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Farmers tune in to Kiwi celebrity

Photo by: Rick Valenzuela
John Gordon has been developing products for the Khmer Farmer Shop in Tuol Kork, Phnom Penh.

Veteran New Zealand broadcaster John Gordon is best known in his home country as the host of a popular television show that pitted farmer and dog teams against one another in competitive sheep-herding trials.

Now, he is using his broadcasting and agricultural skills in Cambodia to help rural communities improve farming practices as part of a project that aims to set up the first commercial rural radio show in the Kingdom.

The 66-year-old celebrity has spent the last year as communications adviser to Farmer Livelihood Development, an organisation that helps rural communities and small enterprises by providing access to training, financing and markets.

He has been developing promotional materials for the organisation's four Khmer Farmer Shops, which on-sell rurally produced handicrafts and foods at a fair price, and producing a Khmer-language radio show that gives practical and business advice to farmers – work he said had been both rewarding and frustrating.

“I like the challenges, which many days wear you down, and other days you rise above it – and those are the days you try to remember,” he said.

Gordon, who grew up and worked on farms in New Zealand's deep south before studying and later teaching agriculture at the tertiary level, is no stranger to working overseas.

His first stint as a volunteer was in the early 1970s, when he led two disaster relief refugee welfare teams in Vietnam for the New Zealand Red Cross.

Returning to his home country, Gordon launched his rural broadcasting career as a public radio reporter for NZBC in 1974. Three years later, his then-hirsute visage and laconic delivery became a familiar weekly presence on television screens across New Zealand as host of the prime-time series A Dog's Show – which at the time was shown on one of the country's two television channels.

The sheepdog trial show featured farmers and their dogs herding sheep around fields and into fenced-off enclosures in a race against the clock. It had a remarkable 17-year run and is still considered a classic of homespun New Zealand television.

Gordon left the television industry in the 1990s, and a few years later the volunteer itch struck again. He worked in Papua New Guinea's autonomous Bougainville region for two years from 2003, and started his current two-year assignment in Phnom Penh last year, backed by the New Zealand organisation Volunteer Service Abroad.

Gordon said producing a rural radio show in Cambodia had brought his career full-circle.

“It goes back to 35 years ago when I was at NZBC,” he said.

The Asia Foundation-funded series, called Farmer Opportunity, was broadcast live earlier this year on the station Voice of Democracy. Its 22 one-hour shows featured panel discussions with officials and experts, and talkback slots where farmers could ask questions and raise concerns.

Radio was “an ideal medium” for getting information and practical advice to rural communities, where illiteracy rates were high.
“It's cheap and can be understood by all,” he said.

FLD has now secured a second round of funding to produce another two series, which it aims to make commercially sustainable through advertising and sponsorship.But Gordon said it had been difficult at times.

“For a person who doesn't have a good understanding of Khmer, being responsible for the editorial content and the professional standards was a real challenge to the point of frustration at times,” he said.

He is hopeful the programme will have a productive future. If the project is successful, it would be the first commercial rural radio show in Cambodia.
“That means them selling part of their soul, but not necessarily their editorial independence, because they have to be impartial,” he said.

Gordon said it was sometimes hard to know what real impact his work was having.

“It's too easy to say, ‘I make difference.’ You hope like hell that you can, but the main thing is to communicate with people in a practical and sensible manner, do a lot of listening and when necessary, push your case on their behalf.”

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