Farming exchanges bridge national gaps
INTERNATIONAL exchanges are things you send your teenage children on to brush up their language skills before their GCSEs – right?
But for south-east farm exchange group, Eurolink, learning the language is not the raison detre.
"We are about forging links with mainland Europe, to promote a better understanding of farming techniques and the rural way of life," says chairman James Bridgland.
Established almost 20 years ago by the South of England Agricultural Society, Eurolink has now set up exchanges for some 244 farming couples, visiting countries such as Belgium, Holland, Germany, France, Hungary, Spain and Portugal.
"Originally we were looking for farmers and their spouses," says Mr Bridgland. "But as time has gone by weve had to widen our horizons. Now we only stipulate that the couples must have a farming base and work within the industry. That could include vets, consultants, viticulturists – even journalists."
One couple, to get involved this year was Jamie and Beryl Cross, who run a small sheep flock and grow wheat at Hill House Farm, Bolney, in West Sussex.
As a retired cameraman, Jamie has always been interested in travel and other cultures, so was an ideal candidate for the exchange scheme. "Throughout my TV career I always kept a few acres, farming them in the evenings and at weekends. In a way, I was a European farmer before we even joined the EEC."
Of course that concept of the "European farmer" has changed in recent years, and the Crosses were taken with the sheer professionalism they encountered when they visited their exchange partners, Dominique and Marie-Noelle Trubert near Rennes in north-west France.
* Converted barn
The Truberts live in a converted long barn with a fire place you could roast a pig in. By happy coincidence, they are also pig farmers.
"The French farming community was very go-ahead," says Jamie. "The Truberts farm was ultra-modern with every attention paid to cleanliness and efficiency. But generally I was most impressed by the number of young people involved in French agriculture. The older generation seems to know when to let go – unlike the English farmer who tries to hang on to his cows all the way to the coffin!"
Not surprisingly, the French cuisine also left an impression, in particular a visit to a local Ferme Auberge. These are literally on-farm restaurants, serving food produced on the farm. Pigeon and rabbit casserole, home-made cheeses, rhubarb and custard tart and local cider all graced the menu, served at a long trestle table for 100 francs (£10) a head.
"Its a brilliant way of showing consumers what farmers have to offer," says Beryl. "If Eurolink taught us one thing, its that town and country are much better integrated in France."
But the Eurolink scheme is very much a two way arrangement and the Crosses also hosted the Truberts earlier in the year, entertaining them at the South of England Show and arranging visits to farms in Sussex.
While Dominique says he found the UK farms a bit "conservative", the whole exercise definitely struck a chord. Since returning to France, he has been involved in setting up an equivalent body to Eurolink – the newly-formed Alliance Agri dEurope – of which he is now the president.
Through this, he hopes that other French farmers will be able to share in the exchange experience.
Eurolink is a voluntary organisation run by the South of England Agricultural Society. Applicants from the societys catchment area are
shortlisted each autumn for
interviews in December. The committee then matches couples (12 a year) with suitable partners in other countries, whose names have been put forward by local organisers. A briefing is held in March with previous participants on hand to give advice. Overseas visitors spend a week in the UK, to coincide with the South of England Show. Some events are organised, others are up to the hosts initiative. Return trips to the continent are arranged by mutual
agreement. Some expenses, including travel, are met by Eurolink sponsors, P & O Ferries, British Airways, Barclays Bank and Strutt and Parker. Couples are asked to submit a report on their experiences.
Details from Eurolink
chairman, James Bridgland (01273 407059).
Town versus country… young farmers act out the arguments at the Space Show in Rennes, Brittany.