Adam Henson: Question Time

Countryfile Live 2016 at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

Countryfile Live 2016 at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire - Credit: Archant

Visitors to the inaugral Countryfile Live event showed a thirst for knowledge and jumped at the chance to ask farmers and producers about their food

The simplest ideas really can make the biggest difference. As I discovered at Countryfile’s first-ever public event, held in the Cotswolds.

It has always impressed me that whatever we buy, there’s almost always someone on hand to answer our questions. Whether it’s a new car, a vacuum cleaner or a set of saucepans, the manufacturers are virtually falling over themselves to give us the information we need. Even booking a holiday or buying music online comes with page after page of reviews and recommendations.

So it’s all the more remarkable that so much fresh food is bought without a second thought being given to answering shoppers’ enquiries about who produced it and where it came from. As a nation I think we’ve become more curious consumers and now we’re certainly more interested in issues like animal welfare, traceability and food miles than we ever have been before. The Red Tractor logo on some British food has tapped in to that desire for knowledge and Farmers’ Markets, like the UK’s first in Bath and the award-winning one in Stroud, have helped link food and farming. But how many shoppers, out buying their weekly groceries, would love to be able to talk directly to the men and women responsible for supplying their meat, fruit, vegetables and cereals? If only there were growers, farmers and producers available in the supermarket aisles ready to discuss farming methods, food production, harvesting, processing and packaging. Of course that just isn’t possible. But we had the nearest thing to it at Blenheim Palace when we staged the inaugural BBC Countryfile Live event.

Our brilliant team from the Cotswold Farm Park had been making plans for the livestock area of the show for months, and with a lot of help from other farmers and breeders, they put on a really impressive display. There were forty four breeds of rare, native and commercial farm animals including pigs, poultry, cattle, sheep, goats and even rabbits. But from the outset we thought the event would also be the perfect opportunity to get farmers and their customers together. ‘Ask the Farmer’ was an ingenious and very straight-forward way of putting UK agriculture to the forefront of shoppers’ minds and getting the message across about some great British produce. So as tens of thousands of people poured into the Duke of Marlborough’s ‘back garden’, I was there with an army of fellow farmers, some from the Cotswolds but many from much further afield, to answer visitors’ questions and queries face to face.

During the four days of the event, we introduced people to almost 300 farmers; all of them responding to questions about their farms, their livelihoods and their role in a very modern agricultural industry. The farmers were divided into their individual sectors; Dairy, Sheep, Beef, Poultry and Pigs. We knew that colour-coding the teams in yellow, red, blue, pink and black would help the public identify them, but I had no idea that their bright, logoed T-shirts would prove such a hit. Pictures of them have been sweeping social media and the Twitter statistics for #AskTheFarmer hit well over 4.7 million impressions. It’s been quite astonishing. I think one weekly agricultural newspaper summed it up perfectly when it pointed out that consumers at the show had displayed a “thirst for knowledge”.

Meanwhile hundreds of people have commented on the way ‘Ask the Farmer’ connected the public directly with the producers. Among them was dairy farmer James Robinson who spent two days with us at Blenheim: “We have a duty to tell our story. We can’t wave goodbye to our produce at the farm gate anymore”. James’ view is spot on and it’s been confirmed that Countryfile Live will be back in 2017. I think we may have started a trend… and not just on Twitter.

Follow Adam on Twitter! @AdamHenson