The Future Growers‘ annual field trip in now an established summer favourite; a chance to bring together the year’s intake of Future Grower trainees and apprentices, and this year we also opened the weekend out to offer places for anyone interested in coming along and taking part. As well as our six trainees, we also welcomed 12 other new entrants and people thinking about embarking on their food and growing journey.
We met at West Town Farm in Ide on Friday evening, an organic beef and education farm run by Andy Bragg just outside Exeter; and enjoyed a hearty bean and squash stew after setting up camp. A meteor show above the camp fire was met with oohs and aahs, before turning in for a busy day ahead.
Saturday kicked off bright and early after breakfast by heading to Riverford’s Field Kitchen at Buckfastleigh, to meet head gardener Penny Hemming. Penny has been friends with Guy Watson for many years, and now runs the field kitchen garden next to the restaurant, partly as a PR and educational facility, and partly as a resource for the kitchen chefs to come out and pick the produce (chefs that have to pick their own produce – amazing!). As well as a large polytunnel, there are a number of flower and veg beds on around an acre, produce food, herbs and flowers for the kitchen. Penny also took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the rest of Wash Farm (where Riverford was started 23 years ago by Guy and his family); including the new-ish three-acre (!!) polytunnels housing tomatoes (mostly Sakura), cucumbers and a few spring onions; the salad fields, where each very long bed is thickly sown with a 20-hole drill of each variety of salad leaf (red frills, baby pak choi, mizuna, chard and so on), then the bespoke salad cutter on tracks goes along and mows off the leaves, gently sending them backwards where pickers await with their crates.
After seeing the vast fields of veg, we then headed to the amazing Field Kitchen for an awesome lunch, and Guy also joined us for the meal. He was very interested in talking to new entrants, and sounded out their thoughts on working as part of a larger co-op, growing just a few types of crop, rather than necessarily starting a small veg box or market garden growing everything. Wash Farm itself is a part of a 12-member co-op, with each farm being responsible for different crops. Most of our group preferred the idea of growing a number of varieties rather than just one or two; not least because of rotation worries, spreading the risk of pest or disease attack, and keeping life interesting.
Just about able to move, we then headed 30 minutes away to School Farm CSA on the Dartington Estate, to meet co-grower Jenny Gellatly who took us on a short tour of the four-acre plot there. A group of four growers took over the running of the project in 2012, and started off with just over an acre of no-dig beds, plus some inherited glasshouses; now they have expanded and taken on more land, but have separated out roles in order to make the project work. After some frank discussions about wages and livelihoods (an emerging theme from the weekend), Jenny explained how she and the other core growers and members now have a box scheme on the site, as well as a floristry business, and regular education modules run here from nearby colleges, which all help with income streams.
After a quick tea break, we all joined in a quick ‘weed swap’ weeding party, and quickly denuded a couple of beds from the seeding sow thistle from brought-in manure. Then it was back in our cars and we headed to the gorgeous River Dart for a welcome icy swim in the sunshine (not before being halted in our tracks by an escaped bull), then back to West Farm for a barbecue, and talk from Andy Bragg about the farm and challenges he’s faced over the years.
We got up early so we could squeeze in a quick tour of West Town farm before heading out after breakfast for Chagfood in Chagford, a six-acre market garden on two sites in the Dartmoor hills. Head grower Ed Hamer explained that Chagfood started in 2009 after a community meeting showed that the area needed fresh local and affordable food; now the garden makes up around 80 boxes a week, and members collect either from the farm or from another members’ house. They don’t buy-in produce so only produce boxes from around July to March (winter boxes can be a challenge too when it comes to variety, but summer boxes are very full), and fees are paid yearly or monthly. They have an AGM each year which all members are invited to – and have to collect their boxes from the AGM that week, which encourages high attendance rates!
Much work has been done using horse-power here, but last year one horse passed away so the growers (Ed, Nicky, a seasonal intern and some regular volunteers) also use a small tractor to prepare the ground. Ed recommends clear-felling crops as they need to be harvested, rather than selecting larger eg beetroot then coming back for the smaller ones later, since this way a whole bed can be cleared quicker, allowing another crop to go in. Volunteer days are held every Thursday, and some volunteers will take home a box of food rather than paying to be a member, which helps keeps Chagfood affordable and accessible by all.
After a short drive to Shillingford we all enjoyed a tasty lunch out in the shade of some trees at Martyn Bragg’s farm (brother of Andy), and host to a Future Growers’ trainee. Martyn currently grows veg on around 35 acres, but is keen to explore ways of making veg growing more productive on a smaller scale too. We checked out his machinery first (all loved the old-school tractor with room for lots of implements in front of the cab as well as at the back; and also looked at the neat veg box packing station, and special salad packing area. Shillingford also do Exeter market, and some wholesale to health food shops.
Then it was out into the sun and the fields, to check out the polytunnels and field-scale veg; it was great to see another size of growing project, between Riverford and the smaller School Farm and Chagfood. Martyn also showed us the piles of manure (from some of Andy’s cattle that are kept at Shillingford), which when well rotted his uses to make a mature liquid feed for transplant before planting out.
We met back under the trees again for a quick cuppa, before breaking the group up and saying our goodbyes. This weekend certainly felt like one of the most successful that we’ve held, with interesting discussions going on in all quarters, and plans set in motion. Thanks to all the participants, and particularly all our hosts.
A new guide on how to host trainees on your farm has just been launched: Future Farmers II is available to download now. A joint effort by the OGA, Groundspring and Sustain, plus lots of valuable input from the Soil Association, Biodynamic Association and many other knowledgeable individuals, the guide will help signpost new entrants into what kind of work experience, traineeship (paid or unpaid), apprenticeship or paid job they should be looking for; but it is mostly aimed at helping potential host farms and holdings work out what kind of opportunity they could and should create on their farm, to best suit their circumstances.
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.