Despite the red wine, I managed to get there on time for the 2nd day, and sat in the gallery to listen to Ben Hartman who wrote ‘Lean Farm.’ His book and farm focus on how to be more efficient and therefore more viable. One suggestion he had was take a photo of the toolshed when it’s tidy and laminate it and put it up, so anyone working or volunteering there knows where to put things back!
Then I went to ’10 years of agri-ecology’ which is a term for social justice as well as organic farming principles. It covered new research from Oxford University showing that methane does not persist in the atmosphere like carbon does. Therefore beef production may not be as much of a climate disaster as previously thought. Jyoti from Landworkers Alliance wasn’t speaking but made some interesting points about land use mapping, and how you need to layer it to get land use down. This could be by feeding food waste to animals or dairy production on arable leys.
Then I went to one called ‘Using story to reshape the food system” about using social media to take people on ajourney and let them interact with farmers. I knew this was going to be good, as Guy Singh-Watson from Riverford and Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod’s are really good speakers. Guy explained how he paid £500,000 to an advertising company to tell him that people react to an emotional story, not facts and figures. He advised that they use their newsletter to communicate why broad beans have chocolate spot or the potatoes have scab. It definately gave me food for thought about how I communicate with the box scheme customers. Josiah from Hodmedod’s said they used art, to convey the history and methodology of the unsexy British bean. And he noted the importance of the farmer receiving nice messages about what customers have done with their 500g bag of dried peas. As someone who stands on the market stalls, I already know who this is so fufilling to hear.
And the final session of the day, and the most dramatic was “Linking sustainable and healthy diets to farming outputs” with George Monbiot and Joanna Blythman. George kicked off by comparing delegates to typewriter manufacturers in the 1970s who were excited by carbon paper or Kodak in the 1980s. He said farmer’s were not noticing the jaugernaut, and that the change from food being produced on farms to food produced in factories was coming int he nick of time to feed people and the planet. He said the proteins in meat and milk would be manufactured in labs. He did say that local organic veg production would be least affected by this, and did make a difference to climate change, but I still can’t say I agreed with him. I feel this kind of confrontational attitude would have been better aimed at the National Union of Farmer’s conference down the road, rather than for an audience made up of experts in sustainable, organic and compassionate farming.
Thankfully, the wonderful food journalist Joanna Blythman, stepped up to speak next and wiped the floor with him in a calm and dignified way. As somone who was very influenced by her ‘Shopped, The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’ published in 2004, it was great to find she’s was also a great speaker. She is a believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed foods that you cook yourself, and spoke about sustainable land use that uses animals for fertility. We use organic chicken muck from Abbey Leys Farm to fertilise the land that we grow our veg on. She spoke against the current neuroticism surrounding food, and pointed out to George that telling foreign countries not to eat meat was a colonial mindset. She noted that in the UK butter, milk and meat were the best produce, and that we didn’t have the growing conditions of Tuscany (don’t I know it!) She called George “intellectually dishonest” and said he seems to think he had intellectual property rights on climate change. Ouch! He totally deserved it.
Earlier this year I attended my first Real Food & Farming Conference in Oxford, thanks to a bursary ticket. As I was feeling broke and broken when I applied for the bursary ticket, I had hoped to get inspired, and I did!
The first workshop of the day was the climate justice one, and Gail from XR started by thanking farmers who were involved in agro-ecology for what they were doing. She said she knows we’re “under-valued, under-appreciated and under-paid.” As someone who became an organic grower after being a climate change campaigner I needed to hear that. Nowadays the growing is so all-encompassing there’s no time for campaigning, but I still question whether this is the most useful way to combat climate change and feel guilty about not doing enough.
Oli from Landworkers Alliance and Ecological Land Co-op gave a really good talk, and I actually want to nick some bits from it. He really conveyed how being a small local grower links into a much bigger picture of a sustainable food system, and this is something I think it’s difficult to convey to our market and veg box customers.
Then I went to a session aimed at grower’s called ‘Market Gardening at Lauriston Farm: reviving small raised beds within a mixed farm.’ The Dutch man who ran it Andre Kleinjans was totally charming, and I got a few technical tips to try at our market garden. Then I went to a session called ‘Making your Food Enterprise more efficient’ which maybe was a slightly disngenuous title as it was actually about the Open Food Network, and putting your crops on this platform to sell.
The final session of the day I went to was ‘What will post-Brexit trade deals mean for our farmers, environment. welfare and food standards,’and this was really interesting. There was a woman called Jean Blayock who was a trade negotiator with Global Justice Now, and was incredibly passionate and engaging. She explained what was going in laypersons terms, like that Teresa May’s government had been working to ‘close regulatory alignment’ with the EU, but Boris Johnson had changed this to ‘substantially equivalence’ which was woolly terminology. She also said that the decisions were being made behind closed doors. If it sounds all too depressing, she did end by saying TTIP was stopped on the streets.
With my head exploding and my body protesting I’d been sat down all day, I walked through Oxford and back to where I was staying where I had a lovely dinner and drank too much red wine.
It’s an exciting and challenging time for farming at the moment, with Brexit shaking up what was previously unshakable. Large landowners have for many years been collecting huge subsidies simply for owning land, rather than actively farming, but Brexit is changing this. Our reliance on imports, 30% of our food is imported, is looking shaky. And the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced a report called ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’ in February. Then it went around the country consulting with farmers and food producers round the country and invited them to submit their comments online. I went to one of the consultation events organised by Friends of the Earth on 16th April in Manchester.
I went to the Environmental Management Systems discussion in the morning, and tried to make the case for schemes which would include small growers in a way that is accessible for them. I learnt in the discussion that these DEFRA schemes are incredibly complex, and haven’t been taken up well due to the application process. Using an approach used by grant bodies was suggested, in which the amount of information required is relative to the amount of funding actually being offered. The organic system of accreditation and auditing was discussed as already existing to show good practice in managing land and producing food.
In the afternoon I went to Farming Resillience & Profitability, and this was a more challenging discussion due to some of the people sat at the table. Most farming is unprofitable, and supported by subsidies, so it was difficult for the men at the table to accept I was on the cusp of profitablity on half an acre of organic land. I tried to make the case about more support for new entrants into farming, and the need for ‘starter unit’ of a couple of acre farms to be available for people like me to get into farming. This wasn’t contested, but it just isn’t available, and I know how hard (almost impossible) I found it to find half an acre to rent at a reasonable price. Accessibility to land is for new entrants to get into farming is essential if the UK is to have a farming future.