The Contemporary Scholars’ Conference

Before I describe the Contemporary Scholars’ Conference  (CSC) I will very briefly outline the process that leads up to the CSC to give a bit of context.

Upon receiving a Nuffield scholarship you attend the annual Nuffield conference in November.  For the scholars that began two years previously (in my case 2016), this is the venue at which they deliver the results of their scholarship in a public forum.  This is also the first time that you meet your cohort of scholars, the vast majority of whom you will never have met.  Prior to the conference you spend a day or so getting to know one another. Following this there is a long gap before the CSC, or more accurately for UK scholars, the pre-CSC.

The pre-CSC

The pre-CSC is a week spent in London focusing on leadership skills, networking and engagement with the broad issues affecting contemporary agriculture. This is organised by the Nuffield Director, Col. Mike Vascher. During the pre-CSC your time is split between the Farmer’s club, a London club to which you are given membership, excursions (including the Houses of Parliament) and meeting rooms (in our case at Savills HQ).   Any notions that you might have some free time around the edges are quickly abandoned, when you realise that the ‘Nuffield way’ is to create an immersive experience, where you spend a large amount of time with your cohort, building friendships, learning about one another’s projects and carrying out personal and group development activities.

I am relatively comfortable with public speaking, but still got an enormous amount out of some of the training sessions that were run.  One of the key techniques we focussed on is learning how to introduce yourself and to summarise your study topic in a timely manner- this later proved to be invaluable during the CSC, when we had to run through ~85 inductions in about 90 minutes! Another key thing was a focus on how to ask questions- again incredibly valuable and something that (on reflection) as a scientist something that our community tends to do in a certain way, that doesn’t always elicit the best response (more on that another time). We also did a bit of photography and social media training, which just reinforced my dinosaur status (and that of most of the room) when we realised our phones had WAY more camera settings than we realised (oh dear).  As you will see from the picture accompanying this post- one of our tasks was to take a good publicity shot. Kudos to Helen Bates and Charlotte Nellist from the department for ‘positioning’ me correctly- the photographer, James Darling (@JDarlingPhotos) was highly complementary about the composition (not so much the subject)!

Ag Challenges

One thing that was particularly useful was the overview of the broad challenges affecting agriculture today in the UK.  In such a period of immense change it was fascinating to integrate the opinions of academics (in our case the energetic, Dr David Hughes), peers (we had a special meeting in the Lords with Baroness Byford), Sir Peter Kendall (chair of AHDB) and Tom Hind- AHDB chief strategy officer (along with others). For me, the great thing about these sessions was seeing the different perspectives that everybody had in our study group.  Our year contains a diverse group of individuals (check out here my fellow scholars) and as such on the key issues of the day, CAP reform (see the recent command paper) ‘Health and Harmony’ and a range of other trade-related topics, opinions were not in short supply!  For me this was a rewarding experience, hearing unguarded opinions from across the supply chain, that never really reach the trade press or the mainstream media was very useful and really illuminates both the range of opinions that different stakeholders have and the things that drive the opinions.

Leadership

Another great aspect about the pre-CSC was the focus on leadership. The Nuffield programme targets ‘mid-career’ people, who are often already in leadership positions (the age range is typically 25-45), in our year the bulk of people are around around 32-37. Although it was clear that many of us have been on management training courses before, this was slightly different. We had the privilege of meeting Dame Helen Ghosh on her penultimate day in her role at the National Trust. There is no better way to learn about the approach to leadership (other than making your own mistakes of course) than by listening to somebody that has lived through their fair share of tribulations. Her key messages resonated with me:  “Get to know people”, “Know yourself”, “Be optimistic”, “Have emotional resilience”, “Look after yourself”,  “Ask yourself- what is the problem you are trying to solve” and (in my view most importantly) “Trust your guts”. All sound advice- that takes a lifetime to perfect!   We also had a whistle stop tour of management theory over the past 50 years from a military training expert Ronnie McCourt- very useful as it cut through a lot of waffle that normally pervades expensive management training courses! One thing (among many) that stuck in my mind was this-  keeping in mind how many businesses operate!

Onto the CSC

Following a number of late nights, matched only by the early starts, we then headed off to the CSC, held at a Centreparcs near Rotterdam. For me the Netherlands has always been a fascinating country  (read this) and during the following week became yet more fascinating as we started to collectively appreciate how Dutch culture, specifically the ‘Polder model’  has really shaped thinking over the past 800 years (more on that another time).  The CSC guide says a little more about the Netherlands, which I think it is useful to share:

“The Netherlands is the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the USA. Together with the USA and Spain, the Netherlands is one of the world’s three leading producers of vegetables and fruit. It supplies a quarter of the vegetables that are exported from Europe. The Dutch agricultural sector is diverse; it covers a wide range of livestock and plant-cultivation sectors that include, for example, arable and dairy farming, cultivation under glass, tree-growing and pig farming.  

Thanks to a wealth of agricultural knowledge, fertile soil, intensive farming, quality produce and trading expertise, Dutch agri-food products are exported all over the world. This applies to plant-based produce as well as for animal products such as livestock, poultry (meat) and eggs. Machinery for the processing of agri-food products: from robotic soft-fruit pickers; to automated meat separators; to potato processing; is also a key global export product, as is the knowledge around food processing. Out of the top-40 food and drinks companies in the world, 12 have R&D centres located in the Netherlands. (Source: https://www.hollandtradeandinvest.com)“

The CSC was slightly less structured than the pre-CSC, but the overall themes were similar,  networking and communication, the values of leadership and of course, learning about agriculture from around the world!  For me, a couple of sessions really stood out as being exceptional. We had a detailed discussion about the balance between commodities market and the value added end of the market. Primed the previous day by an in-depth look on the dairy industry from two Rabobank analysts,  Berrie Marttin from Rabobank and Marc Calon (chairman of the NL farmers union), both real authorities on global markets gave impressive presentations  which whetted our appetite for a panel discussion on sustainability (in the broadest sense of the word) which really got the discussion flowing in the room.  For me this highlighted the wider global debate about governmental support or intervention in commodity markets- one which although I was aware of, hearing first-hand the perspectives of French, Dutch, UK, Australian and NZ dairy farmers, all competing in the global market really added depth to the debate.  What was great was how the debates spilled out into the bar and that we were able to continue the debates in a really constructive and collegial manner- as we emphasised in our group values at the start of the CSC ‘play the ball, not the person’.  Another key element of these debates was the fact that we must (as farmers, researchers and various supply chain providers) consider everything that we do in the context of the 19 UN sustainable development goals. Berrie summed this up extremely well, showing the challenges that Africa faces in the next 40 years and asking of us probing questions about what our role in Western Europe should be in ensuring that social and economic progress is made globally.

Comfort zones! 

I was personally pushed right out of my comfort zone several times, the last minute editing of videos of our farm visits being one that particularly stressed me out- again reinforcing my encroaching technology bafflement (of course, now I’m a pro!!)  However, one area of technology that I was keen to explore was the use of modern growing technologies in horticultural crop production. A visit to the Global Horticultural Centre, a very recently opened facility, combining what we would call further education with a trialling and permanent industry trade stand display centre. A very impressive facility that seriously overshadows what we have here in the UK and just highlights the Dutch approach- integrating funding from several sources to make a viable research and tech-transfer centre. What was also very interesting to hear is the government/private investment in ground source heat- in a big way. I’m going to post more on this later, as it’s a perfect example of how to get a really closed loop agricultural system, again, the Polder model in action.

Tis but a folly..

Finally, in what has been a larger than anticipated post- I couldn’t let pass what was potentially one of the strangest outings that I have ever been on in my life. We visited the Ruesink family farm, a mixed pig and dairy operation, with a couple of special twists. The first, inspired by the British model of agricultural shows was the fact that the Ruesink family (since 1996) have run a now 40000 visitor per year agricultural show- a spectacular achievement. The second is that (perhaps as a result of the visitor numbers), a creative outpouring from Mr Ruesink who has created tens of different follies in a woodland adjacent to the farm (as well as a small museum), combining a ‘special’ brand of humour with some innovative and rather modern follies. I attach a few pictures so you may form your own judgement- NB these are heavily censored!

Though this post really doesn’t do it all justice, the whole experience has been rather special, combining learning, networking, communication and self-awareness training and socialising in an exhausting but exhilarating mix.  As I write this on my (delayed) flight to South Africa (first work, then a bit of Nuffield to visit soft fruit farms) I am fairly overwhelmed by the amount of stimulating discussion I’ve had over the past two weeks. As I watch my Whatsapp group, I see all my new friends winding their ways home on heavily disrupted transport from the snow- or just about to embark on their Global Focus Tours (a seven week tour that I elected not to go on) I feel happy that I have met some fantastic people, both in the UK and globally and am looking forward to testing out the Nuffield network in the next year or so of travel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some selected images from the Pre-CSC and the CSC

The World Horti-Centre

An ‘unconventional’ mixed farm with museum, community space and folly collection!

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