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The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2022 highlights!

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

This feature is kindly brought to you by long-term FarmShare member, and friend, Sabine Virani, who attended the conference at the start of the year. The ORFC highlights began in 2021 after Sabine generously offered to write weekly highlights for the newsletter so that FarmShare members and friends could easily access some of the talks and seminars from the 2021 ORFC. The FarmShare team would like to take this opportunity to thank Sabine for this wonderful contribution. This year's 2022 ORFC will be featuring regularly in FarmShare's bi-weekly newsletter.

14th December 2022: Charting A Course That Works For All – Creating Pathways For Transition To Agroecology

As we reach the end of 2022, it’s easy to feel a bit bleak. I won’t real off the national and global crises – we know them too well. But I am often struck by how many of our troubles could be mitigated by a global transition to lcalised food systems and agroecological farming, a UN-agreed framework that puts ecological and social principles at the heart of food growing. Which brings us to this week’s ORFC highlight: Charting a Course that Works for All: Creating Pathways for Transition to Agroecology. The session is run by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), and host Jim Scown sets the scene with recent FFCC reports that show how the UK can feed itself a nutritious diet, while phasing out chemical inputs and addressing climate and ecological breakdown. The approach involves growing and eating more fruit, veg and pulses, while producing and eating less meat (half) and sugar (80% less!). Next, four farmers share how they’ve been transitioning to agroecology. One is Johnnie Balfour, who farms in Fyfe. He started out in mainstream farming system with what he describes as high inputs “and what could euphemistically be described as high outputs”. Now transitioning to agroecology, he wants to eliminate his use of synthetics and use livestock to build fertility for their whole system. Diversity and integration are at the heart of Johnnie’s strategy. His farm includes a Pasture for Life certified beef herd, combinable crops (barley, oats, beans and wheat), vegetables (carrots, kale, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage), and forestry. He wants to further increase crop diversity, both spatially and temporally, and grow different trees for different jobs – timber, fruit, shelter. He’s already added sheep to the farm and is considering chickens and pigs. He wants to integrate the livestock into the trees, the trees into the arable, arable into the livestock. And he’s keen to show that nature-friendly farming is business-friendly farming. Another panellist is Nic Renison, who began her farming career with a completely conventional mindset in dairy farming: maximising production. In 2012, she and her husband began sheep farming on 360 acres in Cumbria. Soon after, they were introduced to rotational grazing, which set them on a new path; they stopped using fertiliser and feeds, then grew more grass and added more sheep. By 2014, they had over 1000 sheep, only to reap the unintended consequences of this sheep monoculture: poor growth, lameness, high vet bills. She says, “We were totally beholden to the commodities markets, so not in charge of our own destiny at all.” Their way out was to go further into agroecology. They became obsessed with YouTube videos (Joel Salatin and Richard Perkins) and books, and now their farm looks completely different: 65 suckler cows, 200 ewes, 300 laying hens and an egg mobile, a couple of pigs and a teeny glamping enterprise. Their strategy is to stack enterprises and sell locally, and they see themselves now as food producers rather than farmers, and as custodians of the landscape. The remaining panellists echo these themes of diversity, enterprise stacking and selling locally, and they also talk about adding value onsite and direct sales. It’s an encouraging session to finish year. Of course, there are many more wonderful sessions I haven’t written about, and if you want to see what other gems you can discover, check out the ORFC 2022 YouTube channel. The ORFC 2023 conference is only a few weeks away. If you want to attend, either in person or online, you can book tickets here. It’s a powerfully inspiring way to start a new year!

30th November 2022: The Importance Of Soil Health

There’s a growing understanding of how vital soil health is for all life on Earth, and yet soil’s potential to rapidly address some of our most urgent existential crises is still maddeningly niche knowledge. So in this gap between the COP27 climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh and Montreal’s upcoming biodiversity COP15, I’ve trawled through the ORFC sessions for some good material on soil to share with you this week. While there are several good sessions on the topic, my favourite is presented by Michael Wachter, who talks about How Meadows and Healthy Soil Can Fight Climate Change as well as Reconnect Us to Cultural Landscapes. In this talk, Michael makes it clear how healthy soil can soak up vast quantities of carbon. He shares the view that well-structured soil is also our greatest water management tool, providing resilience to floods, droughts and wildfires. And, of course, good soils nourish the complex habitats needed to revitalise threatened populations in the web of life. With the help of clear illustrations, Michael explains the above and also shows how modern, intensive conventional agriculture has led to rapid topsoil erosion while compacting the soil that remains. Soil compaction drives out water and air while dramatically reducing organic matter. This decimates the carbon content of soils and greatly diminishes effective rainfall: the amount of rain that soaks into the earth rather than washing away topsoil. Regenerative farming practices that increase soil organic matter, on the other hand, create a sponge effect, slowing the flow of water, allowing more rain to soak in where it lands and preventing flooding downstream. With significant increases in UK rainfall projected, understanding this is vital to public safety and health. Michael enjoys saying that soil is made from thin air, the result of plants turning sunlight into complex carbohydrates, which they share generously with soil organisms in a symbiotic exchange. While this explanation is perhaps overly simplified, it does capture the magic of this undervalued substance. He notes that it’s not just on farms where we can regenerate soil – the soils and habitats of urban gardens and roadside verges could be significantly improved by meadow-like planting. He’s also a hardcore forager of medicinals and edibles, and he says there’s nothing more empowering than having a meal that you harvested yourself from the land. Perhaps most importantly, Michael reminds us that we humans are a natural part of the landscape, that we are in fact a keystone species whose role is to facilitate life. It's time to roll up our sleeves, embrace a bit of outdoor messiness and become active participants in the landscape.

15th November 2022: Turning Regenerative Projects Into Viable Businesses

With COP27 coming to a close, we’ve again seen little progress in addressing the climate emergency, despite the escalating frequency and scale of extreme weather events around the world. While my heart sinks if I dwell too much on the COP process, I find hope and purpose in learning more about how agroecological farming can help mitigate and even reverse climate and wider ecological unravelling. More and more farmers are keen to adopt regenerative and agroecological practices, but a common stumbling block is the lack of a route to market. This week’s ORFC highlight demonstrates how some UK retailers have been enabling this crucial transition. It’s hosted by Josiah Meldrum from Hodmedod’s, the award-winning Suffolk food retailer and producer that’s been a trailblazer on this very mission. The four panellists represent businesses of different sizes, scale and ages, from Neals Yard Dairy (founded in 1979) to Food Circle York (founded in 2017). I was particularly inspired by Kimberley Bell, founder of Nottingham’s Small Food Bakery. Kimberley challenges the narrative of feeding the world, suggesting we should instead focus on truly nourishing the people around us, while never impeding anyone else’s ability to do the same, anywhere in the world. “When you change the word ‘feed’ to the word ‘nourish’ and add the responsibility to butt out of other people’s cultures, we begin a fairly major narrative shift,” she says. Taking her cue from agroecology, Kimberley has built diversity into every aspect of her business. Two of many examples: her staff rotate roles, each helping to bake, work the tills, clean, and make sauerkraut and jams; and their products are based on what they can get from the local farmers they’ve built relationships with. In eight years, they’ve had a turnover of £1 million, 85% of which has stayed in the local economy, while supporting three other local food businesses to launch. They’ve worked closely with a farmer and a miller to diversify grain varieties grown and sold locally, and helped launch UK Grain Lab, one result of which has been challenging the UK’s restrictive seed laws. Also on the panel is Dan Monks from Unicorn, a grocery store established in Manchester in 1994 to support organic agriculture. A workers’ cooperative, they’re a self-empowered bunch. They work closely with local farmers where possible, building long-term relationships, buying direct from the farm gate, and paying invoices promptly. They maintain a healthy financial reserve to ensure their own and their suppliers' resilience, and they invest a percentage of their veg sales back into their suppliers, funding training, greenhouses and the like. At the same time, they are decidedly not a luxury store, placing huge emphasis on affordability for customers. To hear more from these two and the other panellists, have a watch here. And if you’re inspired to help create something similar in Norwich, get in touch here. There’s much we can do to build our local food resilience and security.

1st November 2022: The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is first and foremost for farmers, and the target audience for this week’s highlight is primarily farmers. Yet like so much the ORFC serves up, this session has far wider appeal and application. The subject is The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset, and we hear from farmers who made the shift from both organic and conventional practices into wholistic, regenerative management.

But first we hear from Caroline Grindrod, a consultant and coach who supports farmers to create context-specific regenerative livestock systems: plans that consider not simply the land and any animals on it, but also the farmers, including their passions and values. Caroline trains her clients in the principles of how ecosystems work, then helps them see themselves as integral to their ecosystems. Central to her approach is involving all the stakeholders in her initial training, especially the older generations on family farms and anyone with veto power. The result is a bespoke system that everyone supports and that leads to greater resilience across that triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Then we hear from Caroline’s client Clare Hill from FAI Farms, a 1200-acre farm that had been managed organically for 20 years. And yet “the soil was a bit dead” and lacked that vital sponge quality of being able to cope with wet and dry spells. Despite her additional food consultancy work for giants like McDonald’s, IKEA and M&S, Clare says her most exciting work to date has been transforming those 1200 acres from organic to regenerative. They had incredibly quick improvement in the soil, especially rain infiltration and the numbers of insects. Their sheep now live outdoors all year, grazing on the land. It has required a lot of rethinking, but ultimately, less hard work, with far less stress for three months each spring. And the benefits have rippled into the rest of her life. “Thinking in a more regenerative way on the farm has opened my eyes to other ways of being. Life is happier, I am happier… feeling optimistic, no longer burdened by the treadmill, praying it’ll be better next year.”

Lake District farmers Claire and Sam Beaumont, also Caroline’s clients, complete the panel. They took on Claire’s family’s 460 acres in 2017, but soon found it wasn’t financially viable. They also had concerns about the environmental impact of fertiliser and bought-in feed. They were drawn to rewilding, but also keen to grow as much nutritious food as possible. Within two years of working with Caroline, they noticed a significant improvement in biodiversity and water infiltration, an important benefit in their flood-prone valley. Claire notes that the shift to regenerative farming had led to a shift in mindset, away from competition and into collaboration and community. Also, from conventional farming she learned to focus on treating symptoms; with regenerative farming, their focus is now on understanding and addressing the cause of problems. For her, this has become a way of approaching life in general. There’s a lesson I’m sure we could all benefit from.

4th of October 2022: A special double highlight for Black History Month

October is Black History Month (BHM), and building on sessions we’ve looked at earlier in the year about the links between food and racism, I want to honour BHM today by highlighting two ORFC sessions that look at the role of land ownership in maintaining the oppression that particularly affects racialised people. The first session is called ‘Land, Race and Empire’ and features grower and right-to-roam activist Sam Siva (they/them) and academic Corinne Fowler, author of Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections. Sam is a history graduate who was born in Jamaica and emigrated to the UK at the age of seven, and as an antiracism activist, they have long been interested in how various oppressive systems are entwined in land ownership and the power that wields. Sam reminds us that one per cent of the population in England owns fifty percent of the land. Yup. By way of illustration, Sam mentions Richard Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset, who owns the 14,000 acre Charborough estate. He and his family are the largest individual landowners in Dorset, and Drax recently inherited the sugar plantation in Barbados on which his family’s fortune was built. Corinne Fowler recently co-authored a National Trust report to show the links of their properties to colonialism. Using existing research, the report shows that one third of NT properties were connected in quite significant ways to colonialism. Although the report was initially well received, especially by academics, the report and Fowler became subject to “the most incredible hostile campaign by many newspapers.” It clearly hit a raw nerve. Their conversation is rich, particularly about what it means to be a racialised or otherwise marginalised person simply wanting to go for a walk in the countryside. It’s well worth a listen. The second session I want to highlight looks at what to do about these links between land, race and power, and is called ‘Developing a Shared Theory of Change for the Land Justice’. It’s a workshop that looks at ten theories about how change comes about, to help activists ensure that they spend their time and energy on action that they actually believe will bring about change. Again, it’s a session I can highly recommend.

20th September 2022: Looking back at COP26

This week’s highlight from the 2022 Oxford Real Farming Conference reports on the Fork to Farm Dialogues, which took place in the lead up to the UN climate talks in Glasgow last year. Run by Nourish Scotland, this series of local dialogues was part of a wider movement that is working to highlight the vital role our food and farming systems can – and need – to play in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Collectively, the dialogues were designed to raise the profile of the link between food and climate at COP26.

The Fork to Farm Dialogues were based on the understanding that we can’t wait for national governments to talk effective climate action, so we must take action locally, informed by knowledge, circumstances and relationships unique to each area. The name “Fork to Farm Dialogues” reflects the idea that decision-makers, consumers, and other local stakeholders need to reconnect, through conversations and relationship building, with where their food comes from and with the people and ecological systems that produce our food. Although the formal dialogue process has ended, the relationships have continued. And the programme has resulted in a methodology for building trust and collaborative relationships between local authorities, farmers and other stakeholders, supporting them to work together to address food and climate change within their local contexts.

About a dozen dialogues were held around the world, and in this ORFC session we hear from the coordinators of those that took place in Scotland, Nigeria and Kenya. The coordinators tell of their successes locally, and also describe their frustrations with COP26: the agroecological farming movement met on the fringes at Glasgow, as they didn’t have access to the official negotiations. There is reason for both hope and expectation that agroecological farming will have a higher profile at COP27, to be held in Egypt later this year. Meanwhile, I wonder what we could build here from a Fork to Farm Dialogue in Norfolk.

To watch this ORFC session, click here.

6th September 2022: 'Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Justice.'

After a welcome break in August, I’m happy to be back with another session from the Oxford Real Farming Conference. This one features a return of the dynamic trio: Rupa Marya, Raj Patel and Anne Lappé, discussing Rupa’s and Raj’s book, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice.

This ninety-minute session sparkles with lively conversation and analysis about historical links between our global food, health and economic systems that have led to inflammation in our bodies, in the body politic of nations, and of Planet Earth itself.

As our cost of living crisis escalates, the connection Raj makes between debt and inflammation is jolting. Inflammation is the body’s response to damage or the anticipation of damage, like the fear of having to choose between food or fuel this winter. Such stress can lead to higher blood pressure and other inflammatory markers, suggesting that stress from high levels of debt faced by the working poor plays out at the cellular level. Payday loans can be a short-term coping strategy, with crippling and sometimes deadly consequences. Raj suggests, “If you want to reduce rates of suicide and accidental drug overdose, then as a public health measure, banning payday loans is a ‘no regrets’ policy.”

Rupa speaks about widespread atomisation and separation within the human community, such that which we don’t recognise that we have duties, obligations and responsibilities to one another. She suggests this is the result of our ‘colonial capitalist cosmology’, “because you can’t actually run a capitalist economy if you felt like you had those duties and obligations.”

The prescription for this grim diagnosis is ‘anti-inflammatory activism’, in which “we knit care together again.” By nature, this has to happen in community, and they share examples from around the world where communities are reconnecting through the power of food: growing it, cooking it, reclaiming lost cultures and values with it. I can’t recommend this session highly enough. If you’re interested, you can watch it here.

26th July 2022: Reciprocity with nature - reviving indigenous culture and agricultural practises.

In our culture, well-being is typically understood as the result of personal lifestyle choices, reliant on an endless parade of products and services: the latest superfoods, exercise regimes and equipment, supplements to pep you up and calm you down, retreats and so on. In this week’s ORFC highlight, we get a rather different perspective on well-being, one that emerges when daily life is rooted in a sense of reciprocity, a relationship with Mother Earth, and a respect for and commitment to nature. Such an understanding is typical of indigenous communities around the world, and central to it is a deep connection to food and farming.

Alfredo Cortez, an agroecological farmer from Guatemala, tells the story of his family’s small, mixed agroforestry plot, where they grow over more than ninety different edible and medicinal plants, produce their own natural fertilisers, and continue ancestral peasant farming practices.

They grow primarily for their own consumption and for bartering with other local farmers, in a network of sixteen communities producing corn, cattle, livestock, fruits and vegetables. They also sell at the local market, open two days a week, and a local law helps small-scale producers sell to the Ministry of Education, to feed schoolchildren.

Local small farmers act as seed guardians, too, growing many varieties of corn and beans. Alfredo refers to varieties now growing only in a single valley as “genocide survivors”. As climate change steadily exacerbates drought conditions, this kind of crop diversity will become more valuable. And protecting soil health, the water, food sovereignty and their ancestral ways is more than simply important – it is central to how the local people live. Overall, Alfred reflects that theirs in a healthy, active life. “It’s an art, living well,” he says.

Much closer to home, we hear some similar themes and values from Gerald Miles, a Welsh farmer committed to growing and repopularising Black Oats and other nearly-lost grain varieties. Through the Seed Sovereignty Programme, Gerald and other older farmers have been working with younger, new-entrant farmers to revive not just seeds, but also older farming practices, and even the Welsh language. Reviving indigenous culture and agriculture go hand in hand. Gerald also makes the case for a local food system, with a cooperatively owned farm machinery hub, local millers grinding Welsh wheat, and Welsh Black Oat milk production. “We need to take product into our own management and control and sell it direct, locally,” he says. I’d quite like to see something similar in Norfolk!

12th July 2022: Designing Regenerative Food Systems: Vision to Action.

Plans are gaining traction in Norwich for putting together a food partnership that uses regenerative ideas as a starting point for rethinking and reshaping our local food system. This is what drew me to this week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference: Designing Regenerative Food Systems: Vision to Action.

The first panellist, Colin Tudge, co-founded the ORFC and has been a ‘real farming’ advocate for over half a century. He says that real farming is based on two principles – regenerating the land and food sovereignty – and its ambition is to produce good food for everybody while looking after the natural world. He contrasts this with what he calls ‘neoliberal industrial farming’, which he says aims to maximise and concentrate monetary wealth, the only measure of value in this paradigm.

The second panellist is Marina O’Connell, author of Designing Regenerative Food Systems and Why We Need Them. In it, she tells the story of Huxhams Cross Farm, the 37-acre site she runs on the edge of the Dartington Hall estate in Devon, just 10 miles from Totnes. After the farm was bought in 2015 with the help of 150 shareholders, they spent a year developing a permaculture design in a process that involved all of their stakeholders. Their toolkit also included biodynamic and agroforestry principles. Having started with what was dismissed as a degraded ‘miserable bit of land’, in five years the farm: has become carbon negative; collects over 100,000 litres of rain water a year and has been weaned off mains water; produces over 100 types and 15 tonnes of fruit and veg, as well as six tonnes of wheat and lots of eggs, all sold within a 20-mile radius; and has doubled its worm count and seen a 50 per cent increase in bird species. It is economically viable and employs eight people on the farm team, with another eight employed to provide on-site outdoor mental health services to children and families suffering from trauma.

This session may not give us a blueprint for a regenerative food system for our city, but it does show that regenerative farming can be economically viable while creating local jobs and building biodiversity, climate resilience, community, wellbeing and local food markets. Indeed, it demonstrates that with the right ambitions and when well designed, a regenerative local food system can produce and share wealth and value in many and diverse ways.

28th June 2022: 'Bee'cause they're wonderfully important.

Time again for a peek at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) 2022. And this week’s post is another double-yolker: two sessions, this time on bees. Both showcase ORFC at its best – hugely informative and highly engaging, with some intelligent debate.

First up is An Introduction to the World of Native Bees, with Bridget Strawbridge Howard, author of the highly praised Dancing with Bees. Bridget sets bees within the context of pollinators more generally, before outlining the differences between social (including honey) and solitary bees. Generous with her photos, she shares interesting details about just a few of Britain’s 275 bee species. Having known nothing of the carder bee before, I’m now slightly in awe of it and feeling inappropriately smug that we happen to have lamb’s ear in the garden. Bridget also mentions some of the best plants for bees, and I’m left determined to have pussy willows in my garden next spring. I’m also inspired by her parting advice: wrap up, get outside, and make time to get to know the insects around you; don’t worry about their names, but ask questions, try to work out what’s going on and then act from the heart.

The second session is Towards a Sustainable Beekeeping Manifesto, with three panellists, each with quite different experience and background. One, David Wainwright, was involved in the controversial M&S scheme last year to build the UK honey bee population by 30 million. This raised concerns that honey bees would outcompete local pollinators, and he found himself headlining the morning news ahead of Vladmir Putin. Another panellist, Monica Barlow, supported his view that honey bees are not the problem; rather, “the main problems for all our bees are really poverty, malnutrition and homelessness”, she says.

They discuss the mass importing of bees (over 120,000 colonies annually), particularly bumble bees, to pollinate UK tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries. Farmers are then obliged to destroy these whole colonies after six weeks, to protect native bees, though there’s no policing of these obligations. Monica urges us to think about this systemic exploitation (e.g. why do we want crops out of season or need fruit to ripen all at once?), panellist Nicola Bradbear argues for banning all bee imports, while David urges us to start producing our own UK bees in numbers, so importing is no longer necessary.

While the controversy about the relationships between different bee species may continue, some things are clear: we need more habitat for bees, connected in corridors; more forage throughout the year; more diversity of plants; and an end to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

14th June 2022: Food Poverty: What's It Got to do with Me?

The UK government released its food strategy yesterday to near-unanimous despair from farmers, environmentalists and food poverty activists. It seems to offer nothing to address the escalating cost of living crisis, while failing to deliver key proposals from Henry Dimbleby’s two government-commissioned reports on food, obesity and the environment.

So while we appear rudderless at the national level in navigating the complexities of our failing food system, this week’s session from the Oxford Real Farming Conference shows us where real leadership in these waters can be found: in creative, thoughtful local projects across the nation. Food Poverty: What’s It Got to do with Me? is hosted by Jade Bashford, programme manager of Ready, Healthy, Eat. This is a UK-wide project from the Real Farming Trust that provides the best possible ready meals for people experiencing food poverty.

Jade invites us to think about what’s happening in the space between two ends of this spectrum: from high-quality, nutritious, organic food eaten by people who can afford it, to nutrient-poor, packaged and processed food products we associate with food banks. Awkward social issues such as shame and class fill this chasm, as do often toxic policy and financial systems that underpin farming, trade, skills, health and education.

We then hear from several innovative local projects around the country. One farm employs a therapeutic gardener to work with vulnerable people. While gaining food-growing skills, participants also cook and eat a hot meal together and take home fresh produce at the end of the day. Another project provides logistical connections between growers, restaurants, surplus food and affordable food schemes. All of the projects seem to share a commitment to dignity, community, health and well-being. One participant summed them up by noting that deep connection and humanity are their main building blocks.

With the ever-increasing numbers of people going hungry, existing local initiatives simply can’t meet the scale of need. But they do show that much can be done locally when we refuse to wait for national action.

31st May 2022: Scaling it up!

After a week’s indulgence in the Chelsea Flower Show, I’m reminded by today’s Oxford Real Farming Conference highlight that the growing tradition of Chelsea was once much more food-oriented. In the 17th to 19th centuries, the area was home to thriving market gardeners who fed London with perishable goods from soils made fertile by urban-sourced manure. A fine example of a circular economy. According to speaker Rob Logan, rings of market gardens around urban areas survived in many parts of the UK until the 1950s, when supermarket monopolies, trade deals and the subsidising of large land owners finally killed them off.

In this session, called Scaling Up Peri-Urban Agroecology, the panellists explore pathways to a modern twist on market gardens, fit for the social, ecological, economic and political challenges of our day. As speaker Chiara Tornaghi puts it, agroecology sees farmers as stewards of the soil, and farms as rooted in the web of life. We are reminded that the term agroecology is also rooted in social justice, and academics and activists alike are grappling with issues like access to land; a farm subsidy system that excludes small market farms; and gender, race and class barriers to training and equal participation. As Green New Deal Norwich continues to work toward a food partnership and strategy for Norwich that addresses the full suite of challenges to food security, this session is encouraging, as it suggests we’re heading in the right direction. It also flags up areas we haven’t yet considered, such as land-based community kitchens and seed banks. This is a packed session, and one that I intend to watch again.

17th May 2022: Local Food Futures

The lead story of this Saturday’s Guardian warned that “the golden era of cheap food is over”. In April, Farmers Weekly reported that the cost of farming inputs in the UK “increased by an ‘eye watering’ 24% in the six months to the end of March 2022.” Change is coming, big and fast. Of course, FarmShare is partially protected from these cost increases, as we don’t use fertilisers, whose prices have increased by an astonishing 108 per cent. But the comfort is slim. Where do these shocks leave us as a society, across the UK and globally?

I returned to the Oxford Real Farming Conference for some reassurance, where I found a session called Local Food Futures, in which a panel of three food activists, two of them farmers, chart a path to food security through global movement toward food localism, based on regenerative farming techniques.

André Leu starts by explaining how the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, spent some US $1 billion over 15 years making problems worse. AGRA’s vision was to double agricultural yields and the incomes of 30 million small-scale food producer households, and to halve both hunger and poverty in 20 African countries by 2020. Instead, the number of people suffering from extreme hunger increased by 30 per cent in countries where AGRA intervened from 2005 to 2020, and 100 million extra people ended up being undernourished.

How did it go so terribly wrong? André says the money was spent on promoting industrial agriculture to supply distant commodity markets and on expensive GMOs, imported synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. The result was an increase of monocrops and a decrease in crop and food diversity, and thus a decrease in nutrition.

Meanwhile, other projects in Africa have prioritised putting food on the (local) table over exports, using agroecological methods to increase soil nutrition, water efficiency, biodiversity, etc. A 2008 UN review of 114 such projects found a 116 per cent increase in yields across all these projects.

Nelson Mudzingwa speaks next. A Zimbabwean farmer, Nelson is part of a traditional organic farming forum that acknowledges food as a basic right and places its local community and cultural practices at the heart of its work, which dates back 21 years to a land reform and resettlement programme. The forum's members were allocated land in a particularly dry region, so water harvesting has been essential to their success, along with protecting trees and using animal manures to revive the land. They have revived local seed systems, too: saving their own seed, creating local seed banks, and increasing seed diversity. They share learning locally through centres of excellence, and globally via La Via Campasina. Their focus on food sovereignty has enabled them to flourish in a prolonged period of national political unrest and hyperinflation.

Finally we hear from Helena Norberg-Hodge, who works tirelessly to create a world movement for local food. She urges us to see the trajectory and impact of giving too much power to global traders, and she argues that “it’s industrial farming – monocropping for exports and traders – that makes farming a drudgery.” We stand at a crossroads, Helena says, and it’s time to shorten the distance between farm and table. Aside from FarmShare, how else can we do that?

3rd May 2022: exploring the human and environmental costs of pesticides

At the beautiful Rights of the River ceremony in Wensum Park last weekend, we were reminded about the impacts of pesticide use on the wellbeing of our waterways. So I felt inspired this week to highlight two ORFC sessions about pesticides. One focuses on direct exposure to farm workers, the other on more diffuse exposure to the rest of us. The first session is called Silent Pandemic: the human and environmental costs of pesticides. Here we learn that the global pesticide market has doubled in the last 20 years, while in Argentina, use has increased by 40% in just the last five years. We also learn about the pesticide paraquat, one of the world’s deadliest chemicals: just a teaspoon can kill you, it can poison you via skin contact and there’s no antidote. It’s banned in the UK and EU, yet in Asia it is sold to farmers in flimsy polythene bags. There are some 385 million recorded cases annually of unintentional acute pesticide poisoning, mainly occupational, including 11,000 deaths. Some 108 million children work in agriculture globally, and they absorb 4-5 times as much toxins as adults. In India, child labourers are sent into flower fields to pick after they’ve been sprayed. In Cambodia, pesticide packaging has been reused to package children’s cakes and carry water for domestic use. All this is before we learn about the biodiversity and wider environmental impacts of pesticides, many of which are also detailed in this presentation. The second session is called The Pesticides Perception: What Consumers Do, Don’t and Should Know about Pesticides. We are reminded that pesticides are toxic chemicals designed to kill and interrupt life systems. It’s that simple. And we are reminded of the chronic nature of pesticide accumulation in the environment and our bodies, a toxic load that persists and is heritable. One panellist notes that many pesticides mess with human hormones, affecting thyroid function, fertility and brain development. She also points out that food is only one source of pesticide exposure: clothing, bedding and other furnishings also pose a risk. There is reason for hope, however. One panellist mentions a UN report which states that food contaminated by pesticides cannot be considered adequate food. (This sounded so forward-thinking and encouraging, I had to look it up. It actually calls for the elimination of pesticide subsidies and the creation of pesticide taxes! See report here.) We also learn that in France, no local authorities use pesticides any more. If the Wensum River could talk, I imagine it would imploring us all to wake up, take note and start phasing out pesticides now.

19th April 2022 - it's all about the bugs!

This week’s ORFC highlight is a delightful ode to bugs in general, and the dung beetle in particular. Springwatch’s Gillian Burke hosts this session with Vicki Hurd, author of Rebugging the Planet, and Sally-Ann Spence, a farmer, campaigner and dung beetle expert.

Vicki reminds us of the past, when our car windscreens would be spattered with bugs after a drive – a rare event these days as our bug populations have been decimated. Yet bugs are central to various natural life systems (like water and soil) on which we depend. She suggests that we rely on invertebrates not just for our food, but also for our clothes and furniture. So restoring their populations is essential. She implores us to rebug all areas of our lives, from our homes, gardens, schools, and workplaces to our food, politics, and most fundamentally, our attitudes. And she encourages us to talk to children about insects and worms in ways that conveys their importance to the web of life.

Sally-Ann enthuses about dung beetles and explains how they are highly specialised, each with its particular niche, and all of which are important. Some species can only be found in the top crust of a dung pat, while others can only be found between the soil and the dung pats, but not where the pats sit on grass. She explains that dung beetles are in fact a keystone species. This became evident when cattle and sheep were rapidly introduced in large numbers to Australia and New Zealand. With no dung beetles in these countries that had evolved for cattle and sheep dung, a parasite problem developed that threatened the entire industry. Farmers worked with universities and governments to bring in dung beetles from around the world to find suitable ones for the job.

Like a proper bug lover, Sally-Ann also welcomes bugs into her house. Her family tracks the now rare cellar beetles by Tippexing a number on their backs. Number 13 has been in their house for eight years. They also have a rare species of slug in their damp cellar, and her children know that the bottom toilet roll on the toilet roll holder belongs to the slugs.

The speakers remind us that bugs populations can bounce back rather quickly, if we give them suitable habitats. And they remind us of the importance of a rich mosaic of diverse habitats with connecting corridors. I’m all on board, but think I’ll be concentrating my efforts outside of my house.

5th April 2022 - 'Exploring the Soil Food Web through Science and Traditional Knowledge'

This week, I’m sharing an ORFC session with both excitement and some trepidation, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The session is called Exploring the Soil Food Web through Science and Traditional Knowledge. The headline speaker is Dr Elaine Ingham, considered the world’s foremost soil biologist, whose 2015 ORFC talk remains the most popular ever ORFC session. She is president and founder of Soil Foodweb Inc and former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute.

As the host says, Dr Ingham’s concept that “agriculture should be an art – the art of nurturing soil life – has developed over four decades. If you get the soil biology right, then the rest follows.”

Dr Ingham explains the difference between dirt and soil. Simply put, it’s biology: a mixture of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes, all invisible to the naked eye, along with larger soil dwellers and mycorrhizal filaments. She’s unequivocal that “when we start to till, we kill the biology in the soil.” Tilling equates to “slicing and dicing and wiping out at least 50% of fungal population,” leading to the need for pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. (Handy if you’re Monsanto, perhaps.) She warns equally against agrochemicals, which are expensive and toxic. “With the right microorganisms, she claims, we can make any soil behave as a rich wonderful loam.”

She outlines seven benefits of soil biology, one of which is carbon sequestration. After her overview, Dr Ingham is followed by four of her former students. First is Daniel Tyrkiel, director of Soil Ecology Laboratory in Hampshire. He’s passionate about climate change and references some research that suggests farmers could sequester 36-37 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, given an optimal ratio of bacteria and fungi in soil. On this basis, he claims we could sequester 100% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions on half of our agricultural land (8 million hectares). It’s his mission to make this happen. Of course, the global potential could be game changing.

And there’s the rub. Next up is Glyn Mitchell, who has come up with an innovative approach to help farmers fund the transition away from tilling and chemical inputs. It’s all based on carbon trading and block chain technology, allowing farmers to get paid for carbon sequestration, that is independently verified, paid for by the polluters and supported by major banks and insurers. Given my concerns around the climate crisis, perhaps I should be overjoyed. But rather than game changing, this feels like reinforcing the path to business-as-usual, the same path that gives us “the haves and have-nots”, in all its many destructive guises.

So I’m relieved to hear the final speakers, two growers in Aotearoa (New Zealand), who place both soil heath and community at the heart of their work. One notes that “Farming hope, purpose and enthusiasm is just as important as farming produce.” And I feel hope again.

22 March 2022 - 'Feeding Britain: for Nature, Climate and Health'

The war in Ukraine confronts us daily with immediate human tragedies, the effects of which are reverberating around the world. And longer-term tragedies are brewing in that war, not least around food insecurity: Russia and Ukraine jointly supply 25 per cent of global wheat exports, and Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilisers. The war is exacerbating already steep price increases for fossil fuels, which the current global food system relies on heavily for farm chemicals and machinery, and for transporting food and animal feed around the planet. Food prices are already rising steeply, a trend expected to continue. This bleak picture sends me back again to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) for alternatives to the insanity.

Although this year's ORFC took place before this war began, agroecological farming by its nature offers solutions to the issues above. This week, we’re looking at a session on ‘Feeding Britain: For Nature, Climate and Health’. The three panellists are all active farmers who also campaign and work to reshape policy, with interesting insights into issues of yield, nutrient density, the health benefits of diets linked to the land we live on, farmers reconnecting with place and embracing complexity, and the good and ugly of animal farming. All while weaning ourselves off agrochemicals.

It’s a rich and complex conversation, and I can’t possibly do it justice in this short blog. So instead, as we all grapple with the cost of living crisis, I want to share some powerful words from panellist Sue Pritchard, head of the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, about the prevailing focus on cheap food:

“Let me be blunt,” she says. “I think it’s an absolute travesty and… outrage that the need for cheap food has become in effect a marketing strap line for a particular business model that has commodified and financialised food systems, so that the needs of the poor and vulnerable have become an excuse for a business that provides eye-watering profits for a small number of large global agrifood businesses.

“And I think that we need to start confronting that particular challenge. So the work we’re starting to do this year is to talk about issues of affordability, dignity, reducing inequality, with our colleagues working in food banks and working on food insecurity across the UK. We’ll be working up an alternative policy position that stops making cheap food the answer to those big economic questions.”

To hear more from Sue and her fellow panelists, click here.

8th March 2022 - Nnimmo Bassey's perspective

'To mark UN Anti Racism Day (19 March), this week’s ORFC highlight gives an African perspective, from human rights and climate activist legend Nnimmo Bassey, on agroecology and the failures of COP26. Also an architect, poet, author and Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award (the list goes on), Nnimmo comes from Nigeria and offers global insights from many decades of national and international leadership.

We all know that COP26 failed to reach agreements to limit global warming to 1.5°C; at best, commitments will limit us to an increase of 2.4°C. What Nnimmo clarifies is that these are global average figures and the impact on Africa is typically 50 per cent higher, leading to devastating impacts. Already, Lake Chad – formerly the breadbasket of Nigeria – has lost 90 per cent of its water since the early 1960s. This has disrupted the way of life of pastoral people, whose cattle depend on the water, and of fisher folk, often leading to violent conflict. This gets depicted in the media as religious conflict, a convenient cover story to hide how climate change is already aggressively displacing whole communities in the region. Further temperatures rises will be catastrophic here and across the continent.

Nnimmo sounds the alarm about proposed ‘solutions’ from agribusiness and philanthrocapitalists: digitalising agriculture, with systems to measure carbon and nutrients in soil, dispensing almost entirely with farmers. This so-called ‘climate smart agriculture’ will be anything but. It will futher entrench dependence on multinationals, petrochemicals, GM crops and drone technology while wiping out land-based livelihoods and communities. It’s a continuation and expansion of the dystopian trajectory we so desperately need to reverse. Meanwhile, the regenerative powers of agroecology are sidelined and ignored.

And the climate talks are not the only threat. The 2021 Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) agreed a new target to put at least 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface under conservation status by 2030. Another genius move by PR departments, this ‘30 x 30’ target sounds like welcome medicine, yet Nnimmo warns it could be the biggest landgrab in human history, leading to mass dispossession and dislocation of indigenous peoples from the land they have historically protected.

The COP institutions are rigged. By the corporates, for the corporates. Nnimmo reminds those of us in the global north that we have the power and the responsibility to stop the madness. We can start by listening to stories of indigenous, earth-centred practices, by learning from them and magnifying their stories and wisdom while exposing false solutions for what they are. A great place to start is listening to Nnimmo here.'

22nd February 2022 - Getting back to herbal medicine

'Before the winter disappears and we’ve missed the best time to harvest our dandelion roots, I’m sharing this entertaining ORFC session featuring a couple of trained herbalists who want to put herbal medicine back where it belongs: in your hands. Dressed up as Hedge Plum and Apple, Fiona and Karen – aka the Seed Sistas – share how they came to use only medicinal plants that they can grow. This is no debate about native versus foreign – rather, they are committed to only using plants they’ve had the chance to really get to know, throughout the seasons and growing cycles, using all their senses. (And possibly in costume.) It’s about reconnecting to plants, in both essence and detail, and awakening an intuitive relationship with the plants’ healing properties.

In response to the amount of anxiety and stress everywhere, their talk emphasises herbs for nerve health. The Seed Sistas explain the difference between nervine tonics (like borage), relaxants (lavender, say, or chamomile) and stimulants (hello caffeine!), and how you might choose which to use (or avoid). They talk about the many liquids you can use to extract and preserve the healing powers of herbs, from alcohol to vinegar, honey and glycerine. And they give a brief overview of how the different plant parts relate to the seasons and the elements, and what this has to do with harvesting your own.

To prepare you to go gathering, they talk about harvesting herbs as a ritual, and as a way of empowering yourself by connecting with the plants. Your ritual might include asking the plant’s permission to harvest it; picking with patience, awareness and gratitude; and knowing when you’ve taken enough. Being clear about your intention for harvesting is also part of the ritual. Karen and Fiona say the more intention you put into making a remedy, the more powerful that remedy is.

Recognising the limits of how many people they can support in one-to-one clinical care, they also offer apprenticeships in Dorset. Participants are required to set up their own community herbal medical gardens, which are popping up around schools, libraries and so forth. These community gardens are an antidote to loneliness, and help people learn the basics of herbalism from each other and through direct contact with the plants.

The Seeds Sistas describe themselves as ‘passionately potty about plants’. They believe nature is both medicine and magic. To catch a bit of their magic, click here.'

8th February 2022 - A trip to Wakelyns farm in Suffolk

'This week with ORFC, we’re headed to Wakelyns, a self-described “oasis in the generally bleak farmlands of Suffolk in a distant corner of the time-space continuum”. If you’re a fan of agroforestry (and Star Wars, perhaps!), you won’t want to miss this one.

What is now an inspiring collective of earthy enterprises started in 1992, when Ann and Martin Wolfe – pioneers in agroforestry – bought 56 acres near Southwold to begin their experimental rebellion against the modern food system. In single and double rows, they planted tree whips into the stubble of the previous farmer’s wheat fields. They included willow and hazel for coppicing, and all manner of fruit trees. Collaborating with the Organic Research Centre (ORC), they ran trials of different approaches to agroforestry for over 20 years.

One result of these trials is ‘YQ’ ORC Wakelyns Population Wheat. In conventional wheat fields, every plant is genetically identical, and thus equally vulnerable to weather, pests, pathogens and more. A field of population wheat, by contrast, has diversity built in: YQ was bred by making 190 crosses between 20 different parent wheat varieties, leading to more resilient crops with excellent yield and quality (hence, YQ). I bake with it myself, and it’s delicious.

After Martin died in 2019 – Ann had already passed – the next generation held a memorial symposium to consider how to carry the legacy forward. Friends, neighbours and scientists pooled their ideas, and it was agreed the farm should continue as a hub and inspiration, both locally and globally. But how, exactly?

In the short period since, they have focussed on developing short supply chains and working collaboratively with micro starts-ups that add value on site: a bakery that makes 100% whole YQ wheat sourdough, fruit tarts and more; an organic CSA that grows veg between rows of trees; and the Woodland Haberdasher, who makes all manner of delights from scrips and scraps.

These businesses are young and don’t make much dosh, but the creative contracts they have with Wakelyns are mutually supportive, inspiring and cash-free. It seems the revolutionary spirit of the founders is literally and figuratively in the soil. Find out more here.'

25th January 2022 - ...'it's all about mushrooms!...'

'Once again, the Oxford Real Farming Conference kicked off the new year with an inspiring smorgasbord of delights from the agroecology world. Many sessions have been uploaded onto YouTube now, so I’m thrilled to be back with my biweekly blog, to share some of my favourites with the Norwich FarmShare community.

This week’s is all about mushrooms, including a live, outdoor demo with Tasha Stevens of 42 Acres. But first we hear from Patrick Mallery of Upcycled. Mushrooms. Patrick has grown mushrooms for restaurants, and he now teaches, runs a consultancy for indoor and outdoor commercial growing and sells mushroom spawn. He’s deeply passionate about changing the food system, in part through an increase in peri-urban growing. So I’m all ears.

Patrick talks us through how to grow wine cap mushrooms outdoors on wood chips. He once harvested a single wine cap – also known as the “garden giant” – that weighed in at half a kilo. And he claims the yields are “insane”. Mushrooms famously grow in deep shade, but he also recommends growing them under soft fruit bushes, where the two crops metaphorically scratch each other’s backs. It looks like wine caps could be of interest to both commercial and home growers. And he speaks briefly about how mushrooms can be used to recharge spent soil.

And now to Tasha, who learned to work the land with no fossil fuels at Tinkers Bubble before becoming production manager at 42 Acres. Standing there out in the rain, Tasha demonstrates growing shitake mushrooms on logs, which she’s doing on a commercial basis. She shares tricks of the trade, like the pros and cons of different woods, a specialist drill bit from Japan and the colour-coded cheese wax for keeping predators out while indicating the inoculation year.

Tasha and Patrick are also collaborating to cultivate some of the wild edible and medicinal strains from 42 Acres in Patrick’s lab, including turkey tail and birch polypore, with which Tasha’s developing products from tinctures to gravy in her “Willy Wonka factory”. Inspiring stuff! If your interest is piqued, have a peek here.'

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