15 March 2002

ONROADTO KEEPPUBLICPOSTED…

Johnny Ball is the public face of farming to many people.

Tim Relf meets the NFUs Food and Farming Roadshow presenter

British farming has no spin doctors to put a gloss on its image but there are people

prepared to speak up for, and inform the public about, the industry they are proud of.

Farmlife presents just a few of them here in our Agricultural Advocates special

JOHNNY Ball will be spending a lot of time on the road again this summer. "The same thing always happens when I ring B&Bs," he laughs. "I ask if theyve got a room for the night. Then I ask if theyve got anywhere I can plug my chickens in and theres a silence. I can just imagine the person on the other end of the phone thinking: Weve got a nutter here!"

Baby chickens are just one of the exhibits which will be accompanying Johnny again on this years roadshow, which kicks off on May 1 at the Suffolk Show.

"Im on a mission," says Johnny who, last year, covered 16,000 miles in 16 weeks taking in 160 venues.

He went, among other places, to agricultural shows, city centres, seaside resorts and supermarket car parks. Anywhere, really, where there were lots of people and the pro-farming message could be put across.

"A lot of people dont understand the country and farming," says Johnny, sitting in the Lancashire farmhouse hes currently renovating.

"Its up to us to get out there and explain about farming and British food – which is the best in the world.

&#42 Battling for lads

"Im out there battling for the lads. Theres plenty of work to do because theres a lot of misknowledge out there. Some people think, for example, were still using DDT."

Understanding farming – and being able to communicate that knowledge – are key requirements of the job and Johnny reckons hes got an "all-round grounding" in the subject.

Hes not afraid who he tells, either. Despite hearing that Prince Philip didnt accept gifts when visiting stands, the undeterred Johnny gave him a badge and then, as he was leaving, a second one, adding: "That ones for the wife!"

Hes also become something of a celebrity. "The first year, I didnt know a single person; now everyone knows me. Im a showman – Ive always been a bit of a performer."

Its important to make the message "fun", he says. "If its too serious, the public wont want to know."

One thing Johnnys well-known for is his poems – he claims to write one for every place he visits. "Im the farming poet," he says, launching into one he wrote in Yorkshire.

It starts with a few words about the Vikings and their longships and somehow moves, seamlessly, into the closing lines: "So next time youre in the butchers or the superstores, put the Vikings motto to the test. Try the finest and the safest food in all the world: Buy British because its best."

Generally, the older generation have a reasonable understanding of farming and food, reckons Johnny. Its the under-20s where most work needs to be done. "They havent got a clue."

Despite the lack of understanding, hes seen a lot of support for farmers. "The public do care – its quite amazing how much support there is out there. Last year, if Id put a bucket down theyd have filled it with coins every day."

In all the roadshows hes done, only five people have "kicked off", he says. "Theyre the ones who dont understand. My job is to explain, my job is to convert them."

And its not just the people that come to the roadshow who get to hear the message. It regularly draws the attention of local radio, television and newspapers and, in so doing, cascades the message out to many more people. "Millions of people know about it," says Johnny.

&#42 Empty trailer

Three years ago, the roadshow started "with an empty trailer with a few boards in it", remembers Johnny. This year, itll be "bigger and better" than ever. "I cant wait; Im ready."

Its evolved, as the team discovered what works well." We gave away nearly 200,000 recipe books last year."

Regular visitors to it, however, will be pleased to see one of the most popular props remains: Annabel the wooden cow. "She should be in the Guinness Book of Records," laughs Johnny. "She gave 60gal of milk in a morning once.

"Weve got to get out there and promote ourselves because nobody else is going to do it."

The industry missed a "valuable chance" to promote itself when times were good. "We should have been doing this 20 years ago.

"Weve got to keep on and on doing it. Itll never be done; itll never be finished. Ill be battling as long as I can.

"Theres only one job like it in the country," says Johnny. "It brings something different every day – you never know what will turn up. I meet some tremendous people and meet some tremendous farmers.

"I work really hard, I enjoy it immensely and I think I make a difference."