With Brexit putting the spotlight on agriculture and its workforce more than ever before, Anna Jones speaks to Abi Kay about how farmers can help tackle the urban bias in the media.
Farmers have long been aware of the rural-urban divide which splits the country and makes it difficult for them to communicate with their customers.
Matters are not helped by the massive disconnect between the farming industry and the mainstream media, which has in the past ignored important agricultural matters and branded Defra a ‘political backwater’.
But now one former BBC journalist has come up with an idea she believes can help bridge the gulf.
Just Farmers was born when Anna Jones completed a Nuffield Scholarship which looked at how farming issues were covered in the press.
Her plan is to recruit 24 farmers each year who will be given the confidence to tell their stories to journalists through two workshops.
The first will focus on how the media works, while the second will provide practical skills such as ‘how to be yourself’ on camera.
The only condition of completing the course is ‘graduates’ must open their doors to the press to answer even the most sensitive questions about their work.
The project will be funded initially by a £20,000 bursary from the Frank Parkinson Agricultural Trust, a charity aimed at supporting the improvement and welfare of British agriculture, but Ms Jones is already looking at ways to raise cash to keep it going long-term.
She has ambitions to make Just Farmers a charity itself, which would provide rapid reaction when stories break and be an active broker between farmers and the media.
“My Nuffield Scholarship highlighted the challenges and Just Farmers is about offering a solution”, Ms Jones said.
“On the media side, there is quite a deeply ingrained urban bias. Most of the major newspapers and broadcasters are based in big cities and it is very rare to meet a general news and current affairs journalist who has any kind of farming background or knowledge.
“But on the farmer side I found there was a real, deep, defensiveness about any criticism which is levelled against farming, which I do not think is healthy.
“Because the job they do is so inherently personal and cultural, sometimes they can sometimes be a little over-emotional, which clouds their ability to respond constructively to challenges out there.”
In the past, it may have been possible for farmers to avoid the most difficult questions about their industry because policy was drawn up in Europe and largely ignored by British journalists.
But with Brexit on the horizon, agriculture’s media profile has rocketed.
Ms Jones said: “This project is very timely. Since June 23 2016, we have seen farming suddenly have a place in our news agenda it has never had before, because it is the most exposed industry to the effects of Brexit.
“Journalists are more interested and that has put an even greater responsibility on our farmers to talk to them.”
As a result of Brexit, farmers can also expect to have to defend much more vociferously the small pot of public money they currently receive.
“How many times have people said how are we going to protect the £3.2 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) when you have an NHS which is desperate for funding?”, asked Ms Jones.
“We have all got to be ready to answer that question. There are hundreds of causes in society which your average person on the street would think are far more deserving than farmers.”
Journalists have responded very positively to the project, which would provide them with a bank of independent farmer contacts, reducing their reliance upon agricultural groups with a lobbying agenda.
The wheels have already been set in motion to get one ‘very well-known’ TV journalist to help with the workshops and other print journalists with ‘good profiles’ are also expected to be there.
But on the farming side, producers from certain sectors such as poultry, horticulture and housed dairy have been more reluctant to come forward.
Ms Jones said: “If you are running a system which a member of the public would see as ‘industrial’ or ‘factory’ farming, all these loaded terms, it is harder to come forward and say I will open up my farm.
“I understand that, but in a way, they are the people Just Farmers needs most, because it is about helping farmers have the confidence in who they are. It is those who feel most exposed and vulnerable who need to get in touch.
“The ultimate beneficiary of this is the reader or the listener who may feel very confused. They connect to people more than they do to policy or press releases. People is what they like to hear from, so if we can get more farmers cutting through, that has got to be the goal.”
If you would like to volunteer to take part in Just Farmers, please contact Ms Jones via e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her only stipulation is applicants must not speak publicly on behalf of a union or trade association, either at regional or national meetings or in the media.