This 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.
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?
The 7th annual Oxford Real Farming Conference last week at Oxford Town Hall lived up to its now-established reputation as THE farming conference in Oxford, and a more progressive meetings of minds than the ‘one up the road,’ as the Oxford Farming Conference was usually referred to, which concentrated on the idea of Busines As Usual. Rousing opening plenary speeches on the benefits of sustainable agriculture and necessity for us all coming together to share ideas and motivation were delivered by Ruth West and Colin Tudge – who also asked us to think about what work is actually for. Lawrence Woodward then pointed out that the responsibility for a good food and farming system doesn’t just lie with the farmers – it lies with us all as consumers: “Without sustainable citizenship, we won’t have sustainable farming”. I also couldn’t help reflecting on the idea that the old notion of Saving The Planet needed updating – the planet will survive global warming and resource depletions despite us; it’s us, humanity, that won’t (along with probably many other species) – so if we want to survive, especially with anything like a semblance of our current lifestyle, we need to change what we’re doing and/or how we do it now. So we need to appeal to our innate selfishness and survival instinct to convince people.
The Wednesday Sessions: Soil, Jobs, Revolution & Money
Wednesday offered a multitude of tempting sessions, and it was difficult to try and choose just one when six were on the go at once. To start with I plumped for Soil Health Without Breaking the Bank, marvelling at the results of Farmer Jake’s long fodder radish roots from his minimum-tillage system, and how just two or three years of adding composts and manure can have dramatic affect on soil healthy and yields. I decided that the session was preaching to the already converted in my case (and seemed to be aimed at arable farmers) so snuck out and went along to the rest of the Better Jobs for Better Farming session back in the main hall, which included talks from the Soil Association’s Rachel Harries about the Future Growers’ scheme, and Bridget Henderson from Unite. Sustain have thrown down the challenge for a million more jobs in farming, which would be amazing (aiming for a rise from 1-2% people in the UK working in agriculture to more like 10%). The question posed was also what kind of jobs these should be – ie do we have to choose between more lower-paid low-skilled jobs and fewer highly skilled, highly paid jobs in agriculture?
DEFRA figures suggests that pigs and poultry on average are the only types of farms that get most of their income directly from the food they produce; the rest gain most of their income from subsidies and farm diversification (mind you, I’ve never been sent or answered a DEFRA questionnaire: in my case, all income for Grown Green comes from the veg I sell – but since DEFRA now thinks that anything under 5ha is not an ‘active farm’ and can’t possibly earn money, I doubt they would care. I’d like to invite any DEFRA minister to come and work on my 1ha and then decide whether the work is inactive or not). Marcus Potter from LANTRA suggested that we need to professionalise farming if we are to get more and better jobs, and we need to work on our framework of skills in order to get towards our million jobs target. Colin Tudge also explained that in a supermarket, a farmer will typically get only 20% of the supermarket price, and around 50% of that will go towards paying workers.
After a break and then brush-up on cover crops in the next session, it was time for lunch – and the launch of the LWA’s Rural Manifesto. The 46 action points were met with general approval by everyone in the room (especially the idea of a £120,000 cap on CAP subsidies, with the remaining money filtering down to smaller farms), and the manifesto was presented to Kerry McCarthy, and Shadow Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which seemed to go down well – she said in her speech that time in opposition was a chance to be radical and work on such policies. So Ed Hamer pinned her down (not literally) as she left to head back to Parliament, and reiterated that the LWA look forward to working with her on this.
I then made it to the session on the Corruption of Agricultural Science, worrying slightly that it might be an anti-science rant; but fortunately all the speakers (most of them scientists themselves) sensibly pointed out how the majority sources of research funding now (ie big corporations) can skew the research made and also published results, and debated what “being scientific” really means. Jonathan Latham suggested that now is the time of democratisation of science, and Michel Pimbert highlighted the trend of patents and proprietary technologies in many lab’s approach to agricultural science.
For the last session of a packed day I picked Funding Real Farming in the Council Chamber – although the focus of some of the talks was on community projects (and I really hope any such public funding is used to achieve the project’s aims other than food production, eg care farming, rather than to subsidise produce and undercut us independent businesses trying to make a living). However the talk and tips on crowdfunding was great and widely applicable: Michael Norton of the Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action wisely advising us to be realistic, set aside plenty of time to dedicate to the fund-raising project, and to actually ask people you know for money (rather hard for Brits)! Likewise Dave Boyle from the Community Shares Company recommended using the fetishising-ness of ownership to your advantage, to get people to want to own a part of your business or project; especially as the tax relief available to community energy shares will be coming to an end soon, and there is an estimated £1.2 trillion of savings in ISAs earning very little interest currently.
Thursday 7th: Big Estates & Access to Land
The next day had a little more breathing-space and longer breaks in between sessions, which was invaluable for networking and general catch-ups; there was never a dull moment since there were a plethora of stands and a Blackwells book table to browse too, although I spent of my time meeting people around the LWA, Groundspring and OGA stands in the Old Library. In the morning I went along to Strengthening the People’s Markets back in the Council Chamber: slightly out of my usual area, but part of the attraction of the ORFC is turning up to a random session and not knowing what to expect, and learning new things. Andrea Ferrante from NAIB looked at how informal markets are not taken into account when policy-making, depsite accounting for 90% of food transactions; and Georgina McAllister showed the heartening demand for organic produce in Zimbabwe through her project Garden Africa.
The next session in the Council Chamber was possibly the key and highlight of the conference for me: The Big Estates of the Future, with Dame Helen Ghosh, Director-General of the National Trust; Alastair Martin, Secretary of the Duchy of Cornwall; Helen Woolley, Director General of the Country Land and Business Association; and John Varley, Director of Clinton Devon Estates. It was so great to have these speakers addressing the ORFC, since they are perhaps more the type of delegates you’d expect to see at the ‘other place’ up the road, as members of the establishment; yet they were happy to explain why they felt that big estates can address typical industry problems such sustainability, land access, jobs, environment and soil health. It occurred to me that big estates managed well can of course do as good a job as estates managed well and owned by the public; and that land managers and owners will of course want to manage their land well. However the priorities and way of addressing these problems may differ to those of the general population, or even people who work and live on the land – and unlike public land, if we don’t like the way some land is being managed, we can’t simply vote out the owners. Perhaps market forces can act in a similar way to democracy (or that is what many right-wing people will argue); and in the absense of any radical land reform in the short-term, it’s imperative that big estates hear and are involved in debtes such as these issues at the ORFC – particularly land access and opportunities for new entrants, which was my question to the panel.
All the speakers mentioned supporting new entrants, but I was keen to hear some real examples of how this support manifested. (We were allowed to put questions to the panel after some unrest following the chair’s own discussion with the speakers, which some felt rather monopolised the time available.) The fundamental issue here is political systems after all: do we trust the general population to vote in the ‘right’ people, and to have the ‘correct’ priorities? Or should we have benign dictators who agree with our own principles? Many years ago I decided that a free democracy was imperfect, but probably the best political system we have, as at least there is the opportunity to convince other free people of your way of thinking. The National Trust in an interesting case however, as it’s land held for the people, so a type of public land; but managed as private estates – and we can’t vote out those who make decisions there, or have much direct influence. Maybe we should start individually lobbying local National Trust property managers with idea for land access, as if they were our local Land MP.
This session put me in the mood to follow up on access to land issues, so I went along to the launch of the Land For Our Food film at the Access to Land session in the Long Room. Julio, Gavin and Rachel had come out to film me in the summer, and it was great to see the (almost) finished film launch (finished version due in a couple of week so watch this space for public launch news). The film sparked off an animated discussion about access to land, and it was great to see conference celebrity George Monbiot (also interviewed in the film) come up and join us on the panel for questions. When asked if land reform was due and we were ready for it, I suggested that the plethora of CSA projects and interest from new entrants wanting to get back to land suggested that it was due and needed; but wasn’t sure what form it would take, or when it would happen. George pointed out that the land reform happenening in Scotland should be watched closely by England and Wales, and as the only European country not have had it (when the French Revolution happened and French peasants took back the land, the UK put through the Enclosure Act instead), something needs to happen. I can’t help thinking though that as long as we have bread and circuses (ie Nando’s and The X Factor), land reform and access issues won’t be prioritised by policy makers since the bulk of the population is appeased, distracted and ignorant…
I kept to the political theme at the next session on The Role of Local Authorities in Securing Access to Land, which was weirdly a very uplifting and positive session: Bonnie Hewson whizzed us through her excellent work at Bristol Food Producers, which seeks to help the council match-make new entrants to farming and growing to suitable council land. This is an excellent template that can be used for other councils, and help keep their obligations to have county farms, while also earning councils some much-needed income. It was great to see and hear councils such as Oxford also showing interest, and hear from Charles Coats (previously of Gloucestershire County Council and Cardiff City Council, now independent consultant on council farms) that according to Part III of the 1970 Agriculture Act Sec 39, councils “shall make it their general aim to provide opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account by letting holdings to them”; and that councils do want to encourage people to farm council land, but aren’t always able to divert resources into making this happen successfully. Many people on councils are aware for the need for review and tightening of this 46-year-old legislation, and it needs policy desire at a higher level to make this so, and make land access a priority.
Above all the ORFC conference is a heartening experience: sometimes on our own we can get depressed when reform, progress, attention and encouragement in food and farming doesn’t seem to happen, and politicians and the media pay little attention to is, unless it’s to blame it for some hotter political potato such as flooding, obesity or migrant workers. However, meeting up with and seeing the 800+ delegates here reminds you that you don’t have to take on all these issues yourself, and that you’re not alone: many other people are doing excellent work on such matters, getting good and persuasive results, and finding the right people on a policy level to tell. So the message is: keep on doing what you’re doing, fight the good fight, and don’t lose heart.