Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Factory farming debate rumbles on

There has been extensive press interest in the proposed “factory farming” resolution, both before and after the AGM, and whilst most has positively recognised that more discussion is needed, an article in Farm Business recently caused me to put pen to paper to try to explain the situation to the Editor. I have copied the letter I sent over to him below for your information.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to respond to the recent article “Time to Focus on Jam again” (Farm Business 24 June 2011) which fails to recognise a key factor; the National Federation of Women’s Institutes does not have, and never has had, any kind of mandate to work on the issue of large-scale farming. Delegates at the AGM rejected a vote on one of their resolutions looking at planning permission surrounding large-scale farming units on 8 June 2011, calling on the industry and relevant bodies to open up a rational and transparent debate on the future direction of UK farming.

Every year, WI members put forward a range of issues for national debate at the AGM, which, if passed, go on to become the mandates that form the basis of the organisation’s campaigning and awareness-raising activities in the future. As a unique organisation, the resolution process means that members play a central role in defining policy and bringing issues onto the WI's national agenda; this ensures that the entire process is wholly democratic. Many people from many organisations, both farming and other, were very interested in the large-scale farming resolution before it reached the AGM. That the mention of factory farming of large animal caused such a stir surely means that there is a very big discussion and debate to be had on the very subject.

The WI’s resolutions and mandates are first and foremost a tool to raise awareness of any given issue – a way of educating not only WI members, but the local community as well as the wider population.

What happened with this resolution proves without doubt that the women who were debating it at the AGM are intelligent and they realise that more discussion is needed on the issue of factory farming in the UK including, but not excluding, the issues of local and sustainable food; animal welfare; food security for the future; protection of the countryside; and the concern with slurry and water tables.

The women “deep within the organization” are WI members whose vote holds no more sway that any member in any WI. Might I suggest that Caroline Whibley visit a WI, even join one, to learn just what the WI is truly about.

And as for jam, WI members have never stopped making jam since it’s formation in 1915. In October, we are holding the second WI Real Jam Festival at the WI’s own Denman College in Oxfordshire where everyone can learn to make jam as well as enter a pot into the competition – there are classes for everyone from the connoisseur to the beginner.

Yours etc…

Ruth Bond
Chair of the NFWI

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Let's talk

A headline in the Farmer's Weekly Interactive on Saturday 18 June announced “WI saga highlights need to educate more”. Adam Bedford is so right – the primary reason for any WI resolution is to educate, to inform and to promote discussion around the issue raised. Initially, this all takes place within WI meetings between members, but it's not long before the general public gets to know more too. It does not matter that there wasn’t a vote on the planning permission for factory farming resolution because raising awareness of the whole issue has well and truly taken place. Yes, we do need a public debate; yes, we do need to look more into the whole saga of factory farming, but right now, ‘for’ or ‘against’ is not the answer. The media is still talking about this topic ten days after the AGM, so LET'S TALK!

Talk is what the WI did with the Great Milk Debates in 2007. Across the country, dairy farmers, processors, retailers and consumers, including WI members, held at least 100 discussions, which in a number of cases resulted in better prices for milk. Last November the debate was reinvigorated with the Mission Milk campaign; the WI remains on the case until a goal is reached.

Another case we are still concerned about is Ending Violence Against Women. Following the proposals made yesterday in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, the NFWI believes that vulnerable women are still potentially unprotected. Whilst it is positive that the government has acknowledged the importance of the provision of legal aid in cases involving domestic violence, these proposals do not reflect the reality of women’s lives. Changing the scope of legal aid, as these new proposals have, just serves to risk excluding vulnerable women from the justice they so badly need.

On a lighter note, I spent a very enjoyable and interesting morning with members from the two Kent Federations – West and East – discussing all things WI from badges and the NFWI's centenary, to Denman College and rising membership numbers. 21,000 women have joined the WI since this time last year; the reasons for joining will be myriad but I bet some really wanted to learn to make jam.

More and more members are becoming moodlers too; there are now over 10,000 of us! I urge all members and NFWI Associates to check it out.

Looking back to the AGM and membership, blog readers might be interested to learn that an NFWI Associate from Boston, USA came over specifically to attend the meeting in Liverpool. During her short three-day trip to the UK, she also visited the NFWI office at 104 New Kings Road and Fulham WI. Denman College is on the itinerary for her next visit to these shores; we’re looking forward to seeing her then.

Friday, 10 June 2011

An AGM to remember

Not since 1992 was there such an instance at an NFWI AGM. During the meeting, a member begged leave "to move to the next business" but it was not granted. In 2011 when the same thing happened, leave was granted and we all moved to the next business. After much discussion and insight from expert speakers, no vote was taken on the issue of granting planning permission for large-scale factory farms. This means that the WI has no mandate on which to act so there will not be a campaign. What it does mean is that the whole area of factory farming, mega farms, environment and animal welfare, not to mention future food security, is now on the nation's agenda.

Over the past few months, WI members have been accused of being ignorant and ill-informed regarding 'mega farms'. Misguided was another adjective I often read in the media. If anything proves such derogatory accolades to be themselves misguided, this outcome does. The membership, represented by 4,587 individual members at the AGM in the Liverpool Echo Arena, clearly saw that this is a subject that needs further discussion and wider debate. This is precisely why the WI's resolution process has stood the test of time; it gives time for research, thought, deliberation, information gathering and expert advice, which, on this occasion, was clearly taken to tackle such a complicated and far-reaching subject.

The vote to save local libraries was passed with a 97% majority but one expert speaker pointed out that new models of library provision should be explored, for instance the National Trust model with libraries within an authority becoming charitable trusts with independent governing bodies drawn from the public, local authorities, educational bodies, etc under the aegis of the Charity Commission. Libraries are currently used by 12.8% adult population once a month; 87.2% do not use them at all. In the saving of our libraries, perhaps there is much to be discussed here too.

Guest speakers at the 96th AGM were Erwin James, writer, who spoke of his life as it led him to prison and beyond; Dr Rita Gardner, Director of the Royal Geographic Society, who briefly spoke of her studies into natural and human induced climate change; and Sir Steve Redgrave, Fairtrade's Chief Ambassador.

Just count how many topics were covered in this meeting alone – one adjective I defy anyone to use regarding the WI is boring!

Friday, 3 June 2011

AGM and Hay fever

I took a trip down to Abergavenny this week bit did not alight from the train there.No, I continued to Hereford from where I made my way to Hay and the renowned Hay Book Festival. Over the years, I have spent a number of hours in Hay, especially in the book shops, but never have I been to the festival – my loss. This year however, the WI had a presence there and being an avid bookworm, how could I not be there!

WI members were invited to hear Rosie Boycott in conversation with Dame Harriet Walter who was discussing her book, "Facing It, Reflections on Images”. These reflections are beautiful, sensitive, lively, pensive, smiling, old faces of women. A joy to behold, and when studied, these faces reveal so much more than a wrinkle or a blemish. Whether well-known or completely unknown to many people, such faces reflect a microcosm of lives lived to the full, with contentment, possibly with regret but certainly lived. A discussion, with several questions from gentlemen in the audience, was followed by tea and welsh cakes. A thoroughly good way to spend an afternoon – thank you to all at the Hay Festival for inviting the WI.

On Tuesday I shall take another trip, it won't quite take the ferry 'cross the Mersey but I will see that very river on my way to Liverpool for the NFWI AGM at the Echo Arena on Wednesday 8 June. I can almost guarantee a warm day with little wind; as far back as I can recall, the day of the AGM has always been hot and sunny, much like it always seemed to be when taking exams at school!

Over 4,500 WI members are expected to converge on Liverpool; some staying overnight and making a short holiday of it, so I'm getting ready for the tingle I always feel when the untied voices of all those members sing Jerusalem. There certainly is a WOW factor there, I can tell you.