This week my #followafarmer interview takes us off the farm and in to the food supply chain, chatting all things farming and fast food with McDonald’s Agricultural Coordinator Laura Talbot.
James: What’s your farming background?
Laura Talbot: I’m not from a farming background, we have farms in the family and my grandad has a small holding however I wasn’t fortunate enough to have grown up on a family farm, Not that I’ve let it stop me!
J: When did you first get involved in farming?
L: I’d always plodded around farms in my wellies but I would say I properly started getting involved when i was 10 and started volunteering at a local open farm where I got involved with all the animals but my main interests were the cattle, sheep and goats
J: So you always wanted to work in farming?
L: From being a tot I used to want to be a vet, one day I went on a school trip to Safeway, as it was back in the day, and decided that i had changed my mind and wanted to be a checkout lady! After getting my head screwed back on i continued my desire to be a vet until i did work experience at a few local practices and decided that it wasn’t for me and since then I’ve known that the agricultural industry was where my passion lay.
J: How did you end up working for McDonalds?
L: I left uni in 2015 and started working for Dawn Meats, through my work with Dawn Meats I had contact with McDonald’s through their sustainable beef clubs. McDonald’s were looking for a new Agriculture Coordinator and I was recommended by my boss to go on secondment to McDonald’s. Two interviews in Ireland and London later and here I am!
J: What did you study at university?
L: I studied Agricultural livestock science at The University of Nottingham
J: So working at Dawn Meats was your first graduate job. I assume you were based in Ireland? What was your role there?
L: It was, i started with Dawn 2 weeks after graduating. I was based in South Wales for 4 months at their retail packing site and after that moved to Bedfordshire where I worked at one of their abattoirs, where I worked my way through the lairage and abattoir and worked on various agricultural and procurement projects
J: What about your role at McDonalds? How long have you been there she what exactly does an Agricultural Coordinator do?
L: I’ve been with McDonald’s 9 months now. My role is really varied, I manage the Supply Chain Open Days which allow franchisees, business managers, crew members and various schools, collages, universities and other rural groups the opportunity to visit our farms and suppliers and learn more about the McDonald’s supply chain. I’m also heavily involved with the Progressive Young Farmer programme which gives 4 students the opportunity to complete a placement year with us seeing every aspect of the supply chain focusing on the beef, dairy, pork and crop sectors. The PYF programme is one of my favourite aspects of the job as it is great to encourage and see the doors opening to new talent, of which there is a lot of! Other things I do are the Oxford Farming Conference, sustainability groups across the different sectors and this year a large focus has been on
#foodsteps which took our supply chain on the road through the use of virtual reality!
J: Working on farms growing up then heading to uni, did you ever see yourself working within the supply chain?
L: That’s an interesting one and I’m not entirely sure of the answer if I’m honest! I would say so, I’ve always been passionate about animal welfare and knew that the welfare aspect was important to me which I suppose i covered to some extent through my work within the abattoir. I think half the problem currently is that there are so many jobs available within agriculture and the supply chain that just aren’t well-known or thought of. I would never have thought a position like mine at McDonald’s existed before working for them
J: Do you think that’s something the industry could do more to promote? There has been plenty of pieces in the farming press stating young people don’t see agriculture as a realistic career as there is still this outdated view of the old farmer leaning on the front gate, but in reality the industry offers so many different opportunities than purely being a farmer or farm worker.
L: Yes definitely, when my non agricultural friends used to ask what I wanted to do after uni they assumed the only option was to go and farm. There are so many opportunities but I feel there is a lack of support from the companies offering them a lot of the time. I really had to push to be where I am, I’m a big believer that you only get out what you put in but if there was more support out there to encourage you to do more than I think more people would look at agriculture as a more realistic career path. It can be very daunting approaching senior people within a business and it would be great to see a desire to help more young people succeed and not just stick to the same old
J: You’re now based in London. How are you adjusting to life in the Big Smoke?
L: London is, interesting! It’s a million miles away from life that I am used to although I am embracing it. I enjoy understanding different cultures and ways of life and London certainly offers plenty for me to experience! I do enjoy going back home though and have found myself doing this a lot more now it’s winter as London can be a very lonely city at times however in summer it was beautiful. I look forward to people coming to visit and exploring new areas together!
J: Do you get out to many farms as part of your job?
L: Yes i get out to farms quite a lot, my time is split quite well between visiting farms and suppliers and being in the office. I do yearly audits on a random selection of our free range egg farms to ensure they meet our 20% tree canopy cover requirements and get out to visit our progressive young farmers on farm in addition to the supply chain visits I mentioned earlier that are out on farm too. They can be quite interesting particularly when it is with a group of people who may never have step foot on a farm before!
J: That must help ease the change from country to city life a bit?
L: It does in some aspects, I don’t think I will ever be a proper city person the sound of sirens still makes me jump, I still fail to understand ‘the rules of the tube’ and I still get looked at funny for thinking its warm at 9 degrees without my coat on whilst the Londoners are wrapped up in their fur but i try my best!
J: I went to London recently and was very much like a man from the past. Still can’t get my head around Ubers! What would you say your biggest challenge has been in farming so far?
L: I must admit Uber is the one thing I love about London! So much easier and so convenient! I’d say my biggest challenge has been my own self confidence. Having the confidence to put forward a suggestion or an opinion can be tough.
J: That seems to be a recurring one! How about your highlights? What’s been your biggest achievement in farming so far?
L: That doesn’t surprise me! I think my biggest highlight/achievement has been following steers through from farm to slaughter and accurately having visually graded/weighed them. Gives you that kick to encourage yourself and go with your gut on what your eye sees! If that makes sense!?
J: That makes perfect sense! There’s nothing quite like having your stockmans eye proven correctly. That’s no different!
L: Exactly! That was one of the things I found really interesting was seeing the cattle over the scale in the abattoir and learning ways in which you can better the carcase quality, something I would encourage all farmers to do. Instead of moaning at the grade sheet go in and see the grader do their job and get their feedback!
J: From your experience, do you think that ‘the end product’ ie carcass quality,grading, etc is something farmers need to take more of an interest in? We often read headlines in the farming press about farmers producing a product that doesn’t meet the right market criteria/spec. Is this something that farmers and the industry need to work together on?
L: I think a more collaborative approach is needed, if better information was provided to enable farmers to understand what it is the market wants they may take more of an interest in the end product. It can be difficult to ask farmers to produce an animal to a certain standard if they don’t know what that necessarily looks like as a carcase. Meat going into a local butchers may be of different requirements than that supplying supermarkets. In order for the industry to get better results from farmers to better meet their specifications they firstly need to be clearer of their expectations.
J: Team work makes the dream work! It’s clear you really enjoy working in the supply chain and are passionate about what you do, but do you ever miss being out in the farm?
L: Yes! There are days in summer when I’m sat in the office seeing twitter and Instagram posts of everyone out on the farm and I think about how much I would love to be out on farm but at the moment I’m happy doing what I’m doing. The long-term plan is to get somewhere of my own and get a small herd of cattle, maybe some sheep if I’m feeling brave! Alternatively I’d make a brilliant farmers wife!
J: Finally, what are your hopes/ambitions for 2017?
L: I just want to keep absorbing as much knowledge as possible, there are so many opportunities that are available at this stage in my career and I’m enjoying being a sponge and soaking everything up. I’m really looking forward to Oxford Farming Conference and meeting industry leaders! Who knows what the future holds, watch this space!
You can keep up with Laura on Twitter: @Lauratalbot94