It was a BGAJ tweet that caught Guild member Rachel Lovell’s eye – a last-minute call from @GAJ_info for a member to take up the opportunity of an expenses-paid visit to Austria, courtesy of the European Commission’s DG-Agri press team.
“The topic: ‘Farming in less favoured areas – innovation and organics’ got my attention,” says Rachel. “Ten days later I was on a plane to Vienna.”
Rachel Lovell (sixth from right) and other journaists from across Europe were led by Guild member Roger Waite (wearing cap), the EU agriculture commissioner’s spokesman.
As someone who spends a lot of time planning and strategising, she admits it is not easy to relinquish control to the hands of strangers for three days.
“Yet that is what press trips are like; you’ve looked at the itinerary, think you can get good material and research out of it, and the flights are booked. Throw in 13 journalists from 11 different EU countries with varying motivations and cultures, a tight schedule and bad weather, and you might have a huge frustration of a trip…..but this one was excellent in every regard!”
Rachel and her fellow travellers arrived from across Europe the evening before a tour of hillside dairy farms, an organic box scheme and a hemp farm.
“I bumbled into the group and found myself seated near Roger Waite, the EU agriculture commissioner’s spokesperson, who led the trip,” Rachel recalls. “As the tour unfolded – and against all my expectations of a fusty and annoying bureaucrat – Roger was friendly, knowledgeable and frank about everything.
“He answered my sometimes naïve questions about historical agricultural politics and the CAP reforms with patience, while the tour itself was fascinating. Monika and Cornelia in DG-Agri press office, who dealt with flights, hotels and transfers with ruthless efficiency, did a superb job of ensuring we all stuck to the schedule and got from farm to farm in good time – not an enviable job; think herding cats and you are not far off.”
In addition to freelance writing, Rachel works for a national direct-from-farmers vegbox scheme. But while the visit to the Viennese box scheme ‘BioHof’ was interesting, it was not what she came away with a bellyful of stories about.
“It was the dairying and the way the small scale farmers work with the marginal land they have, maximising productivity of the Fleckvieh herds and using innovative technologies,” says Rachel. “I wrote an article on dairy farming in Austria for Farmers Guardian and to my delight it was awarded the runner-up prize in the Guild’s Richard Keenan Innovation in Agriculture journalism award.”
As with many trips, she acknowledges, some of the most interesting conversations are had were with other journalists while travelling between farms.
“It is easy to become blinkered to our own domestic agricultural landscape, politics and economics, so having the chance to step outside and meet farmers and ag journalists from different countries, to see their farms and livestock and understand their challenges and difficulties, was a great calibrator,” she says Rachel. “And from this trip, I’ve come away with a really strong set of agricultural press contacts from across the EU.”
Her conclusion on the last-minute opportunity made available through the Guild: “I really can’t fault the trip – I have never eaten so much schnitzel in my life!” she says. “I would absolutely go on another.”