Views vary among farmers about the radio show Farming Today – but its more popular than ever. Sarah Todd meets its producer
“Yes, it’s the back of beyond and then a bit further,” confirms BBC Farming Today producer Sarah Falkingham when I finally reach her home.
As debates rage about the dumbing down of agricultural programming, there’s something reassuring about the wellies with real-life clarts around the back door.
More people listen to Radio 4’s Farming Today than ever before. With modern technology, such as podcasts, tuning in at 5.45am, as the rest of the country sleeps, is no longer a necessity.
Sarah has been with the programme for 10 years and pragmatically puts the initial surge in listener numbers down to the foot-and-mouth crisis.
“I started in November 2000, just before foot-and-mouth and there’s no doubting that the crisis built the audience,” she recalls.
“Just like local radio picking up new listeners when there’s heavy snow, we gathered up people who were in need of up-to-date information they could trust. Figures have increased from 700,000 listeners across the week back when I started to over a million.”
Farmers are outnumbered by what Sarah calls “the general informed listener” but, apart from not covering stock market prices and new machinery launches, the station ploughs pretty much the same furrow.
“We still tackle all the same agricultural subjects such as pesticide use and the Common Agricultural Policy, but we just try to find a way of doing it that’s interesting to all listeners; not just the farmers.”
Sarah grew up in Herefordshire, her father farming until she was seven years-old. “My uncles are still farming in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire,” she adds.
So how did she end up on a remote East Yorkshire farm, covering the north down as far as Cambridge – “basically wherever’s possible in a day’s travelling” – for the station?
“I was definite from the age of 13 what I wanted to do, so volunteered in hospital and local radio,” explains Sarah, who now works part-time after becoming mother to Charlotte, four, and two year-old Anna. She is pregnant with her third child.
She did a degree in media production at Bournemouth University then, through Christian charity FEBA (Far Eastern Broadcasting Association), had six months producing and presenting a magazine and music programme in the Seychelles.
On her return, she did a post-graduate radio journalism course in London and got a place on a BBC training scheme which led to a permanent post at BBC Radio York. She met husband Richard while working as a district reporter for the station. She moved to Birmingham, home of Farming Today and its stablemates On Your Farm, Ramblings, Open Country and Countryfile, then married Richard in 2003 and became something of a pioneer as a home worker.
“I grabbed some curtains when they closed down the old Pebble Mill studio and got a local joiner to make me my own,” says Sarah, who jokes that the tiny space in the corner of her office has often been referred to as an “air-ing” cupboard.
“It was quite revolutionary to be working from home when I first started,” said Sarah. “When I look back to the huge satchel I had to lug around with the tape recorder in, which only had 15 minutes of recording time in spite of its size, it’s hard to believe how things have changed.”
The producer’s job involves finding stories, researching them and recording the interviews.
“Now a programme can be made from the middle of a field. Everything can be done out in the open, with my pieces sent across on e-mail.”
One of her recent assignments was following a sow from being artificially inseminated, through farrowing – there were 12 piglets and 11 survived – tail docking, teeth clipping, weaning and eventually slaughter.
“It was important to me that these weren’t organic free-range animals, they were mainstream indoor-reared destined for the supermarket shelves,” explains Sarah.
“We didn’t gloss over anything, we just reported the facts. I found the whole process fascinating, right down to the laser cutting of the pieces of meat – the precision of it all to cater for the ‘three for two’ modern consumer.”
The Falkingham family farm cattle, arable, potatoes and peas for Bird’s Eye. Sarah’s husband Richard, who farms with his father and brother at Wressle in East Yorkshire, is a good source of stories and information.
“He’ll often mention something, a new regulation from DEFRA – or an interesting farmer he’s met – in conversation,” says Sarah. “Having the farming connection is also a useful sounding board; they can tell me whether farmers are talking about a particular issue or not.”
Sarah doesn’t claim to be a traditional sleeves-rolled-up farmer’s wife. “They already have somebody to do the books and my mother-in-law pays the wages,” she explains. “I do, however, seem to spend a lot of time passing messages on.” Seems like they couldn’t have anybody better qualified
• Farming Today is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 each week day between 5.45 and 6.00am and a longer programme is broadcast on Saturdays from 6.30-7 am. www.bbc.co.uk/farmingtoday
Cameron’s cup of tea?
Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown always started their Prime Ministerial day by tuning into Farming Today.
Fran Barnes, the programme’s editor, says it is not yet known whether new premier David Cameron is a listener or not.
“Certainly every one out of three or four people who are listening to the radio at that time in the morning are listening to us, which is absolutely phenomenal,” she says.
“It’s a real balancing act. Farming is and always will be at our core. But we must be canny about how we work, making sure we also ask what the non-farming listeners will want to know.
“Anecdotally – there’s absolutely no research to back this up – a lot of the people who are listening are those who are getting up early for work in the city and wanting a taste of something different before beginning their day-to-day existence.”