Nuffield 2010 Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC)

The following is a personal account of the 2010 conference provided by UK Nuffield Scholar, Michael Blanche.


As a 2010 scholar from Perth in Scotland, I was privileged to attend the recent Contemporary Scholars Conference in the USA and what follows is my personal take on what was a unique and fantastic experience.

The conference lasted for just over seven days, and in a very positive way, it seemed so much longer yet not long enough. The intensity of the week was a very unusual experience, there seemed to be no opportunity to stop which I had to react to by making the day longer and limiting my sleep to four or five hours a night. I’m not as young as I used to be but this seemed relatively easy .... at the time!

The formal itinerary was significant but parallel to that was the interaction with fellow scholars and guests from all over the world. Though significant lessons were learnt during the former, it was the latter that really has left a lasting impression. Even the shortest of chats with some people had a significant impact on me and I suspect they will never know the effect their words had.

The itinerary

We were based in Washington DC for three nights and then moved to Gettysburg, for the remainder of the trip.

The experience started with an ice hockey match which is a game of three thirds and flagged up the thought that, though Americans look the same as us, certain aspects of their culture might need more than three 20 minute time periods to understand.

The first full day was a quick fire introduction session of all the guests and an overview of US agriculture. The scale of operations and the diversity of enterprises carried out by those present was quite humbling. Further context was set during our visit to the monuments of Washington DC – large stone “thank yous” to those that either gave their lives for, or to, their country. The carved permanence of the word perfect Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial impressed on me of one way that great men can persuade a great many.

We had two big conferences on the trip full of wisdom that challenged our perceived truths. In DC – the sense spoken so enthusiastically by Prof David Kohl; the passion as if a preacher from the church of sustainability from Prof Ikerd; the insight into different worlds from Alistair Polsen (NZ) and James Su Hao (China) all built a picture of global issues, trade issues, important contradictions and crucial correlations. We would return to these issues throughout our time in the US.

In Harrisburg later in the week we were privileged to learn more about Pennsylvania’s agriculture and how global issues interacted at a local level. The quality of speakers was really striking with a young farmer, April Cooper and, a more mature practitioner, Keith Eckel really impressing me with their clarity of expression.

Of the many visits we made, I won’t forget the comparison of Mason Dixon Farms (a 2,400 cow dairy famed for its innovation) expert at the hard headed business of farming and the Amish dairy farm of Sam Riehl (a 36 cow dairy herd) where I had tears in my eyes - don’t tell anyone - as he explained how emotional and spiritual farming was to him and his family. I think we all farm with the head and the heart, the balance varies between individuals, but I came away from the conference wanting to give farming more of both.

The other highlights included meeting members of the Young Growers Alliance, with their unbridled enthusiasm (they defined “Young” as under 35, which depressed me momentarily) and a tour of a mushroom farm showed the benefits of true cooperation, efficient use of capital and being supremely expert in one’s business.

Staying in Gettysburg itself meant the ghosts of the monumental battle and subsequent call from Lincoln in his address kept us company for the majority of the trip. We spent a day on the battlefield guided initially by Tom Vossler, a great story teller, and then latterly Antigoni Ladd helped us look at the crucial leaders in the battle and what we might learn from them. Having been an invisible presence since Washington, Abraham Lincoln himself finally made a live appearance. All this reinforced the fact there is more than one way to lead and to succeed. The day also gave the three words that will live with me longest, so appropriate they were to my own position: Adapt, Innovate, Overcome. As a first generation farmer, I’m trying to grow a business from meagre resources. I need to move forward by finding a way round the barriers in front of me rather than waiting for someone else to take them down. This trip made me realise its me and no one else that can overcome.

On the last day, it was our turn. In five groups we spoke on allotted subjects appropriate to the challenges in agriculture we had heard so much about during the week. Time was short but the quality of presentations was first class and there were plenty of potential solutions offered. The final group had the job to inspire and send us back to our normal lives, less normal than we left them. Take responsibility, take an action within seven days of your return, what are you going to do? The gauntlet was laid down, in no uncertain terms, and the inspiration of TS Eliot was left ringing in our ears:

"Between an idea and an action, there lies a shadow. This is where the hollow men dwell".

General Themes & Lessons Learnt

A really important theme for me was the hospitality we were privileged to receive especially for a prolonged period from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (Jean Lonie, JD Dunbar and Secretary Russell Redding in particular). They made us feel so welcome and important.

I like quotes and some of my favourites on this trip included:

    “if you are the lowest cost producer, your business will grow whether you like it or not”

    “change is inevitable, success is optional”

    “to progress you need to be prepared to move”

    “focus on your real strength”

    “when the men in silk suits invest in agriculture, beware”

    “the timing of a decision is almost as important as the decision itself”

    “get 60% of the information you need then go with your gut”

    “when agriculture is attacked its attacked with emotion, and then we defend it with facts; perhaps we should start to use emotion to fight back instead”

The feeding of the 9 billion by 2050, the fragility and frugality of this earth’s resources, innovation and sustainability were all huge topics of discussion. The balance between the pressure to produce huge amounts of food and the pressure to do this sustainably was a central theme.

Though the challenges are huge, the whole week was immensely positive. We looked forward not with doom but with excitement believing we could make it happen.

We need to adapt, innovate and overcome - the battlefield and the corn field have more in common than I first thought. I came away from the CSC, truly and passionately believing agriculture will win.

Photos of the event are available on the Nuffield Australia web site

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