Travelling for research

Experience. Six countries, seven weeks and 21 flights later, Matthew Gunningham returns to Circular Head with newfound knowledge and insight into the world of agriculture. The Mawbanna dairy farmer was one of 23 young primary producers and managers across the country to be presented with the Nuffield Scholarship, which sees them undertake research into agriculture and fisheries across the globe using the $30,000 bursary for a 16-week program of group and individual travel. Matthew shares his experience with Chronicle readers.

Europe

We arrived in Amsterdam, where we met three of our Dutch Nuffield comrades from the Contemporary Scholars Conference in Brazil.

We were all to stay for a week at an organic dairy farm owned by Jaco de Groot. Jaco is not only a very good farmer, he is also the Dutch ‘Ditch Jumping Champion’ – an actual sport in Holland, literally pole vaulting over 10 metres of water!

So once we had dropped our luggage we spent the rest of the day participating in ditch jumping practice, with some hilarious results. Several of my companions ended up in the drink!

The theme in the Netherlands was all about the environment and animal welfare. The country is very densely populated – with people and livestock. Milk quotas have disappeared and a new phosphate quota has been imposed, meaning farmers can no longer apply phosphate fertilisers and also have to conform to lower stocking rates. This has seen a big swing to organic dairy production, since the rules are now so strict for conventional farmers, that they are almost organic by default and so to take the extra step means they can attract a premium price. Many of these farmers also participate in a range of other agri environmental schemes such as preserving wildflowers by managing pastures differently and creating habitats for birds; we saw one farmer deliberately flooding pastures to suit wading birds. These schemes were all funded by the European Union.

The Netherlands has a large intensive livestock industry – pigs and poultry, these too, faced restrictions as to their scale – and we saw different responses to these pressures. One farmer has extensified his pig keeping operation and has also established a brand of pig meat products, selling directly to the consumer. Whereas another we visited near the border with Germany, exported all of his pig slurry across the border to access more, cheaper land in order to comply with the regulations.

We had a very revealing meeting with an MP from the Party for the Animals, a single issue political party who now have five MPs in the national parliament. Their sole purpose is to see animal based agriculture in the Netherlands dramatically reduced, public support has been growing for this party over the past 10 years and they are able to enact legislation by doing deals with other parties – in much the same way as the Independents do in Australia. We thought that some of their policies were based on emotion as opposed to science and it concerned us that an emotive argument, that is not factually based is more appealing to the public than the facts.

One of the highlights was a visit to Rabobank’s headquarters in Utrecht, where we enjoyed several thought-provoking presentations.

On April 20 it was time to move on to the final country of our Global Focus Program – Italy.

We flew to Milan and began our five day road trip, heading towards Rome. The pace was slightly slower than the prior seven weeks, we visited various markets, vineyards, a cooperative that was a group that lived and farmed on the same property producing wines and cured meats as well as a restaurant.

We also visited the University of Gastronomic Sciences, that looked at every aspect of food and dining and now has 500 students from 85 countries attending.

The highlight of Italy for me was a trip up into the snow capped mountains to visit Marcelli Formaggi, where they milked 1500 sheep and 300 goats on 1000 hectares of marginal country and produced cheese from this milk. The most amazing aspect of this enterprise (apart from the stunning views) was that a huge amount of their product was exported and sold to New York where there is a big Italian community that likes products from the ‘old country’. A few years ago a journalist from the New York Times was travelling through Italy and wrote an article on the farm and its cheese production, which led to a demand from the USA and the business took off from there.

When we reached Rome, our final visit was to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, where they took us through the various programs that they run across the world to enhance food security and monitor world food supplies and production, with the overarching aim of ‘Building a world without hunger’.

It was a great way to round off the official visit on our Global Focus Program.

We spent the remainder of the day visiting some of the sights of Rome and boarded a plane for home the following day. I had been away from home for 53 days and travelled approximately 55,000 kilometres – it had been a very interesting trip and a great experience.

It was great to get back and see my wife Pip and my children, and to get around and catch up with everyone in the business and see what a great job everyone had done, and how well everything looked. I was very happy to be home.

I still have to do some further individual travel and then complete my 10,000 word report.

I would highly recommend applying for a Nuffield Scholarship to anyone who is keen to broaden their horizons and urge anyone interested to speak to me directly about it.

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