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a photograph of a cup on the roof of a car, on a very foggy day in a green countryside a photograph of a cup on the roof of a car, on a very foggy day in a green countryside

Mobilising a Nation

transcript

Sunday, 8th November 2020

Stow Away

A Sunday morning brings a long drive to Stow, about half-way between Edinburgh and Jedburgh in Scotland. The drive is made longer by dense fog, now not only sitting in the valleys but on the high land too, which makes the roads more treacherous and the going tiring. I am driving to meet Nigel Miller, a sheep and beef farmer who was also a lynchpin in introducing the BVD eradication scheme in Scotland in the early 2000s. BVD is an endemic disease in cattle.

Nigel has suggested we meet in a local café, which I find easily. I ring him to let him know I’m outside. “I’m in an old landrover with a golden retriever sat next to me” he says. I look around and see several landrovers. “I’m in a white Astra van with an Irish reg,” I reply. “Right, there won’t be too many of those. I’ll find you.”

I meet both farmer and dog soon after. Nigel stands straight and acts with a keen intelligence, reading the situation and becoming quizzically enthusiastic, not quite sure what to do with an artist. He has 850 sheep and 140 cattle. His father farmed this land, and his son manages half the farm. He might be regarded as a traditional farmer, in this sense of patriarchal passage of ownership. But while traditional, there is nothing conventional about him.

a photograph of a field with many sheep moving in different directions. They are white sheep with black heads.

Mixed perspectives

Nigel trained as a vet. His perspective on disease is both as farmer and vet, which puts him in an interesting position of being on two sides of a particular fence. So when he criticises the sides (and the fence) he is thinking in dualities.

I automatically bring up foot and mouth as an example of where his mixed vet and farm backgrounds must have been important. Even now, I can see the hurt on his face when thinking about it. A lot of farmers lost animals. A lot of animals were culled. A lot of tears were shed.

At the time, he was in a relatively uncommon position of being a vet who farmed. He could recognise the illness quickly, and so was brought in to help and spent a large amount of time around Longtown Market and the surrounding farms, where the outbreak was worst in Scotland.

There are many types of communication. I do it with art. Nigel uses distillation: He tells me how foot and mouth is vesicle rather than pustule. I nod, clearly not understanding, and he patiently explains that they are different forms of lesions. I nod, still not understanding, and he goes into further detail about how in one the skin flaps back, while in the other the skin breaks; they are recognized visually. I nod.

He says that the next major foot and mouth outbreak will challenge the approach. The state veterinary service is smaller. Vets are specializing so fewer are on farm, routinely handling and examining livestock. With a limited number of farm vets available the future must depend on rapid diagnostics or even pen-side tests.

a photograph of a stack of bales of winter feed wrapped in black plastic at the edge of a field

How to mobilise a network

Although unassuming, Nigel is deep-thinking and vastly knowledgeable, and a looks at problems on a whole, not just in parts. He thinks strategically. I ask about this, focussing on his role in the Scottish National Famer’s Union.

“These things happen in sequence. I was chair of the local union. I still attend meetings, and support the union. The aftermath of 2001 led to a lot of reviews and future planning. I became the chairman of the livestock committee, then after four years was vice president, then four more years later I became president,” he speaks as if this is just something that all farmers must go through in their lives. He knows how important it is to bring people together, but he argues against his individual role repeatedly.

To test this idea, I ask him about being a target of the ire of farmers when in a position of power or influence. He answers simply: “It’s therapeutic to have a target to vent at.”

He is quick to emphasise the role of collaboration, to pull focus from his own efforts. Nigel speaks of everything like the interconnected web of his livestock and their surroundings. He is not an individual, but part of a bigger system. I try to remind him that he was an important part. He deflects and denies this outright, insisting continuously that there were teams, committees, farmers, voters, animals involved. His insistence is not only modesty, it is philosophy and belief.

It all began with a strategy group. Five members discussed the effectiveness of the Scandinavian BVD eradication schemes and looked at how successful schemes had been implemented on Orkney and Shetland. They were well armed with research and knowledge, then gradually they implemented a scheme that is widely regarded as a success.

Still, you can’t just have a good idea and then wave a wand and see it carried out. The Scottish BVD eradication scheme was industry-led, carried out from the ground up by farmers. After this, they lobbied the Scottish government to certify this eradication.

a photograph of a field in heavy fog, with sheep grazing throughout

Nigel concedes that, yes, he had to travel town to town and speak to farmers. He went to all corners, to large towns and small villages, convincing people to get involved. Sometimes he spoke to groups of only four or five, sometimes to filled community halls. “Face to face is crucial,” Nigel insists humbly.

This is the success story of most projects that I have seen that have any community aspect. If I had been asked why, as an artist, it was important for me to travel to visit farms (rather than just call farmers on the phone), it would have been hard to justify in words. But I know that these visits helped me to realise and understand place, culture and ideas better than I would have if I had been remote. Things only happen when they happen, or they don’t.

Of course, another side of policy development is paperwork. Nigel empathises with farmers: “In an attempt to mark progress, outside agencies need more and more data…that’s perfectly reasonable for a bureaucrat, but in the end the farmers end up doing work for data that has little use to them.”

Does he spend time with his animals, or observing the world around his fields? “Time is precious. You need time to see what’s around you.”

a photograph of some electrical pylons in the fog

"It's harder on a small farm"

Although he speaks of his policy development time in the past tense, Nigel is currently on a steering committee for how to bring farmers in line with climate change goals. He talks about this a little. “BVD is a no-brainer. The economic impacts are significant. The animals suffer…With climate there are broader issues of understanding”.

Farmers understand complexity because they have to deal with so many dynamics, and so much precarity. I suggest that perhaps farming on small farms it will be easier to deal with climate transitions, which he rebukes: “It’s harder on a small farm. We need to do two things: reduction and sequestration. With reduction, yes, everyone can do this and it’s not that hard to implement. But sequestration on a small farm is a problem…If you ask farmers to plant forest on 20% of their land, this is easy if you have hundreds of acres of moorland but much more difficult with a small holding.” He is impassioned by this point, insisting that the work that he does is for all farmers.

We finish there. Nigel very kindly pays for our coffee. “It’s the least I can do,” he says, as if he hasn’t spent the last two hours generously sharing his lifetime’s work with me. On the way out he meets some friends, and introduces me without saying “artist”, clearly not sure how to explain this to them. With these others, he is jovial and joking, and presents a charismatic personality that is different from the caring pragmatism he has presented to me.

He leaves in his old landrover with his golden retriever to return to his farm. I ask permission to explore his farmland before he goes, and then proceed into the hills to meet his cheviots and easycare animals.

 

A photograph of a woodland with some sheep grazing nearby
a photograph of a sheep's face close to the camera. A hand appears at the right-hand side of the frame, with the palm facing the sheep. The sheep is tentatively approaching the hand for a pet or a scratch a photograph of a sheep's face close to the camera. A hand appears at the right-hand side of the frame, with the palm facing the sheep. The sheep is tentatively approaching the hand for a pet or a scratch

shifting ground

hooves on the ground

adapting to adaptability

a farmer in a field with her back turned to the camera a farmer in a field with her back turned to the camera

seeing the bigger picture

nigel's response

I like to think of myself as being able to see the bigger picture; to understand different worlds and ideas but I found it hard to see how art fits with or can feed off the negatives and distress of disease and its control. That is still difficult for me.

In truth I love colour, landscape in all its complexity and animals ; art that captures that magic with paint, charcoal or camera can reflect the real highs and lows of society and the rural world. But that is a narrow vision of art and this project has opened up a new understanding of how art can communicate in different ways.

I have been fascinated by that challenge. Perhaps I am now a little less narrow minded?




a charcoal drawing of a sheep looking toward the viewer
an image of a farm gate an image of a farm gate

from the university

researchers response

connections and networks

dr james bowen,
leeds trinity university (history)

prof rowland kao,
university of edinburgh (epidemiology & economics)

Nigel’s account is really interesting as it is reflects the perspective of both a farmer and veterinarian and how this has influenced his understanding of the impacts of livestock diseases past, present and future. Most people’s attention has focused on high-profile outbreaks of epizootic diseases, notably Foot and Mouth Disease which occurred in Britain in 1967, 2001 and 2007. This has framed public perceptions of livestock disease. The outbreaks figure prominently in the memory of the farming community. It also presents a challenge given the overriding attention given to this disease and the way other diseases were considered relative to it.

I’ve known Nigel Miller on and off pretty much since I moved to Scotland in 2007. This has been mainly via academic or government meetings but more recently we met in the context in a more informal setting (at a local farmer’s club where I was presenting a general ‘public engagement’ talk about some of our research in what now seems like the very distant pre-COVID time of early 2020).

There are historical parallels in the way that in the past information was disseminated to the farming community. Formal agricultural education was delivered in schools, colleges and universities. Lectures and demonstrations were organised under the auspices of county councils funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, along with voluntary bodies like agricultural associations and farmers clubs, the Chambers of Agriculture, National Federation of Women’s Institutes and rural youth movements notably Young Farmers’ Clubs.

We spoke for some time then, and what struck me was the difference facets that he showed in this more relaxed setting, leading to me developing a very different picture of him. This is of course entirely normal – individuals rarely present the full range of themselves and their characters in any one setting, and so we don’t tend to get a good picture of a person even over multiple encounters, if those are repeatedly the same kind of setting – particularly a ‘business’ one. We all know this – but I think what we tend to do, is to fill in the blank facets with morphed extensions of ourselves, mapped onto the facets o them that we observe.

Nigel’s involvement with The National Farmers Union of Scotland also made me think of the role agricultural trades unions played in providing education and training with speakers often addressing local branch meetings. It also made me think of the function of county based War Agricultural Executive Committees (WAECs or ‘War Ags’) and later agricultural advisory services which provided scientific and technical support to farmers for free.

Shane’s installation combined images of Nigel with images relevant to the settings of his life and of the man himself, combined with text and Shane’s audio narrative. I found that engagement with his installation, cemented by the action of choosing the image and narrative myself, helped to create a picture that, in a very compact way, was far more consonant with the broader picture of Nigel I had developed over time, and indeed expanded it.

But as his statement ‘BVD is a no-brainer. The economic impacts are significant. The animals suffer…’ highlights, a coherent national policy which engages directly with the farming community is needed to tackle the disease given its economic impacts and effects on animal health.

Is this art? It’s not a question I am well placed to answer. However, if one of the things that art aims to do is to distil something into some part of its essence – to better understand what makes us think of the essence of a thing, or in this case, what makes a person an individual, then in my view, it has succeeded.

a photograph of a farmer petting one of her sheep