I have been away from the blogosphere for a little while now for which I apologise. However, it has been a fairly hectic couple of weeks. Following on from my rewilding adventure at the Hay Festival I spent a week traveling around Yorkshire farms and food businesses as part of my postgraduate course at the RAU. It was a week of inspiration, of brilliant company and good humour and was a super way of rounding off the course, which has been a steep learning curve into all areas of agriculture over the past 9 months. The course ended with a final assessment (viva) yesterday and we must now all move on to our various new lines of work. For me, it will give me a lot more time to concentrate on my writing (and to go out and visit sites and reserves!) and I am looking forward to getting fully stuck into a number of new projects, including my work with the National Trust and Bristol University down in Exmoor. I want to take this moment to thank all the ‘GDAers of 2015-16′(you know who you are) for making the past 9 months as enjoyable as they have been. There have been ups and downs and the learning curve has sometimes been steep, but for me this is what life is all about. We all constantly learn and it is very important to open yourself up to different challenges and to push yourself. This we have all certainly done this year! Your good humour, support and friendship has been truly valued. I’m sure you all have bright futures ahead and I look forward to seeing you all develop as farmers and industry leaders.
Thanks and emotions aside (and thinking more now of those not amongst the minority of people who were actually on the GDA course this year) I thought I would pen a few thoughts about Yorkshire and the lessons I took from it. I’m not going to mention every place we visited as I don’t want to bore you with detail but I want to thank all of our hosts for offering us a true insight into your businesses. Visits varied from a dairy that had diversified into ice cream and was doing home deliveries throughout the city of Sheffield to an agri-chemical testing company, an alpaca farm, a brewery and a grouse moor.
Perhaps the most insightful visit for me (identifying as a meat eater in this context) was our final visit of the week – to a Yorkshire abbatoir where we saw cattle going through the process. I didn’t really know what to expect, and in hindsight I feel fairly irresponsible for not thinking about the actual physical process of killing as much as perhaps I should have done in the past. The swiftness of the operation was incredible and we were very privileged (unsure if this is the right term to use) to see the whole process from live animal to butchered meat. Views will no doubt be divided on this but I would argue that the process was humane, swift and professional and was the best way, in this case, of ending these animals’ lives to meet the demand for good quality beef. I certainly didn’t turn vegetarian as a result but it is an experience that will certainly shape my future thoughts when it comes to the meat industry as a whole. For me, every person who eats meat should see the process of how their meat is produced and processed. For those who want to see it, here is a video of cattle going through an Australian abbatoir process. At the same time I think that we should limit the amount of meat we eat, spending our money on good quality cuts that we truly appreciate rather than large quantities of cheap meat.
A key theme for the week was entrepreneurship – incidentally the theme for the Oxford Farmign Conference earlier this year (see this paper from Graham Redman). To survive in an increasingly competitive world, and with the prospect of subsidies being available looking increasingly unlikely moving into the medium and long term future (whether in or outside the EU), farmers need to be entrepreneurial. We saw some fantastic examples of this through the week but it was also clear that moving too quickly and doing too much at once can blinker vision and prevent one from taking a step back to analyse one’s business objectively. This point was picked up on by some of the GDA presentations from Tuesday this week, which reflected on the individual visits of the tour. Success is driven by determination and vision but good planning and execution is vital, as well as ensuring the core business is not threatened by subsidiary outlier enterprises.
Certainly a favourite visit for us all was to the alpaca
breeding business run by Jenny MacHarg and her husband Graham – Fowberry Alpacas. It was fascinating to garner an introduction into these ‘exotic’ animals and to see how a niche market can be exploited to generate good sales given time and determination to succeed. It appears that a degree of sheep knowledge would be beneficial when keeping alpacas but in reality they must be looked at as their own kind of livestock with their own peculiarities and necessities. With some stud males reaching tens of thousands of pounds it is clear that the alpaca world is one to take seriously. Jenny’s marketing background has certainly helped this couple in building their business. I must say that I quickly became rather fond of these animals (it is difficult not to) and their silky soft fleeces prove that wool is the gold of the animal kingdom (it might be a while before I am not alone in this way of thinking).
Another key theme I took away from the week is that there is no one way of doing things. I’ve experienced this on the dozens of farm visits throughout the year. Despite the apparent doom and gloom there sometimes appears in the agricultural industry there are certainly some exciting things going on across the country and anyone involved in farming would do well to remember this. It’s a common saying that good news stories don’t make good news. I beg to differ. Without highlighting the good practice and good ideas that are out there it is usually difficult to get motivated to improve your own situation. We need to hear about these good news stories. That’s why initiatives like the BBC Food and Farming Awards are so important. I have seen this year what is possible within an agricultural framework and it has made me even more excited and appreciative to be involved in this glorious sector as it moves forward. I have seen how quietly proud and motivated many farm businesspeople are about what they are doing, how they care passionately for the places where they work and the people who they work with. There is always bad practice out there and this will be what the regular news headlines grab on to, but it is not the usual case. We must remember this. Thank you RAU for an inspiring 9 months.