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Ferrum College professor reflects on time in Brussels

Ferrum College professor reflects on time in Brussels

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After recently spending time with farmers from a dozen countries representing five continents, Tim Durham, an agriculture professor at Ferrum College, has a better sense of the issues affecting farmers throughout the rest of the world.

Durham was selected earlier this year to be a 2021 Global Farmer Network (GFN) Roundtable fellow. The honor included a trip to Brussels, Belgium, from Oct. 25-30. The trip, he said, offered him invaluable networking and leadership training opportunities.

The best way to describe the Global Farmer Network Roundtable, Durham said, is as a “Model (farmer) United Nations, a brain trust that identifies action items, evaluates and comes up with a unified response. Formulating issues that transcend local, state, regional, or national interests — punctuated with media engagement and governmental relations training. The idea behind the GFN is to amplify the often marginalized voice of farmers. Farmers have a compelling story, expertise and credibility to share.”

The opportunities afforded Durham through the GRN will not only benefit Durham but will enhance the learning opportunities of his students.

Durham said he will use what he learned in Brussels back at campus to build modules in media engagement and governmental relations in a number of his classes, enabling his students “to be change agents in their communities and generation.” He also wants “to internationalize the often very insular viewpoints of students and the public,” saying he was in the same boat 20 years ago.

Clay Britton, a professor and the program coordinator for biology and agricultural science, said Durham will provide students with new perspectives and experiences so that they can broaden their knowledge-base in understanding where they can make the greatest positive impact as stewards in agriculture.

Durham described his time in Brussels as “invigorating,” saying, “Brussels is the seat of the European Union Parliament, very cosmopolitan and a fitting backdrop for policy discussions that have far-ranging significance for GFN participants.”

The biggest takeaway from the trip for Durham was witnessing the very divergent issues and priorities among the participants. He said, “For example (and I’m generalizing), Canada, the U.S. and African nations were interested in technology transfer — getting value-added seeds and equipment from R&D into the hands of farmers. European and South American participants were more centered on climate change and carbon capture. That’s not to say these are incompatible goals, the challenge is to craft inclusive policy sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders.”

The time in Brussels was not the only part of what it means to be a GFN Roundtable fellow. Fellows met for four virtual sessions before meeting face-to-face and developing a plan to continue working together.

Durham said, “This definitely isn’t a one-off meeting where you never see your peers again. The idea is to forge lifelong connections as a community of ag ambassadors. GFN is also a global referral network of content experts. The expectation is that fellows leverage peers in their ‘class’ as well as previous classes — now 221 strong — to engage the media and the public at-large when controversial issues arise.”

Knowing of Durham’s strong presence in online media, Britton said Durham will be able to use his experience with GFN to broaden the influence that social media and other outlets can have on understanding the issues and priorities facing agriculture locally and globally.

In his time with global peers, Durham learned a lot about the world and was struck by some of the stories he heard from them such as: 1) being driven from their land by religious extremists, 2) concerns that the government was brazenly going to seize their property and redistribute it, 3) lack of infrastructure, especially electricity and 4) generally poor and/or corrupt governance.

In reflecting on the stories, Durham said, “These are emblematic of problems that we just don’t consider in a U.S. context. By the same token, many developing countries are considerably more advanced than the typical member of the public believes. I’m firmly convinced that it’s their time to shine, if they can overcome some of these systematic roadblocks.”

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