By Lukie Tolhurst, Lucid Insight and Nina Osswald, GFO
GFO network meeting for Oxfordshire farmers & growers
In January, we hosted our annual network meeting for Oxfordshire farmers and growers – entirely online for the first time. Admittedly, it wasn’t quite the same vibe as we had over sharing pints in the upstairs room of St. Aldate’s Tavern the previous year just before the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Nevertheless, with close to twenty attendees and lively discussions the meeting was productive and enjoyable. Among the hot topics that were brought up was how to get food supply chains back into the hands of farmers, and how to match production/supply with procurement/demand especially when the scales are very different. We will take this request forward with a dedicated meeting for local producers to meet local buyers, especially from large catering providers in the public and private procurement sector.
Another key point discussed was how to get more people engaged in growing food, and how to find land, especially in and around Oxford. See also our recent research report Improving Access to Land for Food Production in Oxfordshire: What are the possibilities and where do we go from here? And participants used the opportunity to exchange their needs and offers, which included expertise in seeds and how to plan for growing, seeking land, training in admin and finances and developing online courses.
One participant at the network meeting summed up the positive spirit of the ORFC: “Hope always comes from nature, a little flower or a blackbird singing even on a horrible wet day!”
ORFC goes global for 2021
The week before the network meeting, the twelfth Oxford Real Farming Conference ORFC Global 2021 brought together more than 5,200 delegates and speakers from six continents in a global event. It was a unique experience, bringing together farmers, growers, researchers, activists and other supporters from many different backgrounds, but all with a shared passion for making a difference.
More than ten years ago, a niche group gathered in a small room above a café in Oxford to rethink the current farming system. In this way Colin Tudge, Ruth West and Graham Harvey set a ball in motion which has grown into a mighty avalanche of knowledge sharing. This year the ORFC team hosted a huge event with over 500 speakers and 5,000 delegates, in the form of a virtual #ORFCGlobal. The line-up was an exciting mix of world-famous speakers, farmers, and activists from all around the world, including local farmers and other food workers from Oxfordshire. This blog is a peek on some of our highlights, but you can now watch the entire programme of talks at https://www.youtube.com/user/realfarmlife.
Living up to its title, this ORFC was truly global, with spanning a wide range of topics as well as parts of the world: Panels ranged from UK trade policy and financing agroecology to technical aspects of soil regeneration. The conference also offered a broad representation of pressing issues globally - for instance decolonising agriculture in Africa, land rights, global food justice and food sovereignty, the right to food, racial justice in food and farming movement, CSA networks around the world or the close links between indigenous and regenerative practices.
The discussions – both on the panels and in the conference chat – were lively, controversial and constructive, and the tone always reflected the energised, respectful and supportive atmosphere that we know from previous years at Oxford Town Hall.
At a keynote talk, Colin Tudge outlined his three principles of enlightened agriculture, also known as Real Farming (hence the conference title), whereby both people and the rest of the living world are cared for, and the reviews below are clustered around those themes.
Principle 1: Agroecology is the method of creating productive farms based on deep knowledge of natural living systems and the understanding that nature and diversity supports human existence.
The conference chat made it clear that one of the favourite talks was that of Rebecca Hosking, naturalist, filmmaker and farmer, who addressed some fundamental ideas around how we perceive ‘nature’ in the UK, and how this has hindered our ability to shift away from industrialised farming methods. She has observed that nature in the UK is generally considered in three ways: 1) it is a nuisance or ‘in the way’, 2) it needs to be paid for to protect it (grants) or 3) it has a direct benefit so is worth protecting (e.g. pollinators). She noted that a fourth category appears to be totally missing: that we are part of nature, and it has an intrinsic value in its own right, where other living beings are like members of our family, and we care about protecting them. She described the historical trajectory whereby European thinking separated us from nature. Rather than seeing our place as part of the living system, sharing the space with others, most UK citizens now seem unable to imagine this is possible, despite many examples of this cohabitation, both in the UK and abroad.
On the note of what is possible, on-the-ground techniques to return natural processes to productive farms were covered extensively. As expected, supporting soil biology was a fundamental theme and Innovative Farmers shared some of their latest farmer trials to help soil health restoration. This included movements towards the much-coveted gold standard of organic no-till, such as direct drilling into clover ground layers which suppress weeds, provide nitrogen and build soil health. Additional methods like using animals to graze down post-harvest ‘volunteer’ plants and weeds before sowing the next crop rather than using tillage were also discussed. There is still much work to do to refine solutions to suit the UK, but results are starting to show what is possible.
As well as emerging approaches, several long-term practitioners of organic and ecological farming shared their wisdom, and beautiful farm systems. A video farm tour of FarmED demonstrated their low input 8-year rotation mixed farm with animals on four year herbal leys, cereal crops. They aim to introduce grazing cattle, more agroforestry, a composting project and a whole farm Countryside Stewardship Scheme this year. FarmED also provide growing space to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, The Kitchen Garden People, on the land. Both projects are GFO members.
Another panel hosted by FarmED explored the links between soil health and gut health, reminding us how everything in the world is interconnected. You can read more in the conference reflections of the FarmED team on their blog.
The integration of trees into farm systems was also highlighted by several other speakers. Andrew Barbour, livestock farmer on the exposed landscape of Perthshire, is re-introducing trees spaced around pastures, balancing the loss of grass with the shelter benefits and longer-term additional timber revenue stream. Fruit trees and bushes were also seen as valuable additions to farms, as demonstrated in the alleys of crops and fruit trees on Stephen Briggs’ farm in Cambridgeshire, providing soil health, climate resilience, and resultant crop benefits, as well as ecological and economic returns.
From an ecological perspective, the importance of hedgerows was highlighted by Jo Staley from the CEH in Wallingford, such as the 82 priority species associated with this habitat, and international hedge guru Nigel Adams shared footage from the Watlington Climate Action Group hedgerow project. The NGO Bees for Development explained how wild honey bees in the UK depend on trees for habitat and their flowers as a food source.
Principle 2: Food sovereignty ensures that all peoples have control over their own food and seed supply, wherever that comes from.
John Letts of Heritage Harvest, a GFO network member, told the story of the loss of diversity in cereal crops in the UK, starting in medieval times due to the desire for high protein grains “for fluffy bread”. With the ever-increasing streamlining of seed varieties across many crops, work to re-establish the amazing benefits of the older varieties, becomes increasingly important. He showed how his crops outgrow weeds, weaken with fertiliser inputs, and are drought tolerant. Partners growing these seeds in Oxford are supplying the grain to local artisan bakers such as Kate Hamblin.
FarmED are also trialling ancient and heritage wheat varieties to increase diversity and preserve these precious resources. A little further afield, Gerald Miles at Caerhys Farm in Wales has been on a mission to save heritage grains from his region. It took him 20 years of hunting to find one variety of oats he recalls from his youth. He is now painstakingly scaling up these seeds, season by season, so that they can be shared with others. These varieties could prove key to crop adaptability and resilience in the face of climate change as well as help move us away from reliance on agrichemicals.
An important part of food sovereignty is transparency and access to information so people can make fully informed choices, and several sessions demonstrated both new and established models for local and short supply chains to make this possible. This included the growing number of Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSA) and local producer markets, as well as trusted intermediaries helping to source ethical and sustainable foods from further afield.
Access to land is another key feature of food sovereignty and security. In a panel on Delivering a Small Farm Future in Britain: Present Obstacles, Future Possibilities, Guy Shrubsole discussed findings from his book Who Owns England. It shows a decline in the number as well as the consolidation of farms, and the challenges of new entrants in accessing land. His research traces the transition to capitalism that saw the push towards commodity production and left very little room for self-sufficiency growing, which in turn markedly shifted the shape of the countryside and farming practices. He suggested that farming should feature in any local development strategy of local authorities, with a new definition of the purpose of land based on common good for communities, rather than just private interests. In the discussion there was a call for County Councils to hold forums with local land agents, owners and NFU leaders to discuss their role in local food security and productivity, in the light of the climate emergency, such as releasing small plots for new growers.
Principle 3: Economic democracy focuses on using financial mechanisms to benefit society, humanity and the biosphere, where investment is used to back these objectives specifically. People have enough to live well and need not focus on growth and accumulation for its own sake.
Another group has shown the potential for fair-share is the farmer-focused Growing Communities project based in Hackney. Providing 1,400 veg boxes plus a farmers’ market, they have made sure they pay their local farmers for the true cost of food production. At least 56% of their customers’ spend goes back to the producers, compared with a paltry 8% typical in conventional systems, which is driving many farmers into a spiral of debt. Julie Brown shared the results of their recent cost-benefit analysis across social, economic, and environmental measures by the New Economics Foundation, which estimated over £6m value generation in 2019/2020 from just over £1.6m of costs, demonstrating again that these alternative fair-share systems can bring huge benefits to society.
Growing Communities have been in a process of extending their work by forming a local network of like-minded suppliers through their Better Food Shed hub and the Better Food Traders Network. The session on Localised Routes to Market: Understanding the Community Benefits of Local Organic Food hosted by the Soil Association found that “(o)ne of the main problems with our food system is that the price you pay often doesn’t reflect all the factors that have gone into creating it. This can disadvantage food production and distribution systems that do take them into account.” Community-led growing and trading networks are an important part of the solution, and it is heartening that the Better Food Traders network has grown to 22 members in just one year since its launch at ORFC 2020.
Those who could make it into one of the workshops that required prior registration had the advantage of more in-depth and interactive discussions. One of these workshops titled Commons off the Land: Sharing Infrastructure, Tech, Process and Knowledge to Build Food Sovereignty was hosted by Open Food Network. People from five countries shared their experiences, and discussed how open source systems allowed them to “build their own food systems that not only give control back to the farmers and the eaters but build resilient, fair and sustainable food systems for future generations.”
The talk on Un-Natural Capital: Can Nature Financialisation Work? raised concerns over economists assigning overly simplistic economic value to the living world in order to justify activation of markets for nature, for which trading, equivalents and net loss/gain accounting can be used to justify destruction of irreplaceable habitats which local people know and love. The metaphors of leaving a partner for a paycheque, or only looking after an elderly relative if paid to do so, were used to highlight how you cannot put a price on some things. Perhaps refusing to put a value on a natural living system is a better way to keep it safely out of the economic system.
Imagining and growing a better future
Amongst all the diversity of backgrounds, opinions and experiences at the ORFC Global 2021, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that a multitude of things need to change in the prevalent systems, locally and globally, if we want a better future for the living world, including us humans.
So, at this point it seems fitting to mention the talk by Transition Network founder Rob Hopkins on the critical role of imaging future ‘What If…’ scenarios. With research suggesting a decline in imagination, like biodiversity, our future options start to narrow. Albert Einstein believed that “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Imagination enables us to construct a different reality to what currently exists, and the feeling was that this is essential at this moment in time. Events like ORFC help bring these ‘imaginators’ together.
As demonstrated, in most cases the technology, tools and knowledge already exist, and there is opportunity to put together the pieces to imaginatively create new paradigms, new systems, new relationships, and therefore put solutions in place.
The conference provided a space to consider a ‘What If…’ future where nature is seen as another member of the family, belonging to the system, and to which we human globally also belong, both supporting us and needing support, so that every being is cared for. What a future that would be.