Storytelling and shaking hands

From Zealong to Zero Waste: this year’s conference had it all. Niki Bezzant gives us the run down.

“I’m a farmer and I pollute”. Taupo Beef & Lamb’s Mike Barton looked squarely at the audience and got the attention of everyone in the room.

Mike, and his wife Sarah, were part of the second session of the day at the Food Writers NZ conference. Titled Realness in the farming sector, the session got real, fast, as the couple told the story of their transition from townies to lakeside farmers, forced to reinvent again when Taupo Catchment farms capped livestock numbers to reduce nitrogen runoff into the lake.

Their at-times-painful journey paid off.  Mike and Sarah’s brand, Taupo Beef & Lamb, is built on the philosophy that buyers will pay a premium for meat grown in a manner that doesn’t trash the environment. In their session, Mike and Sarah painted a picture of the future of agriculture – they say where they are is where the rest of farming needs to get to, and quickly.

They also posed a challenging bigger question: How did we get here?

Mike spoke of the fear and mistrust swirling around farming and farmers.

“Food has always brought us together”, he said. “How did we get to now, when it’s driving us apart?”

This was just one of the compelling challenges to us as food communicators that emerged in our day of learning at Zealong Estate and beyond as conference unfolded.

We’d started the morning with a fascinating conversation with two other thoughtful people: Sarah Miekle, the brains behind the wildly successful Welly on a Plate festival, and Pat Nourse, creative director of Melbourne’s Food & Wine Festival. Between them, Sarah and Pat entertained and challenged us in equal measure.

Sarah’s career in food flowed from babysitting the offspring of Wellington’s chefs and underage bartending at her family’s restaurant, through marketing NZ to the world for Tourism NZ, to pulling together the country’s biggest and best culinary festival. She inspired us with her passion for the importance of culinary tourism and had many of us mentally planning our next eating and drinking odysseys to the capital.

Drawing on his career as an editor and writer for Gourmet Traveller and others, Pat shared clever tips on everything from how to successfully pitch to editors without driving them crazy to his favourite authors (including some non-food and possibly x-rated titles I’m definitely looking up). Both Pat and Sarah encouraged us to look up and out – and get up and out – of our little place; to be curious about the world, its flavours and colours and different perspectives. This in turn, they said, allows us to recognise what we do well here in the world of food, and – most importantly – to find new ways to tell those stories.

Storytelling of a more personal nature was the focus for the after-lunch sessions (lunch being a delicious, colourful spread incorporating venison from Deer Industry NZ and lots of spring vegetables). Tamsin Kingston and Peta Mobberley from Auckland University’s business school gave us tips on curating a personal brand (key questions to ponder: how would people describe you when you leave a room? What three words do you use to describe yourself?) and had us practising our elevator pitches all weekend.
Career advice gold also came from The Spinoff’s Alice Neville, Penguin Random House’s Claire Murdoch and Nourish magazine’s powerhouse publisher Vicki Ravlich-Horan. These three had tons of insight, ideas and enthusiasm between them, along with a healthy dose of realism. We learned (or were reminded) that it’s very rare to get rich or become a social media star just from writing cookbooks. Those starting out in the food media game were advised to think carefully about whether this is what we really want to do (don’t get into it hoping to get rich or have a steady full-time job on a magazine, people!) and to do our homework. No editor wants to see an email from someone with no idea about their title’s tone or content.

There was also optimism: opportunities are out there for good communicators; we just need to be open and smart about where to look for them.

We got a chance to look for them during the last part of the day, with lightning presentations from a range of Waikato food producers followed by the opportunity to taste and talk. Enthusiasm and passion were common threads here. Whether they’d been in the biz three years or three generations, these people clearly love what they do. It was an uplifting end to the day.

There were a few slow-moving food writers at the first coffee stop of the day on Saturday’s road to Raglan. The dinners of the night before went long and large, in some cases, although everyone managed to make it to the buses on time, and everyone – their professional eaters’ dedication coming to the fore – managed to fit a taste of Mama’s Donuts in for breakfast.

Our Raglan road trip took us on a whirlwind ride around the area’s dead-keen food producers. From microgreens and vegetables through beer, honey and milk – with a cheeky whitebait fritter thrown in for the keen – most food groups were covered. Lunch was a mini-market featuring chocolate, yoghurt, chimichurri and vegan treats. What these things all have in common is that they’re produced by locals who share a particular laid-back but dedicated focus; Raglan’s foodies care as deeply about sustainability as they do about surfing, it seems.

We ended our tour with sustainability top of mind. The wahine toa behind the waste success story that is Xtreme Zero Waste (Raglan’s recycling centre where over 70% of the town’s waste is diverted from landfill) were an inspiration. So was the massive composting operation where food waste is turned into gardening gold. If only we could have had more of a rummage through the huge area dedicated to selling recycled and upcycled material, but dinner at Raglan institution The Shack beckoned, before more chats aboard the bus bound for bed.

A smaller group remained for the final leg of conference on Sunday morning. The stayers were rewarded with pastries from Volare (personal highlight: jalapeno and cheese scone); followed by a fascinating personalised tour of the stunning Hamilton Gardens, and the many thoughtful links between what’s growing in some of the concept gardens and our wonderful world of food.

It was a fitting end to a weekend of stimulation and inspiration. If I had to pick a theme for the conference content it would probably be sustainability in its broadest sense: sustainability of food; sustainability of career; sustainability of planet. If I had to pick a theme for the content vibe, though, I think it would be sharing. The sharing of ideas, conversation, fellowship, generosity and laughter was beyond brilliant. It’s something I’ll be digesting long after I’ve eaten my way through the goodie bag.

As we all know, the great time we all have at conference would not have been possible without the generous support of our sponsors. A huge thanks to
Zealong, Deer Industry NZ,, Woodland Free Range Eggs, NZ Natural and Goode PR.

If you want to see more photos of the day. Head here.

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