Nuffield 2013 Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC)

Report compiled by Uk scholar, Liam Stokes

Welcome to Canada

Part way through our Nuffield 2013 Contemporary Scholars' Conference, Farm Credit Canada's George Klosler introduced the assembled Scholars to the concept of a Word Cloud, a method of displaying the words people most associated with a particular topic. I did no kind of formal survey, but I can say with reasonable certainty which words most scholars would associate with our time in Canada; Challenging; Sociable; Innovative; Educational; Inspiring.

It should be no surprise that in trying to summarise the CSC I would reach for a tool learned whilst I was there; I expect that's something we will all be doing a lot of in the future. The conference was marvellous, an intense learning curve for all involved and an experience that none of us will ever forget.

Anyone for Hockey?

We had a weekend to get to know one another before the rigour of the CSc really began. The event kicked off (or perhaps faced off?) with a Saturday evening hockey game, the team from Nuffield Canada keen to immerse us in Canadian culture as quickly as possible.

Adorned in our new Nuffield 13 hockey shirts, delegates from eight nations mixed and mingled in the Sleeman Centre, home of Guelph Storm in Guelph, Ontario. Friendships were quickly made in the convivial atmosphere, although some more quickly than others- a mere hour or two into our adventure and a selection of Brit, Kiwi and Aussie scholars were running around the ice in a so-called halftime hamburger race that defies description!

Sunday was spent introducing ourselves and our studies more formally and generally getting better acquainted, exploring the remarkable agricultural infrastructure of Guelph. That evening the scholars had the opportunity to demonstrate their own athleticism on the ice, with varying degrees of success, as most of us we had our very first go at curling! There were some aching limbs as we filed into the conference hall the following day.

Superb speaker line up

There were some superb speakers lined up for the week, almost all of them engaging, insightful and thought-provoking. The focus and energy that filled the lecture hall whenever we were together was testament to their quality, especially considering the practical, hands-on nature of most of the audience.

First to the podium was Bob Seguin of the George Morris Centre, who set the scene perfectly with a thorough account of Canada's clout in the international markets, an explanation of the nation's strategy for growth in the agricultural sector and a reminder of just how big the country is!

Mike Toombs from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs followed, with some salient lessons for all the scholars in the room. Between the interesting statistics on Ontario's import policy and export strategy, Mr Toombs remarked that a country such as Canada is never going to be able to compete on wages or land prices; an advantage has to be carved out through commitment to innovation, quality and education.

Barry Senft from the Grain Farmers of Ontario and Bill Emmott from Dairy Farmers of Ontario completed the picture with focused summaries of their areas of the sector. Both were keen to highlight that the cornerstone of sustainability has to be the economic sustainability of the farmer and Bill Emmott left us with an enduring image that would come to typify the CSC as a whole; we are driving down the road into the future, and we must always be sure to use the tiny rear-view mirror and the comparatively large windscreen in a ratio consummate with their size!

Steve Peters, the Executive Director of the Association of Food Processors of Ontario and former Speaker of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, gave a tour de force of public speaking. This was one of my favourite sessions of the week. I'm a fool for fine oratory, but this was fine oratory with a powerful message; that government can facilitate change in agriculture if it is infused with a positive vision. For Mr Peters this vision was one of reversed food trade deficits, world leading research and buy-local legislation.

Our perspective was widened by David McInnes of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, Al Mussell from the George Morris Centre and Sterling Liddell from Rabo Agri Finance. Global trends in finance and consumer preferences were analysed in impressive detail without ever losing sight of the impact at the farm gate.

Sustainability debate

Sustainability was a hotly contested buzzword throughout the CSC, with debate raging over its overuse, its significance and even its definition. Our three final speakers on the Monday worked hard to come to a definition that would work for the agricultural sector, building on Mr Emmott's earlier assertion that the cornerstone has to be the financial health of the farmer.

Dr Stephen Yarrow brought a fascinating perspective to the debate surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms, framing the discussion in terms of the technology's contribution to economic sustainability by reducing overheads, social sustainability by lowering food bills and even environmental sustainability by reducing pesticide inputs.

Diana Stapleton from Food Banks Canada explained how producers could contribute to the alleviation of poverty through working with food banks, engendering a interesting discussion of the barriers to farmers working with such groups, whilst Terry Daynard tied it all together with his philosophy of private sector leadership on sustainability, highlighting the efforts of multi national corporations such as Walmart and Nestlé in leading the charge.

The following morning began in emphatic fashion, as Ontario Agri-Food Technologies' Gord Surgeoner opened another intellectually challenging session with Dodge Ram's now famous video-rendering of Paul Harvey's "So God Made a Farmer" speech. Mr Surgeoner, with a certain flair for pithy phrases and quotes, painted an exciting picture of innovation and opportunity, perfectly setting the scene for presentations from Dr Hamdy Khalil and Dr Amar Mohanty on the potential for the bioproducts industry.

Speaking up for agriculture

On the Wednesday we were Speaking Up For Agriculture, a full day of training in the dark arts of public relations, media interviewing and social media use.

Kelly Daynard set the scene with a powerful exposition on the importance of effective engagement with the public, using examples of crises in which farming had and had not managed the story effectively. Perhaps most interestingly, she taught us that whilst only 20% of Canadians want to learn more about agriculture, over 66% want to know more!

Assuming this figure could be applied around the world, we spent the rest of the day considering how we could tackle the challenge of informing the public without making them feel like they were learning!

Andrew Campbell of Fresh Air Media and Bern Tobin of RealAgriculture.com were the first into the fray, showing us how to handle media interviews and deploy social media to represent out industry.

The already ferocious Twitter output was instantly doubled under the tutelage of Mr Tobin, whilst Mr Campbell worked with scholars with past experiences to investigate how some of the more hair-raising engagements with the media could have been dealt with. How to answer surprise questions on sexual health whilst being interviewed about agricultural practices was a particular highlight.

Agriculture more than ever

Later that same day the aforementioned George Kloser took the stage to introduce us to Ag More Than Ever, a fantastic organisation trying to close the gap between public perception of farming and the successful and optimistic reality on the ground.

Len Khan from Khantact Marketing emphasised the importance of good old fashioned people skills, of smiling and eye contact. It was left to Jackie Fraser, Bruce Vandenburg and Jason Berkaik to bring the day's learning to its practical conclusion. These three innovative rural entrepreneurs each demonstrated how managing public perception can be every bit as beneficial for individual businesses as for the sector as a whole.

US politics and Farm Bill

As the week went on the talks continued to be hugely varied in scope. We heard from Professor Andrew M. Novakovi from Cornell University on the subject of the US Farm Bill, an innocuous sounding piece of legislation that we learned is in fact a reflection of the whole history of US agriculture, and one that will ultimately determine its future.

Having been well briefed on the startling interconnectedness of our modern markets earlier in the week no one needed convincing of the Bill's importance to the wider world. Also talking about the US was Eisenhower Fellow Jay Nutting, who talked us through the painstaking process of lobbying within the US political system. It was a fascinating insight, and brought with it some really practical and useful ideas for engaging with our own politicians at home.

Carl Moore and the Agricultural Management Institute's Ryan Koeslag rounded off our awe-inspiring suite of speakers with some grounded, down to earth advise on farm business management. Mr Koeslag in particular gave us a lot to think about as he outlined the five varieties of farmer his company had identified through its research; Independents, Planners, Sun Setters, Skeptics and Developers. We all left wondering which we were!

Out and about in Ontario

Of course one does not visit Canada without taking in the breathtaking outdoors, and we enjoyed some excellent trips out and about in Ontario. During our time in Guelph we got around on our very own yellow school buses (as befits scholars!) taking in some stunning scenery whilst travelling to pockets of agricultural excellence.

We visited the 4,200 member Hensall District Coop, a farmer-owned business bringing economies of scale to all of their members. The coop had many facets to its business but was founded on the handling of GM-free soybeans, many, many tonnes of them!

We toured the sorting, cleaning and drying facilities in the wind and snow, being sure to snap a photo of the large WELCOME NUFFIELD SCHOLARS sign in the middle of the facility. We also took in a tour of the Vinelands Research and Innovation Centre, an institution we heard a lot about throughout the week as being at the very forefront of Canadian research and development. We discussed funding and political context before exploring the labyrinth of laboratories and greenhouses that housed Vinelands' impressive portfolio of research.

We saw fruit tasting labs and learned about the lengths scientists go to to assure he validity of their results, we witnessed roses being rigorously tested for disease and cold resistance and were shown around a huge range of vegetable trials, with an expert in each study on hand to interpret everything we were seeing.

One of the most inspirational visits was to Vinetech Canada, a Wes Wiens' vine production business. Mr Wiens whole attitude was infused with passion, something we saw so much of in Canada, combined with a dedication to quality. This quality was found not only in his product, but in the quality of life he worked hard to ensure for his workforce. His background was in tractor engineering, yet through determination, innovation and commitment he had created a viticultural business that was preparing to take strides into the global market, having established a solid foundation in Ontario.

We met with many innovative farmers and growers on our travels. The invention and creativity of Don Nott was a pleasure to see as he described how had turned his own farm into a system-sized laboratory at great personal risk, experimenting with switchgrass and its multitude of uses.

Doug and Joan Cranston opened their dairy and corn farm to our inquisitive eyes, talking us through their business model and showing off their "Coverall" barn, a remarkable structure that manages to be both exceptionally light and airy whilst being able to withstand the very worst of Ontario weather. Apparently these barns are springing up around the world, and it was easy to see why.

The Van Groningens introduced us to VG Meats, their vertically integrated meat business, managing to hold our attention amidst their vast selection of tasty looking meats. That was a great visit to a really interesting business, a combination of sustainable production and effective retail, and most of us left clutching some sort of locally reared, locally slaughtered and locally processed meat product!

There were two viticultural scholars in our midst for whom our visits to Ontario's wine country were a great opportunity to learn from those growing grapes under entirely different conditions to their own. For the rest of us it was a chance to learn about an industry we new most about from our experiences as enthusiastic consumers.

Following an introduction from Sue Ann Staff Pondview Estates and Megalomaniac Wines both opened their doors to us, explaining the processes that are driving Canada's expanding wine output. Of course in between the intense discussions of propagation, cultivation and markets both foreign and domestic, it is possible a little wine was imbibed along the way.

Pearls of wisdom

There was undoubtedly a huge amount of information to absorb throughout the week, with each high-quality speaker sparking new ideas in every scholar. But there were also moments of real poignancy, when we were given pause to stop and think about why we were all embarking on this journey.

Ken Knox, farming royalty in the province of Ontario, delivered a spellbinding address entitled "If I were your age, I'd do it differently". The scholars listened to the Ontario Agriculture Hall of Famer with rapt attention as he dispensed hard-won pearls of wisdom, and it was genuinely a privilege to witness.

Sitting and eating with local farmers in Anna Mae's restaurant reinforced the fact that our issues and our challenges are universal and experienced around the world. And our week was brought to the most fitting conclusion by Nuffield Scholar Steve Larocque who presented a rousing speech in the most stunning of locales; the top of the Skylon Tower, overlooking Niagara Falls. There wasn't a scholar in the house who didn't leave that evening fired up by the idea of following in Mr Larocque's trailblazing footsteps.

We left as family

It was a marvellous week. Writing about it I'm exhausted all over again. But I cannot omit what may have been the most special aspect of the whole experience; the people. It is impossible to describe without descending into cliche, so I'm not even going to try to avoid it. We arrived as strangers from 8 different countries, we left as a family.

Friendships were forged over pints of Sleeman's beer, over impassioned debates in the bar, over shared experiences and new found loves of hockey, mechanical rodeo bulls and decidedly dodgy dancing. These are friends with whom many of us saw the breath-taking Niagara Falls for the first time, friends with whom we will be sharing the remainder of our Nuffield adventures. And as Steve Larocque reminded us, a Nuffield adventure is not the length of a study, it is a lifelong commitment to learning, development and friendship.

In this as in Canada, I couldn't wish for better fellow travellers.

The following people made presentations as part of the 2013 CSC:

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