I was in Liverpool yesterday, at the NFWI AGM.
It’s one of those events which has to be experienced to be understood. So powerful and somewhat awe-inspiring to sit and listen to world-class speakers, heartfelt proposals and a great deal of shared knowledge.
Of course, the Liverpool Arena isn’t quite the Albert Hall and I was disappointed that the acoustic meant that Jerusalem wasn’t quite the moving experience it can be. Our Chair, Ruth, found it hard to rally the troops as it were, to win a reaction from the floor during her address because those on the stage felt rather remote from those of us sitting down below. But a modern venue has other advantages in the form of adequate numbers of facilities for these numbers, comfortable seating and John Lewis, just across the road!
The first speaker of the day was Erwin James. I was one of those who’d googled to find out a little more about him and was curious to hear what he had to say. In true WI style, his eloquent speech left everyone with plenty to think about and the audience sat rapt with attention throughout – never have so many women sat in such silence! A great start to the meeting and a topic of conversation throughout much of the journey home, too.
The library debate went ahead as planned and though the speaker against the resolution spoke passionately, the vote carried the resolution with 97% in favour. With a few things to chat about, we broke for lunch and went out into the fresh, Mersey air – a bit fresher than we might have wished, I’ll admit!
The most memorable AGMs are those where a little controversy creeps in. Memories of that day are always close to the surface whenever a little dissent is underfoot and so it was after lunch when our resolution to discuss “mega farms” was proposed. Though our resolutions undergo a lengthy process of verification and close scrutiny as far as the wording is concerned, occasionally one slips through the net and this was very much the case yesterday. What constitutes a “mega farm”? How might such a resolution affect our relationship with the NFU, supporting farmers who wish to keep up with modern methods of farming, thereby ensuring the future of home production and less dependence on imported food? Most of all, would such a ban on huge factory farming techniques (regardless of how high-quality and environmentally sound they might be) damage the UK farming community? These were all questions which concerned the membership.
As always, we had excellent, expert speakers. Helen Browning spoke from the heart and with her considerable knowledge and experience, made her views in support of the resolution clear. There was no doubt that there was no question about it.
NFU President Graham Kendall outlined an equally heartfelt and impassioned case for the opposition. Many shared his concerns and it was clear, this was not the foregone conclusion that most of us had assumed. The debate was opened to the floor and several members stepped forward to express their concern at the wording of the resolution and the damage which might be done to UK Farming were we to agree to this campaign.
And there was rumbling in the camp. Sitting near the front, on the floor of the stadium, I could hear something going on at the back. Someone called forward but couldn’t make herself heard. Another group began to clap. Oh my goodness…the women sitting around me looked anxiously around. Were we heading for trouble?
A small group of members came forward to the stage, to express their wish that we move on to the next agenda item – an action clearly permitted in our standing orders. This would mean no vote on the resolution and rather than discard such an important issue with a negative outcome, it would keep the issue very much under discussion and a few thousand women would go home with a little more knowledge and therefore better equipped to continue the debate than they were. Clearly, this would be the best outcome.
But it took time. There were formalities to work out and passionate feelings had been kindled. Ruth, our Chair, sought advice from Jana, our General Secretary, about the correct procedure to follow and after a few minutes hiatus, all was well. The membership had, once again, expressed their views in their own particular way!
So, it came as a relief to sit back and hear another inspiring speaker – the Director of the Royal Geographic Society, Rita Gardner. Never has geography had such a champion! In a few short minutes, we were all enthralled by this amazing woman who spoke to a series of beautiful images (including the Ubari Lakes of Libya, above, where we visited last year!) Spirited and oozing confidence, she spoke about landscapes of the world and I could have listened to stories of her work in India for the rest of the afternoon. This is someone about whom I need to find out more.
By now, we were on to the home stretch, the audience were looking at watches and beginning to plan their exit strategy as it was gone 4pm and we were already filled to bursting with opinions to share. So, Sir Steve Redgrave didn’t have the easiest of slots on the programme. Nevertheless, we sat back, prepared to enjoy the headline speaker of the day and watched a short film about his Olympic career.
But wasn’t he here to speak about FairTrade?
Indeed he was, and I wasn’t alone in finding the ten-year-old film about the Sydney Olympics a little much. Sitting in front of the huge speakers, turned up full volume didn’t help!
Well, what’s to say? We learned a little about FairTrade cotton growing in India and Mali. We learned bit more about Sir Steve’s own FairTrade clothing business. Most of all, I learned that an Olympic champion doesn’t always make the best speaker, sadly. Nevertheless, after such a packed programme of thought-provoking stuff to talk about on the way home, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could pull off a satisfactory conclusion to the day. After a few closing remarks and a summing up, the last, traditional item on the agenda was upon us.
Jerusalem, Land of my Fathers and the National Anthem.