Scholar’s Spotlight – Olivia Cooper

Olivia Cooper of Great Britain, one of 3 winners of the IFAJ-Caterpillar Development Bursary.

Olivia Cooper was one of three 2018 IFAJ Scholars who was awarded an IFAJ-Caterpillar Development Bursary for a special communications project. The following is her report and biography.


Bridging the gap between mainstream and agricultural media

Olivia Cooper

The IFAJ is all about broadening horizons and professional development, and the inaugural Caterpillar Bursary certainly delivered on both fronts.

As a journalist who was lucky enough to be picked as one of the first scholars, I had the privilege to travel to Italy for the International Journalism Festival in Perugia (3-7 April). Attracting tens of thousands of journalists from all over the world, this was a unique opportunity to network with professionals from all reporting sectors and learn from the very best in the industry.

It was a very packed programme of events, with seminars hosted in different hotels all over the town, so there was plenty of exercise rushing from one location to the next! Topics which were particularly pertinent to the farming sector included: Improving scientific reporting, sustainable food systems and innovation and research in agriculture.

There were also some great practical workshops on using tools like Google Earth for videos, and wider discussions around local vs national journalism and what’s changing in the newsroom ecosystem. I have shared many of the practical skills training with my staff at Agri-hub and have continued the political discussions with colleagues at home.

As deputy chairman of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists, I want to help put on professional training and networking events, so I took home plenty of top tips from the experts. I am also hoping to help develop an ag media summit in the UK and will draw on my experiences to help create a top-class offering for our British and international members.

In the UK there is a big divide between farming and the general public, and substandard reporting of agriculture among the mainstream media. I am passionate about building bridges with non-ag media and had plenty of discussions with journalists from other countries to find out what they are doing.

In addition, the British farming media is too inward-looking, and by becoming more aware of what others are doing around the world we can both learn new techniques and be more sensitive to global developments.

To this end, I organised two days of farm trips at either end of the journalism festival. I started out at Castello di Solfagnano in Umbria – a medieval castle and 50 ha estate which has been restored by one family over the past 12 years. They grow grapes, olive trees, barley, sunflowers and durum wheat, as well as producing saffron and honey.

Farming organically isn’t easy – particularly with a changing climate, with olive yields potentially decimated by disease in a humid year. So, to tie in with the ethos of the estate, the farm manager uses a mixture of ancient and modern techniques to preserve memories of the past and rediscover old ways to benefit the future.

Next on the list was Aboca – a unique business which grows and sells plant-based medicinal products in 14 countries worldwide. It has 700 ha in Umbria – where the laboratory and headquarters are – and another 1000 ha near Cortona, Tuscany. As well as the arable land it has 600 ha of woodland both for medicinal extracts and CO2 reduction.

The firm currently has 19 clinical trials in progress in areas of gastroenterology, metabolism, oncology and cognitive deterioration, and sells more than 115 products through more than 27,000 pharmacies in Italy and abroad.

The farm is highly mechanised, with GPS and autosteer for precision techniques, while the Aboca Museum aims to spread knowledge about the relationship between plants and humankind. A fascinating business and place to visit.

On the final day, I went to a farm to which British producers might find it easier to relate – Bio Alberti – a family-run organic farm producing cereals and beef. But they don’t just grow the raw materials, they process them into the finest Italian produce and export them worldwide. It’s a pleasant combination of ancient and modern: Traditional farming practices meet modern processing techniques, while the burgeoning business both regenerates the tiny stone-built village around it and reaches out to the global marketplace.

Like many British organic producers, they are adding value to their produce and have diversified into local tourism, with farm-stay accommodation and plans to open a small restaurant in the local village.

Suitably, my final visit was to Castello Montevibiano, a beautiful vineyard nestled in Italy’s Umbrian hills. Like everywhere else, the welcome I was given was simply heart-warming, and as someone with generations of farming in my blood I felt a great connection to owner Maria Camilla Fasola. The family is passionate about guarding the land for future generations, and she and her brother Lorenzo manage the land with great sensitivity, making it the first in the world to be certified carbon zero without buying in credits.

Producing incredible olive oil and wine, which they export worldwide, they also host 4000 visitors a year, putting on cooking lessons and a Blues Festival. The farm tour (on electric vehicles no less) concluded with a wonderful olive oil and wine-tasting session – the perfect end to the day!

Since my return I have written up four articles from the farm visits, and plan to give a formal training session to my own staff, based on the practical sessions at the Journalism Festival. I’ve made my own notes to consider when putting on any BGAJ event and am confident I will be able to put them to good use.

I would like to thank both the IFAJ and Caterpillar for giving me the opportunity to undertake this combination of professional development and travel. Whenever I have had the chance to travel with the IFAJ it has made me realise that many of us share the same passions and challenges, no matter where we are from. Farmers speak a common language around the globe, as do journalists, and I feel it is so important for us to share those experiences so that we can learn from and support each other – hopefully this trip has gone a little way towards that goal.

Olivia is a freelance agricultural journalist and PR consultant working across a range of UK and EU farming publications. With 15 years’ experience and many journalist awards to her name, she recently developed a small PR and journalist business, Agri-hub, with three other colleagues.  Olivia works with publications such as Farmers Weekly, CPM and Farmers Guardian, amongst others. She is deputy chairperson of the British Guild of Agricultural Journalists (BGAJ) and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

Olivia is interested in becoming more aware of what others outside of the British farm media are doing in order to learn new techniques and be more sensitive to global developments. In particular, she is interested in the divide between farming and the general public, and the substandard reporting of agriculture among the mainstream media. She is passionate about building bridges with non-ag media and wants to learn from what other countries are doing.

Olivia will attend the International Journalism Festival in Italy in spring 2019 to network with other journalists and learn from the very best in the industry. She will also report on a number of relevant seminars including how to improve scientific reporting, what’s changing in the newsroom ecosystem, and the risks and opportunities in local vs national journalism. As well as writing up articles, Olivia will use her experiences to shape the BGAJ’s efforts to build links between mainstream and agricultural press which she plans to develop into an ag media summit in the UK.