I never said... Q&A with Anna Hill

Anna Hill

Who are you?

Anna Hill

What do you do?

I essentially chat to people – and sometimes ask difficult questions. I love talking to people and hearing what they think. I trained as a journalist and have been a presenter for BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today for more than 20 yearsI also write for various publications, am lucky to chair some fascinating conferences for the likes of OECD Rural Development, the European Parliament’s Brexit outreach and for OFC. I am married with two teenage children and live in Norwich.

When did you become an OFC Director?

2017 was my first conference.

Why did you want to be part of the OFC council?

OFC brings people from all over the industry together and is a pivotal part of shaping the agricultural debate for the rest of the year. It’s a privilege to be part of that. It also gives me a great opportunity to connect with more farmers, listen to what they think, and to spark conversation and debate.

What was your first job?

I did it really badly. I was sewing trousers for a small company in Salisbury and I completely failed. I made just one pair, which were unwearable. 

How did you get where you are now?

After a degree and post-grad diploma in radio journalism, I spent 18 months working shifts in variouslocal radio stations, sleeping on friends’ floors wherever the job took me. I got my first BBC staff job as a reporter in 1986. Five years later, I moved to Radio Four as a continuity announcer, which includes reading the shipping forecasts, and reading the news. The job at Farming Todaycame up in 1994. I was taken on because I was a journalist used to being live on air, but as a non-farmer would ask questions the public would like to hear.

What keeps your job interesting after all these years?

I really love working on the stories that have been going on for decades, such as bovine TB, job succession, changes in tech – I’ve covered every twist and turn and it’s fascinating seeing the difference (and similarities) between the historic and the immediate. BSE was one of the first stories I covered. At the time it was a massive story and there were fears so many people would die from variant CJD. For those affected it was devastating and it was a real wake-up call about food safety and food production. There have been so many changes. I’ve been really pleased to witness the rise of women’s public influence in farming policy – they had often been silent in the past. 

Did you have any sliding doors moments?

For our honeymoon we went to the Falklands – my husband had worked in Antarctica and done some mapping in the Falklands. The head of Falkland Islands radio (FIBS) was retiring and there was a possibility of working out there. I was sorely tempted – it was mostly about farming and politics, and as a place it was both bleak and tantalising – but it would have been a big move for just-marrieds and we came home.

What has been your greatest learning curve? 

Recording live under pressure has taught me a lot. I have learnt the benefits of staying calm under pressure. I have also learnt that in my job, mistakes are not (usually) a matter of life or death, and as long as you learn from them, they have value. It teaches you to listen, and also that if you do it well, you can make a difference.

What story that you have covered has made most impression on you?

Foot and Mouth. We couldn’t go on farm, so we would leave mini-disc recorders at the end of the drive for farmers to record diaries for us. It was very moving. It was often women and children in the house sharing their stories. The one that particularly affected me was a family in Oxfordshire. All their stock had been killed in a contiguous cull (they didn’t have the disease but were obliged to do so to stop the spread of the disease). The herd had been shot. When I visited, their four-year-old son was playing on the floor with a train set and in the open carriages were his toy cows, all with their feet pointing up…he told me they were going off to be burned. 

Any good clangers on air?

So many. But I reddened most when I was reading the morning news on Radio 4 about an incident on the Sussex/Kent border and I mistakenly swapped the second letters. It was at 6.05am – no complaints came in – that’s the advantage of radio, no one can see your blushes!

What is the best advice you have been given?

Never make enemies as you meet the same people again. Also to listen. I was given a Gold Sony Award (the Oscars of radio). One of the judges said to me, “You know why you won? Because you shut up, listened and let people tell their own story.”

What is your perfect weekend?

On our tandem, with a tent on the back.

What do you think is the best thing about British farming?

Farmers are always trying to do their best, in every circumstance. Life is work and work is life. Most of them really do care about the quality of the food they produce and the land they manage. 

What, for you, makes good leadership?

To have a vision and to be interested in those you are leading. You have to want the best for those you lead and to enable them to improve and excel even if they overtake you.

Do you get up early enough to hear Farming Today broadcast?

Sometimes! Now with iPlayer I often re-listen.

Of those you have interviewed over the years who would you bring around the table for an al fresco lunch and why?

Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director at Soil Association. He died in September but he was an amazing organic beacon and galvanising force. Mark Lynas, former Director of Greenpeace who has had a fascinating journey to become now staunchly pro-GM; and Minette Batters NFU President who is so on top of her game.

What world of opportunity in your opinion lies ahead for UK agriculture?

Farmers will need to think differently – jump that five-bar gate and get out of the farm yard. Use technology, put their heads above the parapet, collaborate. There will be opportunities, but my view is that it can’t be individual – farmers will have to work together much more. The industry needs more guidance, not just monetary support, and there are farmers out there who can lead on this. In these uncertain times, farmers need to be and stay positive, work together and take a few risks.

Why would you recommend coming to the Oxford Farming Conference?

To meet, talk to and hear leaders in their field, for the international perspective and to get a feel for what other people are thinking. It’s always fruitful. I learn something new every single time and it opens a lot of doors. Then you can go back to your own business energised and take inspiration from other people’s new ideas.