Ahead of the Nuffield Triennial conference, Farmers Guardian speaks to its chairman Roger Mercer about the event which celebrates the best of British agriculture and brings together like-minded individuals from across the globe to share practices and ideas.
Roger Mercer is the managing director of Mercer Farming and farms more than 2,023 hectares (5,000 acres) in Staffordshire, selling premium pork and chicken through the families Packington Free Range brand.
He has also undertaken a number of diversification projects including rural offices, renewable energy and commercial storage projects in order to spread risk across his business.
Mr Mercer will host a farm tour as part of the upcoming Nuffield Triennial conference.
Q. What is the Nuffield Triennial event?
A. The Nuffield Farming Scholarships Trust was set up in the UK in 1945, since then, six more countries have joined and the overarching body, Nuffield International, runs a Triennial conference every three years in one of the member countries.
It compromises three sections:
Q. Where is the event taking place?
A. Delegates will be taken on a journey around the UK, starting off in the south and moving progressively north, stopping off at different venues, including the East Midlands Conference Centre for the ‘Farming Fit for Food’ conference day.
For the final part of the journey, delegates will head to the following areas for the technical field tours:
Q. What was your inspiration for the ‘Farming Fit for Food’ conference day?
A. Obesity is the third biggest global social burden and already costs the NHS £5.2 billion each year – this needs to change. Agriculture is the source of all food products, and when the industry works together with food and health sectors, it should be able to tackle these diet-related issues from the very start.
Q. Who are you most looking forward to hearing from?
A. All of the keynote speakers are set to be informative and thought-provoking, but I am particularly interested in what Prof Michael Winter, University of Exeter, has to say. He will set out some of the issues relating to diet and quality of nutrition as well as explore ways in which the farming industry can play a part in improving public health issues and address some of the challenges.
There is a diverse line-up of industry experts who will also contribute to the discussion from many different points of view, including Caroline Drummond, LEAF; Professor Susan Jebb, University of Oxford; and Dr Tina Barsby, National Institute of Agricultural Botany, who will bring together information from a farming and academic basis.
Q. Can anyone get involved?
A. Whilst there are limited spaces for the visits, the conference day is open to all, and we expect to see a wide audience of delegates from all areas of agriculture and those involved in food and retail sectors.
Q. Why would you encourage attendance?
A. It is important that everybody steps away from their daily business, and looks to take inspiration from what others are doing, with examples of good practice.
They will learn from seeing things with a different perspective, mixing with new people and seeing the ideas of others.
The event is also the perfect opportunity for prospective Nuffield Farming Scholars to enhance their applications, with the upcoming deadline for 2018 submissions being July 31. Their enthusiasm will be fired, they will be able to talk to and gain advice from Scholars from across the globe and they will get a first-hand insight into what Nuffield Scholarships are all about.
If you don’t feel uncomfortable, then you are not making the most of being Nuffield scholar. Or so we were told pretty early on at the Nuffield contemporary scholars conference in Brasilia.
As a journalist in a cohort of mainly farmers, I had every reason to feel like an oddity. But the week ahead was a surprise. Both in terms of the welcome I felt and the minds and personalities behind that reception.
If a Nuffield scholarship is about your travels, your study and your experiences, then the conference is about your fellow scholars.
I’ve visited plenty of agricultural businesses and farms around the world in ten plus years as a journalist. The routine was predictable. Lot’s of people talking at you. Telling you what to believe. And just one mind to question it all.
Here in Brazil, however, was a sea of inquisition at every moment. How often, I thought to myself, will I spend ten successive days in close proximity to seventy people representing not just experts in their fields of agriculture, but motivated and driven to listen, engage and learn?
Yes, we had guest speakers, political heavyweights and ambassadors, and visits to farms and local enterprises. But the conference week and a half for me was not about what I heard from the lectern or the field, but the questions, reactions and thoughts of my fellow scholars.
In the UK farming and farmers are still caricatured by stereotypes and generalisations. Listening to my fellow scholars from eleven different countries - Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US - I heard something different. Independent minds engaged and ready to tackle the complex challenges of the world today.
Every session and visit brought another illustration of the diversity of perspectives and interests within the group. The scholars were not a cross-section of farmers in a stereotypical sense, but a cross-section of society today.
Today, Australian farmers can happily talk about gender equality, Kiwis can ponder synthetic milk and an Englishman can openly talk about emotion and succession policy. That this might come as a surprise to anyone shows a misplaced perception of the farming community amongst the wider public. And dare I say it myself.
Nuffield scholars have already put their head above the parapet, but here at the conference they talked openly of their hopes, fears and ‘the big C’: the consumer. A producer wants to feed the world, but they also want the respect and support of the people they are feeding. A social license to operate, as some might call it. Being part of the community, not apart from it.
My perception of the conference and the scholars that I was fortunate enough to meet was of a group already very much in tune with the world around them today. Yet at the same time, realistic enough to realise they might not know it all. They might not be right. And not scared or uncomfortable of change. The future of food and farming is in safe hands.
Tom Levitt is a Nuffield Farming Scholar and former reporter at Farmers Guardian. You can find out more about applying for a Nuffield scholarship: www.nuffieldscholar.org