Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

20170105_161439This year I couldn’t make both days, so I just went along on the Thursday last week to the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the Town Hall.  As always it’s a hard job trying to choose between attending some sessions that are on at the same time, but I plumped for those that seemed to have some practical elements as well as offering a wider perspective on food and farming policy.

Building Resilience: Addressing Challenges in the Food & Farming System
Chair: Helen Browning (Soil Association)
Speakers: Christopher Price (CLA), Tim Benton (Leeds University & Chatham House), Graeme Willis (CPRE)

I thought I’d kick off the day with an overview and look at what ‘resilience’ means, a word that is being used as the new buzz word, like ‘sustainable’ was a few years ago, but which can have various different meanings. Tim Benton defined it as how well a system can recover from difficulties; and also pointed out that we need to work out whether we want to come back to the same point after a crisis or shock, or to change the way of doing things – for example, coping with the Dustbowl situation in the USA in the 1800s led to a change of farming system. He also looked at sharing risk, so that for example farmers with contracts with supermarkets can have a vertical risk share, where risks (eg climate change impacts, pests and disease, crop failures etc) are spread throughout the production chain, and don’t only rest with the farmer; and how crop insurance is also seriously being looked at to spread risk, rather than subsidies per se. Lastly he pointed out that managing risks comes at a cost, which up until now has mostly been borne by the farmers; but in an ever-risky world (as well as climate change, the uncertainties caused by a globalised future with potential shock from Brexit and an unpredictable Trump presidency), and with fewer and fewer producers as more farmers leave the industry and fewer join, those risk costs will need to be spread.

Christopher Price advocated that farmers continue to do their own risk-management as much as possible to ensure their resilience, eg not relying on subsidies which may or may not continue, saving money in ISAs when a good year, taking advantage of tax strategies such as averaging available to farmers where tax bills are more evenly spread no matter whether a good year or bad, and also touched on the idea of bringing in a USA-style insurance system rather than subsidy, or that subsidy money being used to help farmers become more resilient via consultancy etc. I later asked the question whether he’d agree with the idea that this Governmental support should be available to all producers, rather than larger scale producers on 12 acres or more as is the case now for subsidy money, and he agreed that subsidies should be changed, and support should be available to any good business with a viable plan.

Real Food From Real Farmers
Chair: Jamie Pike
Speakers: Dagan James (Boughton Water Buffalo), Jonathan Chapman (holistic grazing farm), Organic Lea representative

Dagan James highlighted the importance of direct marketing, and getting people on to your farm to get them to really understand what you do, using your production as narrative, and how it’s different from other less sustainable farms. He advocated making relationships with chefs and businesses who are a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, who really get the difference in provenance and flavour of food. Dagan also points out that you need a new skill set for direct marketing: as well as the actual farming and producing, you need to be customer-focussed and retail-minded. He and Jonathan both emphasised that (perhaps contrary to what some producers might think) direct marketing means that you can only sell premium products, and that you can’t get away with trying to palm off substandard food, as it directly damages your reputation. A last-minute speaker replacement, Hannah (I think that was her name!) from Organic Lea specialises in salads for restaurants, and the business turns over £45,000 from 1.5 acres of intensive salad production (they also grow and sell other veg such as tomatoes, celeriac etc, but salad is the speciality for restaurants). She highlighted the importance of consistent quality and supply, and being able to adapt quickly to demand. During questions, the issue arose of restaurants claiming to stock ‘local’ produce and support small producers, in order to increase their customer base, while not sticking to their purported ethics. Several options came out, not least calling out the restaurants about it (even if you don’t supply them), asking where they get their produce from, and either inviting bare-faced lies, or pointing out that their labelling is misleading; plus Riverford’s Guy Watson from the audience suggested that as consumers it’s always our duty to find out exactly where ‘local’ means and who the suppliers are. The FSA could also be brought in as a last resort if the labels are illegally misleading, eg stating produce is organic when not.

Hear From Fellow Farmers: Tech & Tools for a Resilient Farm
Chair: Abby Rose (Farmarama Radio)
Speakers: Louise MacDonald (New MacDonald Farm), Nick Green (Incredible Farm), Will Davenport (Davenport Vineyards), Stephen Briggs (Abacus Agriculture Consultants)

The overall sense in this sessions was ‘new-fashioned farming’: using innovation and tools while listening to the land to get good results. Nick Green showed us his micro-milking battery-powered device he bought online from the USA, for his one cow; Louise (nice to see a local neighbour from New MacDonald Farm appearing!) highlighted the benefits of signing up as a producer to a Food Assembly (and the Open Food Network was later mentioned too); Will Davenport explained how phone apps have helped him keep track and great records around his vineyard (with codes on each plant that can be recognised by his phone, and all the necessary info about it downloaded to his hand); and Stephen Briggs suggested some useful websites, apps and other sources of info. He uses the free Rain Alarm app daily; as well as the various BASF weed and disease ID apps. He also recommends podcasts for info and learning as well as entertainment, such as Farmerama, Radio 4’s Farming Today, TED talks, ITeachAg and Twitter. Other suggestions from the floor also included WAVE accounting software.

20170105_124025The Breadline: Exploring the Politics of Food Pricing
Chair: Humphrey Lloyd (Edible Futures)
Speakers: George Dunn (TFA), Naomi Millner (Bristol University), Lynne Davis (Street Goat)

Humphrey offered a background and overview on the politics of pricing food, noting that there was a food shortage in the 1800s which led to people hijacking grain carts – but rather than taknig the food home from themselves or thir communities, the hijackers would set up market stalls and sell the grain for what they considered to be a fair price. Food pricing has therefore been a political issue ever since, especially following the Corn Laws designed to protect wealthy landowners and producers, and their eventual repeal; 200 years ago poorer people were spending 60-80% of their income on bread alone, with perhaps 5% on meat or dairy. While it is definitely progress that people in general can afford to spend more on food and also on other things such as houses, it’s not just increased incomes which has led this, but the continued reduction in food prices, so that the proportion of income spent on food is now more like 9-12% in total. The question is whether this is the true cots of that food, and whether people are paying for cheap food production in other ways (taxes/subsidies, water bills, health and environmental problems and so on).

George Dunn has a background in economics, and gave a comprehensive dismissal of the illusion of a free market when it comes to food pricing. According to the father of economics Adam Smith, a free market must comprise of: buyers who individually don’t have the power to influence prices (not the case with supermarkets’ and other big corporations’ powers); have homegenous production ie the same product (definitely not the case with food, look at the trouble we have trying to explain how industrial agriculture differs from smaller scale sustainable production, or processed food from fresh ingredients, or country of origin and working conditions of food production workers); producers must have free entry to and exit from the market place (how many new entrants do we know struggling to get customers, especially in public procurement or supermarket stockists, and how easy is it for suppliers to leave?); and consumers must have ‘perfect knowledge’ of the marketplace in order to make rational decisions (very clearly not the case, as consumers are surprised when they realise what tiny margins producers earn compared to retailers, or are misled over ‘local’ food claims, or fall for disingenuous marketing strategies such as the Rosedean Farm labels, or scandals such as horsemeat-gate come along). Therefore there isn’t a ‘free market’ when it comes to food; which begs the question whether it needs some State or top-down tinkering, a radical change (from the bottom-up perhaps?), or some other structural solution.

The panel also discussed how cheap food has become an ideological issue in our age; fitting in with the prevailing idea that more stuff will solve things. We are beginning to realise that with the stuff comes other problems however: more waste, more health problems, environmental problems, and sometimes less nutrition as empty calories are consumed and used to fill us up rather than feed us properly. Cheap food also keeps the status quo (an echo of Marx’s ‘bread and circuses’ for the proletariat claim), and that it actually causes hunger: food poverty is not a problem of production (or food prices would be sky-high in a free market supply-and-demand economy), but of distribution.

Lynne Davis (see pic) also made the practical point that as food sellers, we need to bear in mind the impression of cheapness versus the perception of expense: showing us two photos of a cosy rustic-looking farm shop, and a bright budget supermarket’s aisles. The price of the veg was actually the same, or lower at the farm shop; but she pointed out that businesses have spent a great deal of money making their shops and ranges look cheap, in order for consumers to feel they were getting a great bargain; whereas the lovely-looking rustic farm shop with its wooden barrels, chalkboards and earthy feel gave the impression of being exclusive and therefore pricey: perhaps fine for an indulgent treat, but not for everyday shopping (a similar story has happened to the word ‘organic’ over the years). Maybe until culturally we all start realising that market stalls, farm shops and direct sales are often the best value, as producers we should pick up a few tricks from the supermarkets, such as bargain bins, basic packaging and price comparision stickers?

 

 

 

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2017: The Future of Growing?

IMG_20160225_130213As someone who took advantage of the two-year horticultural apprenticeship run by the Soil Association a number of years ago, I’m perhaps more aware than some of the need for more growers and farmers in the agriculture industry. The average age of farmers is around 59 (more like mid-60s for organic farmers and growers), and this average age trend is still rising, with horticulture showing one of the highest age averages. Coupled with this, the continued shutting up shop of small farms and market gardens has meant a shrinking job pool and fewer opportunities for new entrants to the industry, when right now, looking ahead to 2017 and the Brexit to follow, self-sufficiency should be top of the agenda (not to mention cutting carbon emissions by growing and farming locally and more sustainably).

So over the last 10 years it’s great that programmes such as the Soil Association’s Future Growers’ scheme has trained over 80 new growers and farmers; plus there seem to be more and more business-focussed programmes springing up looking to help people get started in farming and growing businesses: from the FreshStart Academies countrywide and Kindling Trust business courses near Manchester to Roots to Work in the London area. However I have noticed that over the last 18 months, actual job opportunities have all but disappeared: all I can see at the moment are a cluster of ‘trainee’ positions. This used to be an interchangeable term with ‘apprenticeships’ in my mind: new entrants (like myself) with little experience would get a basic training wage, with the idea that they would learn on the job and start earning more after, say, six months or a year, and also get a couple of years’ really good experience on the job. However, the positions that I see advertised are slightly different, in that hardly any of them actually offer a wage as such: just a stipend of perhaps £50 pocket money a week, together with on-farm accommodation (and usually free food too), usually just lasting the main growing season of March-October.

These trainee positions are of course a valuable way in the industry for someone with little or no experience, who is happy with the WWOOF-type lifestyle rather than actual wages, and is keen to learn what they can over a six-month season of growing veg; and I would never want to stop those kind of opportunities existing. I have been offering a trainee assistant grower’s position myself over the last two seasons as I’ve expanded the business, originally lasting April-October (although this year my assistant has stayed on over the winter too), but in return for wages rather than accommodation and pocket money; and I have tried to offer a range of jobs and tasks to offer some useful experience. Now I feel more able to offer a more responsible role starting in 2017 (click here for details), and am looking for someone who already has some skills; the next step in the career path. Some excellent applicants already prove how many people are out there looking for this kind of opportunity.

So while I have no beef with farms and businesses offering semi-volunteer roles and trainee positions, what does concern me however is that these positions seem to be pretty much the only kind of opening available into the industry at the moment. As a business-owner myself, I of course know how tight margins are and how difficult it is to make a living wage for yourself, let alone creating a waged position for someone else – especially as taking on workers is always a gamble in terms of how skilled they actually are and how much they can contribute towards to the business. However I strongly believe that paying a worker a real wage (albeit still lamentably low compared to some industries) is incredibly important too, and a much more sustainable way of running a business; and the difference a good worker can make to your business does pretty much pay for itself in the end. More than anything though, I worry that there are simply no opportunities for the semi-trained and trained growers at the moment: what are these trainees supposed to do after their six months? Go to another farm the following spring and do the same there, and continue in this way for a few years? Not only are they not earning a wage, but they are not experiencing all aspects of running a business in winter, so still ill-prepared for starting their own place or taking a fully skilled head grower role (should such a job ever be advertised!).

It can’t be healthy state of affairs when the only route into an industry is effectively to buy your way in – ie buy some land, buy all the equipment you need, then spend a few years putting your business together and learning the hard way – or by doing six-month stints at farms for very little money, an option only really open to those without ties such as family, rent or mortgages to pay. Again, I’d emphasise that this is a desperately needed way in and gratefully snapped up for many people of the hundreds keen to get into the industry; and many do as I did as an apprentice and make the most of their opportunity and contacts to take their career in agriculture a step further. But if these are the only ways in, how can we not feel embarassed for our industry, shake of the nagging feeling that we are all playing at farming, and then be taken seriously?

A Baker’s Life

dsc_0581 dsc_0237While driving back to the farm the other day in the driving rain, grumpily getting ready to don my waterproofs and face another morning’s picking in the wet, muddy and cold fields, I passed Angie serenely cycling past on her way to deliver bread to Neston Park Farm. Angie & Nathan are my lovely baker neighbours at The Oven, the wholesale bakery at Hartley Farm, baking the most delicious sourdough loaves, sticks, ciabattas and flatbreads, using organic flour, and often with my herbs and some veg involved on the flatbreads too. They deliver to local cafés, restaurants, shops and do Bath Farmers’ Market on a Saturday too – all by bicycle.

dsc_0461Fdsc_0028or those who live in the area, you’ll know that Bath and Winsley are somewhat hilly, and it’s therefore even more amazing that six days a week without fail these guys get up in the middle of the night and bake their loaves, before delivering them by bike in the morning, no matter what the weather or how steep the hills. These breads are therefore the most eco-friendly loaves I know of.

dsc_0779dsc_0010So whenever people tell me what good work I’m doing when I trudge around covered in mud, rainwater streaming from my hair into my eyes, smelling strongly of leeks and covered in various leafy debris, I think of guys at The Oven; and that if they can cycle around in the wind and rain in the dark, I can probably manage to pick a few more kilos of kale in the day.