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Why I applied to attend an IFAJ Congress in Canada

By 20th November 2023April 17th, 2024No Comments
Joe Watson Legacy FundNews
Mike Abram, right, with fellow JWLF 2023 bursary recipient Emma Gillbard.

Mike Abram, right, with fellow JWLF 2023 bursary recipient Emma Gillbard.

Mike Abram, a recipient of the 2023 Joe Watson Legacy Fund travel bursary, writes about how the fund supported a trip to the IFAJ Congress in Canada.

Four years ago, I applied for a Joe Watson Legacy Fund bursary to attend the 2019 IFAJ Congress in the United States. I stood on the cusp of leaving my communications role with a well-known agricultural chemical manufacturer and I thought by the time of the congress I would have embarked on a freelance career.

Perhaps fortunately, not least because it would end up being another year before I left, I wasn’t selected on that occasion, but travelling for work has always been one of the best parts of being a journalist I’d found, and so when the opportunity came up again for this year’s Congress I was very interested in applying.

It wasn’t an easy decision: it coincided with Groundswell, probably my favourite event in the farming calendar, and being selected also meant withdrawing from the Guild award sponsored by Perkins Engines.

But the lure of Canada proved too much, and in late June I sat on a flight initially to Chicago before heading further west to Calgary a few days later.

That little interlude in the Midwest was an important part of my plan. For the trip to make sense it had to wash its face, which is harder to do as a freelancer, plus the JWLF trustees had added a small wrinkle into my calculations: other arable journalists from the main titles I write for were also amongst the bursary recipients. Heading to see three farmers in Indiana and Ohio in three days would provide additional opportunities, albeit at extra cost, to pitch articles into publications in the UK.

Once in Canada, determined to make the most of the opportunity, I signed up for a pre-Congress tour to southern Alberta to visit farms in their irrigation district. The first farm visit provided a good insight into the next few days. About 30 journalists get off a coach and surround a farmer. The farmer starts telling his story. Two minutes in, someone asks a question – cue mayhem, as everyone else piles in desperate to ask their question.

Then the farm walk starts, and again, mayhem! Despite usually being asked to stay in a certain area, it’s like herding cats, as everyone is frantic to get their picture of the farmer, a crop, a piece of kit or an animal. Eventually, probably just as you are about to get a quiet few minutes to ask some follow up questions, the tour leader says it is time to go. You just hope you have enough info and an email address to follow up at a later date.

But it was a good decision to attend the pre-tour – not only were there plenty of farm visits for possible articles – but the tour bus was also home for the Young Leaders and Bootcamp participants. That provided the perfect opportunity to meet some incredible young, and some older, journalists and communicators from around the world ahead of Congress.

And while Congress was a whirlwind of extremely interesting farm visits, presentations and dinners, it was, as ever, the people you meet that leave the indelible impression, whether it was sitting next to random people at dinner or on a tour bus, playing pool with Australians keen to talk cricket (while they were winning), or drinking a beer at the bar a little too late at night.

For me the hard work was when I came home. I successfully pitched in eight different articles to five different magazines, but you still have to write them, which takes some time.

Did that cover all my costs, even with the JWLF bursary which covered the costs of attending Congress but not flights and obviously side trips to the USA? To be honest, I haven’t worked it out – it will be close though. More importantly the experience was such that I have no regrets – even about Groundswell and Perkins – there’s always next year!

The first of Mike Abram’s articles from this trip has been published in Farmers Weekly: How US farmer increases profitability through relay cropping

The JWLF Trustees will announce details of the 2024 bursary scheme early next year.