RNAA- Alexandra Haswell heads a movement to involve young people in argricultural associations

A life-changing visit to Canada convinced Norfolk surveyor Alexandra Haswell that young people must become more involved in agricultural associations. Now she's heading a pioneering new movement to make that happen.

The next generation

A life-changing visit to Canada convinced Norfolk surveyor Alexandra Haswell that young people must become more involved in agricultural associations. Now she’s heading a pioneering new movement to make that happen.

Pictures: Antony Kelly

Back in 2006, Alexandra Haswell boarded a plane to Canada to join delegates at the bi-annual conference of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth (RASC).  It was a watershed experience for her and one which was to inspire her to take up a  new cause. Alexandra was representing the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and, on her return to the county, she decided to become more involved in the work of the association.

“I was so inspired by the conference, by the people I met, and by the work of the RASC,” she remembers. “It was amazing to learn what agricultural shows throughout the Commonwealth achieve in terms of education and entertainment; they are so important in promoting agriculture in their respective countries.”

The conference had approximately 30 Next Generation delegates from all over the Commonwealth and aimed to encourage young people to become more involved with their local agricultural association and shows.“We need to encourage young people involved in agriculture and local businesses to take part in the work of the association. There is so much young people can give with new ideas and also the chance to learn from the older generations.” explains Alexandra.

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“The average age of RNAA council members is between 50 and 60 – if we don’t do anything now to attract younger people in, we could have a problem in 10 years’ time with membership numbers.”

She is chairing a Next Generation group within the RNAA, which is recruiting people between the ages of 18-35 to become involved in the work of the association and the Royal Norfolk Show.

Existing young stewards are invited to join, and successful new applicants will be able to steward at the show for one day and will receive a ticket for the other day, allowing them to view the show as a member of the public and prepare a report on a specific area of their interest. The Next Generation group is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK for an agricultural association.

“We’re looking for people who have a real passion for rural life in Norfolk,” she explains. “We want to see a genuine interest in the countryside, in food, farming and the environment, although our Next Generation members don’t necessarily have to come from traditional farming backgrounds.”

There may be opportunities for Next Generation members to travel around the UK, looking at how other agricultural shows involve young people and they may also have the chance to venture abroad, as Alexandra did, to the RASC conference.

“You don’t need any formal qualifications at all and it is the sort of experience that can really change your life,” says Alexandra. “We want people who are highly motivated, want to take up a great opportunity but can also give something back to Norfolk and the RNAA.” 

Ches Broom, county organiser for the Norfolk Young Farmers is a member of the Next Generation group, as is Mike Mac who is responsible for the Rural Enterprise Hub at Easton College.  Together they run the Growing Business Award, a highly successful award helping young, motivated people to set up agricultural-based businesses, and through their work and association with the RNAA they have a valuable input to the group’s work.

As for Alexandra, she is 29 and was born and brought up in Norfolk. She is a chartered surveyor with Cator and Co, specialising in the development and management of rural properties. She has a part share in a flock of rare breed sheep and is a member of the Broads Authority. She has been an assistant steward at the Royal Norfolk Show since 2007. This year, she will be a steward on the education stand, helping to plan and organise the Over the Farmer’s Hedge exhibition.

Her involvement with schoolchildren doesn’t stop with the Royal Norfolk Show. She organises an annual visit for a nearby primary school to Broad Farm in Salhouse, the home of Henry and Sara Cator, where children get to experience different aspects of rural life.

“We had a party of children here from a school in the centre of Norwich,” Alexandra recalls. “One little boy wondered if we were still in England and another asked if this was really the countryside! It shows how valuable these visits are for schoolchildren.”

A few years ago, Alexandra also became a trustee of a Norfolk-based charity, Nelson’s Journey, which supports bereaved children. Her elder sister Lucy died in a car accident when Alexandra was a teenager, and it’s a charity very dear to her heart. She will be helping the charity to raise money for a new headquarters in Norfolk later this year.

“It is a real bonus to be involved in the RNAA and in lots of aspects of Norfolk life,” says Alexandra. “I have gained such a lot personally from doing all these things and I want to pass that opportunity on to other young people in the county.

“We want to convince businesses to invest some of their young employees’ time in the RNAA, allowing them to attend meetings and travel to conferences. In the long run, they will reap the benefits because their staff will grow in confidence, widen their experience and be extremely well motivated.”

The Next Generation project is fully supported by members of the RNAA and by its chief executive officer John Purling.“I’m really confident that in 10 years’ time we will have come a long way towards involving more young people in the RNAA and have a steady stream of applicants,” says Alexandra.

If the project is successful, the group will encourage other agricultural associations in the UK to take up similar youth involvement schemes. “I believe we’re leading the way on this,” she adds. “And that makes me very proud of Norfolk.”

The Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association is best known for the annual, two-day Royal Norfolk Show, which will take place on June 30 and July 1, 2010, but the organisation does much more than this. It arranges and hosts events throughout the year, supports education in the field of food and farming, backs many local groups with charitable grants, and funds student scholarships.  If you would like to find out more about the association and being a member, please contact Sarah de Chair on 01603 731961 or visit the website at www.royalnorfolkshow.co.uk