Real Farming Conference Offers Alternative Solutions

Now in its sixth year, the Oxford Real Farming Conference has become a fixture of the UK's agricultural calendar, reports Sarah Hulbert.
calendar icon 21 January 2015
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Growing from a small but dedicated group which originally filled a church hall, this year’s conference attracted 650 delegates representing all strands of UK and global agriculture.

Sarah Hulbert, Commissioning Editor 

The Oxford Real Farming Conference provides an alternative to the more established Oxford Farming Conference, and continues to challenge the thinking of conventional agriculture, providing a forum for provocative questions, free thinking discussions and presentations offering new perspectives.

Eight Indicators for Decline or Improvement

The overall feeling from the conference is that it asks important questions about the big picture, taking into account the long term view, all the while focusing on the local producer.

Stephen Devlin, economist from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) set the scene well by describing how the system we have disengages the public from what the reality is, that we need to think about the economy more widely rather than just the food system’s place within it and we need to get away from a situation where the consumer is sovereign.

Colin Tudge, co-founder of the conference, put forward his ideas for ‘economic democracy’ comprising social enterprise – the need to do good for society; community ownership; positive investment – investing in ethical programmes; and a biocentric economy with reduced waste and a focus on reusables.

The NEF presented insightful views and thought-provoking ideas in their well-attended talk. Based on their ‘Urgent Recall’ report, Aniol Esteban, head of Environmental Services, explained how the current system of constant growth is unsustainable and that we should learn to view the planet as the ultimate input and human well-being as the ultimate output, prompting a sea change in our way of thinking, proposing a mixture of radical and incremental change.

Stephen Devlin asserted that our food system is "defective – unsustainable, unfair and unhealthy" and that we need to ask ourselves what is our food system for? The aims of the system we have been living with have been to increase output, to reduce prices and make food affordable and increase health. None of these aims, he said, has been achieved.

Based on their report, the NEF has created a fundamental framework to act as a roadmap for future agricultural policy based on stewardship (environmental impact, productivity and energy use); well-being (culture & health, genetic and species diversity) and social justice (supply chain complexity, ownership & control, employment, and affordability).

As indicators of success in these areas, the NEF proposes the following eight indicators, providing evidence of how each of these indicators has so far not been met, or shown active decline and deterioration:

  1. Environmental impact: Biodiversity in many species has declined, one measure presented was the significant decline in the diversity of wild birds since the 1970s, with farmland birds in particular showing a significant fall in numbers.
  2. Productivity and energy usage: The NEF report has found that the ratio in the UK farming system of energy invested to energy output in terms of calories inputted (fuel, heat etc.) and calories consumed (human calorific consumption) is 8:1. An astonishing and unsustainable figure, which left many attendees at the conference talking about it afterwards, and the key fact that many took home from the conference. Mr Devlin gave the example of a Bavarian farm, which had reduced its inputs to zero by using manure, solar panels, anaerobic digestion and other methods to farm responsibly.
  3. Genetic species diversity: There has been little change over time in the UK in terms of crop diversity.
  4. Employment: While UK agriculture employs around 11 per cent of the workforce, many of these jobs are in low-paid roles, below the UK average wage, providing employment which is not responsible and positive employment.
  5. Supply chain complexity: Supply chains have become increasingly complex, with more long distance travel and more opportunities for fraud. This greater complexity has reduced the farmer’s share of the profits.
  6. Ownership & control: Land ownership and access to land is an issue in the UK with 0.25 per cent of the UK population owning agricultural land.
  7. Culture & health: It is difficult to measure the relationship between food farming and national well-being, but a fascinating graph showing how the time of day people sit down to eat meals has changed over time is an interesting indicator. From 1961, when there was a clear national trend to eat three meals a day at breakfast, lunch and dinner times to the situation today where people graze throughout the day.
  8. Affordability and financial sustainability: Ending on a more positive note the NEF asked can people afford to eat? The answer for the UK is largely yes, with an average of eight per cent household expenditure spend on food, with only Luxembourg spending less in the rest of Europe.

The conclusion of the NEF report is that systemic fundamental change is required. The NEF has begun the process by looking at what the situation is, and the next step is to begin considering how change should be implemented.

Under the ‘Nuts and bolts’ strand, Tim Crabtree from Schumacher College provided fascinating examples of innovative ways of raising funds in agriculture and novel small-scale enterprises.
As a model of diversification, he described Trill Farm in Devon, which produces unique value-added products such as soap, wool blankets, a seasonal box of products including more than just vegetables and even organises a festival.

The Handmade Bakery in Yorkshire has raised funds by loanstock, with investors paid back by ‘breadstock’ or ‘coursestock.’ The Kindling Trust operates along an ‘associative economics’ model of people working together, with a unique co-operative approach with buyers and growers collectively deciding what should be grown. The Biodynamic Land Trust in Stroud is providing a vehicle for community involvement in agriculture by providing a collective for the crowd-funded purchase of agricultural land. Finally, Helen Steer from City Farmers talked about Brixton Beer, a financially self-sufficient urban project where beer is grown, harvested, brewed and drunk by the programme’s participants, showing how this model of micro enterprise can work as a business model and a movement for social well-being.

Representing the Soil Association, Dr Tom MacMillan’s talk showed how field laboratories provide a cheap and reliable way to find useful results in a farm setting. The laboratories are practical, literally in-the-field activities overseen by a Soil Association facilitator, which not only find useful results to problems like black-grass control but also teach the participants useful skills and information such as weed management and the reduction of antibiotic use. This kind of farmer-led research, where farmers are in the driving seat is a major component of the Soil Association’s future activities.

Talking about her low-input farm in East Anglia, Joanne Mudhar from The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm explained her model of Community Supported Agriculture. At Oak Tree, the local community is able to come and work on the farm, and the farm provides a diverse product range. Ms Mudhar talked about the farm’s use of technologies and gadgets to enable her to monitor the farm remotely, allowing the family to live off-site but still supervise animal activity, watching out for fences in high winds and using temperature sensors for hatching goslings. The Oak Tree blog describing the use of technologies on the farm can be accessed here.

Soil compaction can be reduced by harnessing draught animals. 

The discussion of tools and technologies on the farm was a major theme at the conference, with Mike Donovan from 'Practical Farm Ideas' magazine showing useful and innovative mechanical solutions farmers have found to common farm problems such as shifting tyres. Jerôme Keller, a smallholder from the Limosin region of France talked about the various types of machinery available to farmers using animal traction only, such as the kassine and the spring harrow which reduce soil compaction and allow for greater self sufficiency. PROMMATA is the French organisation promoting animal-traction agriculture. Information and videos can be accessed on its web site. In the US, Farmhack an open source website set up by Greenhorns provides a community for people to share ideas for constructing handmade farm implements and machinery. The Farmhack movement is coming to the UK, with the first event planned for 18 to 19 April 2015 at Ruskin Mill in Gloucestershire.

On day two, Andy Goldring from the Permaculture Association explained how he wants to expand the citizen science participation within the association, which is launching the Permaculture International Research Network to encourage people to do their own research and share it with others. The idea is to critically investigate what is going on on the farmer’s own farm in terms of factors like soil and biodiversity and report it to the wider network, without having to send samples to labs and publish papers.

Hannah Thoroughgood a permaculture practitioner and lecturer explained the three central ethics of permaculture – Earthcare – a responsibility to the soil and carbon usage; Peoplecare – engaging with the local community, co-operating and looking after each other; and Fairshare – sharing produce and education. She expanded on practical indicators for measuring success on the farm, including conducting bird surveys to measure biodiversity, mole counts, taking photos over time as evidence, keeping track of stocking rates and fossil fuel usage compared to usage of other energy sources and monitoring social media ‘likes.’

Reporting on the EU-funded Foodmetres project, Dr Moya Kneafsey and Dr Ulrich Schmutz from Coventry University examined the importance of short food chains in the future, with direct to consumer chains such as farmers’ markets and box schemes being the shortest and arguably most desirable. The Coventry team speculated on what a future of short food chain agriculture might look like, presenting various options such as agroparks – intensive farming operations in urban areas, where all stages of the farming lifecycle happen in one concentrated place.

Another option could be green parks in the city, or ‘growing communities’ – bringing together existing networks of growers. The European Innovation Partnership (EIP) is conducting research into what this picture could look like and will be publishing research shortly.

Livestock make up 65 per cent of earth's landmass population, said Professor Mark Eisler

Professor Mark Eisler from the University of Bristol referenced Sir John Beddington’s ‘perfect storm’ of global issues of food security, climate change, population growth and increasing demand for energy and water in his talk on ‘livestock’s long shadow’.

Professor Eisler presented incontrovertible proof of his claim that we are reaching a point in the 20th century where a large percentage of the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystem will be impacted by animal agriculture. Our farming system has produced a state of affairs where the Earth’s landmass supports a population comprised of 32 per cent human, 65 per cent livestock and only 3 per cent wild animals, creating a major problem of biodiversity.

Professor Eisler presented beef farming in particular as a wasteful use of resources, using Gidon Eshel’s figures of beef production requiring 28,11,5 and six times more land, irrigation, water, green houses gases and reactive nitrogen than other forms of livestock farming.

Looking at solutions to this problem, Professor Eisler considered options such as land sharing or land sparing and sustainable intensification, though proposed that this could be seen as a way to increase profit margins while ticking the sustainability box. Professor Eisler concluded that practical steps to sustainable livestock production include feeding animals less human food (grains), rearing regionally appropriate animals, healthier herds, the use of smart supplements and for people to eat quality not quantity.

Another major issue facing UK agriculture identified by Professor Eisler includes the amount of food wasted in the UK each year – 4.2 million tonnes, with 420,000 tonnes of avoidable dairy and egg waste in 2012 at a cost of £780 million, with milk the third most wasted foodstuff – representing just how much milk is now seen by consumers as a ‘throwaway product’.

Professor Eisler condemned the reliance on the Holstein breed in British farming, which represents 93 per cent of the national herd. The problems the breed exhibits, he said, with digestive disorders, metabolic disease, mastitis, infertility and lameness show how unsuitable they are for a grain-based diet. Exporting a Holstein-based system to African and Asian countries is a mistake, he concluded, due to their unsuitability for the conditions.

The overwhelming feeling from the conference is that farmers are acutely aware of the current challenges in UK and global agriculture and care passionately about meeting these challenges responsibly, with an inclusive, aware and long-term approach.

Sarah Hulbert is Senior Commissioning Editor for 5m Publishing.

January 2015

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