so many parts of Scotland and the wider world, adversity doesn’t deter people from building their lives in remote places – whether that’s Fair Isle, Mongolia or Outback Australia. I’ve been very fortunate to visit some such communities all over the world through my role within the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

My travels have fostered an important learning for me, which is that at the heart of surviving – or thriving - rural communities need three important pillars – resilience, leadership and political support. A visit to Outback Australia last October brought home just how vital these pillars are.

The farmers I visited in the far west of Queensland were four years into a fierce drought – literally no rain had fallen. When I arrived, on the surface, I saw a desperate rural community in a region reliant on agriculture. The usually semi-arid land, by then parched, is suited to sheep; however, the scourge of wild dogs (feral domesticated dogs crossed with dingoes) and powerful kangaroos that quickly destroy any fences erected, mean that farmers have had no option but to switch to cattle for their livelihoods.

The cattle are hard on the fragile land that had rapidly become unable to sustain even a small number of breeding females saved for better times ahead. By the time I visited just over a year ago, 80-90% of the farms in the region were destocked, farms had ceased trading, yet the farmers and their wider community - retailers, electricians, schools, hospitals – had to survive and think to the future.

Amidst the many harrowing stories I’d heard of desperate times, dead animals and suicides, there were people who demonstrated tear-jerking resilience, leadership and fostered political support which have been fundamental to carrying these incredibly stoic rural communities through.

In Longreach, leaders of the local community – including a farmer, James Walker – looked to both the immediate and long-term future. They organised a fund-raising drought-relief concert and they successfully lobbied the federal and national Government for emergency funding – via a public summit called the Bush Forum. Whilst they were lobbying they insisted on the installation of superfast broadband to allow new industries to develop, to make the region less reliant on just farming. The Walkers are also working with others in the community to build Longreach as a destination for Outback tourism.

Two hours’ drive away in the Winton region, resilience and leadership is behind the energy in this prosperous little town. The four regional mayors – some of who are farmers - are united, strategic and have made some bold and creative decisions on how to use their funds – private and public - to develop Winton as a multi-faceted destination.

Winton has made something of everything it has – rugged scenery where the sun rises and sets in cloudless skies, day in and day out, has become the location of many film sets and the newly-formed Outback Film Festival. It has a hugely popular annual music festival; and a local farmer with an interest in palaeontology has discovered a rich heritage in dinosaurs in the area spawning a host of related tourist attractions. Even the small, local racetrack is being developed to include overnight accommodation to serve as a lairage stop for the hundreds of livestock and good-carrying road-trains travelling through the Outback.

Australia may be on the other side of the world, but I saw so many parallels to Scotland, and just like their rural communities, we too need resilience, leadership and political support to survive and thrive. I believe that we are lucky in that we have the ear and the support of the Scottish Government – unlike many rural communities – including our southern neighbours.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The public and why we should bother

Seven years ago, the Oxford Farming Conference commissioned some research into the public perception of farming amongst the general public. The findings were very heartening, suggesting that sentiment towards farmers was positive, with farmers being seen as some of the most hard-working people in our communities.

This positive perception is valuable to every farm and something, I feel, that we all have a responsibility to contribute to by taking the time to understand our non-farming neighbours and to befriend, or at least, talk to them.

There are farmers who are exceptional at taking the time to communicate about our industry.  For those selling produce direct or running tourism businesses, it’s clearly essential for them to build a good rapport with our public, but I believe that every farmer needs the goodwill of our wider community for a whole host of reasons. And also, I believe that all farmers have a responsibility not to let their farming ‘team mates’ down in the industry’s PR.

Take our negotiations with Westminster; agriculture’s well-crafted arguments need to be heard. Views on the need, and types of, on-going support can be both echoed or decried by members of our wider communities. Those in healthcare might think that they are far more in need of funding, whilst teachers could argue that our nation’s education is far more worthy of the contents of the public purse.

Farming also needs the goodwill of our non-farming neighbours for a host of practical reasons - when you’re driving beasts to market and holding up the school-run traffic, the necessary spraying of glyphosate close to someone’s garden fence, or when a cow dies in a field close to a housing estate. If people have goodwill towards farming and understand why certain activities are undertaken, it surely helps ease relationships.

We can look to Europe to learn from the good and bad situations. In France, the perception of conventional farmers is very poor indeed, verging on a dogmatic hatred for anything that isn’t organic or ecological in practice. This is in no small part down to the strong and well-coordinated NGO lobby. The voices of the non-farming believers are really blighting many producers’ businesses, and countering these negative views is a big role (and cost) for the French farming unions and young farmers’ groups.

In contrast, Italian farmers benefit from the country’s tremendous food culture, and are well supported financially, as well as in sentiment, by public and policy-makers alike.

We are extremely lucky to have some great ambassadors for our industry – chefs, royalty, celebrities and journalists - whether we agree with their views or not. But the unsung heroes surely have to be those farmers who make the effort to visit schools to talk to children, or those who get up early on a cold Saturday morning to set up their stalls at a farmers’ market, or the growing numbers who swing wide their gates for Open Farm Sunday.

Whatever we can do to promote our industry, however small, we must do. Just think about our French neighbours and their ordeals, we don’t want to end up with the same plight, do we? 

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Electronics companies invest in agriculture

In 2014, there were estimated to be 570 million farms in the world, and an increasing number of farmers are looking to technology to make their crop growing more efficient. Nearly $600 million is spent on agricultural technology, or ag-tech, every year, and there are some fascinating developments from household name electronic companies keen to get involved in making the farmers’ lives a little bit easier, and their yields a little bit bigger.

With less than half a percentage of their land given over to agriculture, it’s not a surprise that Singapore is reliant on food imports for more than 90% of its fruit and vegetables. However, the country is using what it does best – technology – to try to redress the balance, with Panasonic at the forefront of this.

Vertical farming, involving giant, A-shaped greenhouses, puts crops into trays on a motorised racking system. A bit like a ferris wheel, these trays move slowly up and over the racking, keeping them exposed to sunlight for as long as possible. Panasonic has successfully grown spinach, radishes and rocket using this method.

Panasonic isn’t alone, either. Electronics brand Sharp has an indoor farm on the go in Dubai where they’re growing strawberries, which are usually far too expensive for the general public as they have to be imported. Dubai currently imports 98% of its fresh food. Sharp is using LEDs which can control the lighting, sensors to detect air quality, and their own monitoring systems to check the humidity and temperature. It’s an entirely unselfish venture, as Sharp wants to collect data to share with others interested in the best way to grow strawberries in Dubai and make the country more self-sufficient.

Toshiba, Sony and Fujitsu are also in on the act, recycling their old clean room facilities in Japan and repurposing them as soil-free lettuce farms. The lettuces are grown in a hydroponic situation, and can be encouraged to grow at double the speed of their field-grown counterparts due to the LED lighting which has been designed to boost photosynthesis.

With so many of our electrical companies realising that ag-tech is a serious market, particularly in places where farming isn’t possible, it’s exciting to see high tech innovation which really could change the way a country develops.