GETTING THE farming message across to the public is a long-term business, says Caroline Drummond.
You can’t convince everyone overnight, and there are always going to be setbacks. You can’t, she says, always react to the “one-hit wonders” of bad publicity in the media. And besides, it is probably not worth trying to. “It’s like what people read in their morning paper about Jordan’s boobs: they forget it.
“Maybe I’m just a reflective and optimistic person,” says the 41-year-old, ahead of the three-day conference which opens next Tuesday (Jan 4), “but we try to get a sustained knowledge and understanding.”
The ‘we’ she is referring to is Linking Environment and Farming, the charity which began life in 1991 and of which she is now chief executive.
It was launched when a wide group of people – concerned about the gap between producers and consumers – got together and, using a German model, set about encouraging responsible farming and a better public understanding of it.
“We’re not going to get a better understanding because we are British or because we think we should; we are going to get a better understanding because we demonstrate and explain.”
Hence a key element of LEAF’s work is the 60-plus demonstration farms across the UK – the “first port of call” for anyone wishing to learn about the sector.
These attracted 21,000 visitors last year, giving them a chance to see “best farming and environmental practice for themselves”.
Surveys show that more than 85% of visitors leave with an enhanced understanding of how farmers are addressing environmental concerns; nearly 90% reckon their worries about food safety are at least partly addressed.
“All of us have a responsibility,” says Caroline. “We all need to do more.”
But she’s the first to admit it’s not always easy when it comes to getting the message across. An inner-city kid recently asked her: Why do we need the countryside? She was, she confesses, “taken aback” by the frankness of the question, before going on to explain about food production, landscape, tourism and recreation. “It’s about distilling the right message for the right audience.”
IT’S A little-known fact that Caroline Drummond has a great voice. “I love singing,” she says. “I”m not trained in any way; I just do it. I’ve got a loud, strong voice, which is certainly an asset for conferences, too!”
She has even been in bands before, including one called “CD and the Sensations”. One of her claims to fame is supporting Kid Creole and the Coconuts. She jokes about some of the venues she has played – including working men’s clubs. “The glamour of it all,” she laughs.
Much of her singing was done while at Seale Hayne college in Devon, where she studied for a degree in Agriculture between 1982 and 1986. (Her placements, as well as on farms in Wales and Norfolk, included three months in Barbados doing sugar cane research!)
Though she does not come from a farming family – her father was a deep sea diver – she traces her interest in the countryside back to a young age. Originally, she set her heart on becoming a vet. “When I was a little girl, there was a pig farm nearby. One day all the pigs were killed, and I thought: I”d like to be able to stop that.”
But she did not go down the vet route, describing herself “as a practical person, rather than a four As person”. And, after graduating and a spell travelling – “like all good Ag college students” – she worked for Management Development Services and as a lecturer at Shuttleworth, before joining LEAF in 1991.
Nowadays her singing is limited to knocking out a few tunes with her young daughter, four-and-a-half-year-old Gabrielle, at the family”s house in Cornwall. It is the eco-friendly house she and her husband, Phil, recently built. The house, with its emphasis on wood, glass and insulation, featured in Grand Designs magazine, a spin-off from the popular tv show of the same name. “It’s fantastic – airy, warm and spacious.”
Her husband’s no stranger to 4.30am starts – which suits Caroline just fine as it means she can get an early start on the days she travels to LEAF headquarters in Stoneleigh, Warks.
It’s a “real Godsend” for Phil to live on the family farm where he works, a 120 dairy cow set-up near Liskeard in Cornwall. It is an “absolutely stunning part of the world”, one Caroline only got to know after she started seeing Phil and was making frequent visits to Cornwall. “Friends joked that LEAF stood for Liskeard Every Available Friday,” she laughs.
SEIZING the Initiative in a New World for Farming is the theme of the Oxford Farming Conference.
This is the 59th such conference and it is the first time that Caroline has spoken at the event. She is, she says, a “relative newcomer” compared with some of the stalwarts who have been to 40-plus. But she is well aware of the “buzz”.
“It brings together so many people from so many different aspects of farming, but with one common aim – to have a really thoughtful discussion about what we all want: economically viable farming and a nice countryside. It’s all about debating tomorrow’s issues today.”
It is also a chance to reflect on what we can learn from the past. Caroline looked up the theme of the conference in the year she was born – 1963 – to find it was new opportunities in Europe. A few years on, it is remarkably similar, she says.
This year will be a particularly important one, with some of the biggest changes in land management practices ever taking place. “Oxford is a good opportunity to set the focus for the year ahead, and 2005 is going to be one of the most significant years for farming ever,” she predicts.
NFU boss Tim Bennett, environmentalist Jonathon Porritt and Tory leader Michael Howard will be among the 20-plus high-profile speakers. “The conference experience is unique, thought-provoking, welcoming and a real opportunity for like-minds in our industry to come together to look at what the future holds, through fruitful discussion and co-operation.”
It is not all warm handshakes and smiles, though. Issues are hotly contested and corners are fiercely fought as people go head-to-head on topical issues. “There’s always a bit of blood spilt.”
WHEN LEAF began life in 1991 it was, Caroline laughs, “a table and a pencil”. It now employs eight people, has a turnover of 500,000, and a membership of 2000 farmers representing nearly 800,000ha in England and Scotland. “We’ve now got six tables,” she laughs. “We are a small organisation; we don’t employ many people, but we have a wealth of supporters.”
Central to the LEAF philosophy is Integrated Farm Management, combining traditional methods with modern technology, ensuring minimal use of pesticides, efficient soil management, better wildlife habitats and animal welfare.
A third of the people visiting demo sites are farmers, and many of these reckon they take home business and environmental ideas. “We have always tried to be catalytic and innovative. “We have tried to make sure that the good things that farmers have done are recognised.”
More regulation and more imported food are just two of the undesirable consequences that could result if farmers don’t maintain high standards and communicate their achievements better, reckons Caroline.
“But there’s too much will in the countryside to see that happen. You meet some people who don”t have a belief in their jobs. But meet a farmer and you will find he actually believes in what he is doing.”
And it is clear that Caroline cares passionately about what LEAF aims to achieve. “I have a real belief in what I am doing. I love it.” She recalls how she had felt back in 1991 when a friend first showed her the advert for the job of project co-ordinator. “It was doing everything that I have always believed in.”
It is not always easy, she admits, partly because the signals from the consumer can be unclear. “There’s so many of them for a start. It’s about understanding public perception issues so that we can influence them. As receivers of money from the public purse, we have to do this.
“But we’ve got such an industry to be proud of. There are things that we know are not right, but we have so much to be proud of.”
It can also, she says, be frustrating because a few bad farmers can tarnish the reputation of the majority of good ones, whether it is on issues like animal welfare or soil erosion.
Everyone, she says, has a part to play. “It’s about not just doing your job anymore, but delivering your job to other people in a form they can understand.” For both farmers and researchers, this means “coming out of your traditional box”.
She, herself, has got much more philosophical about tackling big challenges such as this as she has got older. “At 18, I’d solved the world 10 times over. At 18, you can solve everything in one night over a bottle of wine! As you get older, you get a bit more realistic and pragmatic.”
One of the immediate challenges, though, will be keeping order – and hopefully preventing too much blood getting spilt – at the Oxford Conference.
She might just need that loud, strong voice at Oxford, after all.