“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”
Wendell Berry, American Farmer and Activist.
The seeds of stories
A strong theme throughout the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was the need for us in these times to speak from the heart, and to share with each other our personal stories, our realities, and our struggles. Throughout the two day conference on the 4th and 5th January, I recognised my own experience expressed over and over again through the passionate voices and shared stories of others.
Whenever I meet a fellow farmer, be if the first time, or countless times – I feel an immediate curiosity, connection and respect. I feel a shared sense of excitement, and an implicit knowing, seldom expressed through words, that we both love what we do, and take a huge amount of pride and passion in it.
For me, it is in the welcoming of the growing season, marked by the arrival of the swallows over head in spring time and the chattering of the goldfinches in the hedgerows, that I feel I am truly home. It is in the morning sunlight that pierces through a carpet of clover playing in the breeze that I remember to take a moment of gratitude for being able to do what I do. It is in the deep, dense smell of the soil as we harvest that I feel a harmonious resonance with the earth. And It is in the power of seeds and the social stories they carry with them that the true magic of farming comes alive for me.
Holding them in my hands I marvel at their possibility and their strength. Curiously wondering of where and by whom these seeds came from before they reached the propagating table, and where next they will travel to, I often lay them in my palm for just a moment of contemplation, regardless of how much there is to do that day. These are also the times when I am reminded and reflect on the precarity of the future of these seeds and our rights to save and swap them, of our food system and of our livelihoods as farmers here and around the world.
Throughout the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) the need for us in these times to speak from the heart, and to share with each other our personal stories, our realities, our passions, and our struggles. Over the two-day conference on the 4th and 5th January, I recognised my own experience expressed over and over again through the passionate voices and shared stories of others.
These stories of our lived experiences, and the accounts of the resilience and action people are taking here and around the world were shared so strongly by so many at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. And it is in the power of listening to each other’s stories and sharing with each other our lived experience that enables us to have far more than just solidarity with each other. It is a way of connecting that lays common foundations from which to take seriously the need to galvanise the energy and momentum that we all have into building alliances and a strong coordinated food and farming movement together over the coming year.
Happenings at the Old Library
It was a fantastic conference brimming with ideas, knowledge and exchange. There were over fifty-five sessions packed over the two days of the conference. Whilst it was far from possible to attend a fraction of the exciting line up, I found myself repeatedly in the the Old Library in which the Land Workers Alliance had organised ten sessions. For me, it kicked off with a fascinating session on measuring productivity in small farms, research being carried out by Rebecca Laughton of Tamarisk Farm. We learned how small farmers are more productive than large scale farms per hectar and can deliver better environmental outcomes and support more cohesive communities, but aren’t as competitive in the current market.
We heard from Paula Gioiai, a farmer and beekeeper on the European Coordination Committee of La Via Campesina who spoke on a panel on resilient food system, climate change and the UK’s international role. We learned how peasants and indigenous communities around the world are the biggest victims of climate change and suffering the consequences most but also subjects of resistance and the agroecological farming practices are the solution to cooling the planet.
From the European Food Sovereignty movement, we heard how Food Sovereignty is a framework, defined by millions of small scale food producers and recognised at the international level, and that puts control back into the hands of people. And we heard from delegates from who went to the Nyeleni Europe Food Sovereignty gathering in Cluj, Romania in November 2016 about how we can use the framework of Food Sovereignty in our work here in Scotland, Wales and England.
A session was organised on democratic food governance and grassroots policy making where we we heard of the work from Dee Woods, actionist of Granville Community Kitchen and Community Food Growers Network, from my myself in my role as part of coordinating The People’s Food Policy and from Elli Kontorravdis, Policy Officer for Nourish Scotland. We explored how in order to achieve food justice and food democracy the framework of Food Sovereignty and the Right to Food are essential in shifting food governance from a market base approach to a rights based approach.
We heard from Nourish Scotland about the huge successes achieved in developing a Community Empowerment Act, The Land Reform Act and the current development of a Good Food Nation Bill that is being supported by the Scottish Food Coalition. This is inspiring and there is a lot we can learn from this. We also heard from the Scottish Crofters Federation about the work they are doing to train and support new entrant and young crofters through training programs and the emergence of the Young Scottish Crofters Federation.
There was a brilliant session on Farming Outside the CAP organised by young famer Adam Payne and we heard a proposal from the Land Workers Alliance on agricultural policy post Brexit from Simon Fairlie of Monkton Wylde, dairy farmer and cheese maker in Dorset. We also learned about the progressive Norwegian farm subsidy model from Norwegian farmer Stein Brubeck.
The two days rounded up with a had a powerful panel, discussing the true cost of food and social justice in the food system with urban farmers Humphrey Lloyd from Edible Futures and Lynne Davis from Street Goat, George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers Association and geographer Naomi Millner.
Throughout the conference there was an abundance of brilliant practical sessions on all aspects of farming inducing from pasture fed livestock to the importance of microdairies, seed pollination techniques and companion cropping. At the Old Library there was session on different approaches to growing including cultivation techniques, dig or no dig, and soil health improvements with growers Ashley Wheeler, Ian Tolhurst, Niels Corfield and Charles Dowding. There was also a packed room listening in on a discussion on using small scale and DIY technology in agroecological farming in a session on ‘Tech and Tools for a Resilient Food System’. An exciting highlight was the launch of Land Base, the new center for land-based courses, skills and knowledge based at Monkton Wyld Court in West Dorset, supported by the European Agroecology Training Network
What really struck me over the two days was as a whole the majority of these sessions were powerfully led farmer to farmer co-learning in action.
New generation, new ideas?
As the two day conference drew to its conclusion we were posed the question: where do we go from here?
My own story is one of countless stories of young farmers working in both urban and rural settings. We have a story based on a simple vision and a desire we all share: we want to work the land so that people can eat, we want to produce nutritious food and we want people to be able to access it.
At the Nyeleni Food Soveringty Gathering in Cluj, Romanica in October last year, I listened to Elizabeth Mpofu, member of the Zimbabwean Farmers Union ZimSoff and the current chair of La Via Campesina sing a song of which the chorus was ‘no farmers, no food’. It couldn’t be put more straight forward. And as part of a generation of young farmers our profession and our way of life has become almost impossible. Our livelihoods are disappearing. We work for significantly less than minimum wage and have no prospects of ever having basics like access to secure and long term housing or land, or funding and support to run our farms when needed. Our reality as young farmers is a very precarious one.
We are a new generation, we have lots of ideas, but we are an in an entirely hostile climate. And it makes me angry. Angry that we struggle so deeply to produce food, and angry that an estimated over eight million people across Scotland, Wales and England experience food insecurity and struggle to eat even one meal a day.1 And yet, to repeat the phrase used by Patrick from the Scottish Crofters Federation at the conference, ‘we are still here despite’. I’d change this powerful statement slightly to say ‘some of us are still here’ as for many, the struggle and the pressure to keep farming in the past decade has been too great to continue.
But we are still here. Despite the dire straits of our food system. Despite that 33 000 small to medium farms have been closed down or consolidated in the past ten years.2 Despite that 64% of farmers earn less than £10 000 a year.3 Despite that there is hardly any support for new entrant farmers or funding for farmers growing under 5 hectares. Despite that eight supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market.4 Despite that farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets.5 Despite that we have the second highest land concentrations in the world.6
We are still here, and we are getting more organised, more visible and are fighting back. Present at the conference was the Land Workers Alliance and the Scottish Crofters Federation amongst many other grassroots led unions and organisations. And we have strong urban and peri-urban food projects and community organisers across all corners of this island.
But as young farmers we are all facing a huge struggle and a deeply unknown future ahead. We cannot build the alternative we desperately need alone. There are generations of our elders before us who have been and are still farming and we seek their friendship, council and wisdom.
Where do we go from here?
Olivier de Schutter, the former United Nations rapporteur on the Right to Food, was the key note speaker at the conference this year and in the opening plenary he quoted the French writer Victor Hugo saying ‘there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’.
As we prepare to leave the European Union, this year will be the most critical in generations and our successes or failures will be measured in how affectively we manage to organise ourselves and influence policy. All of our economic and agricultural policies that were previously affected by EU law will need to be revisited and rewritten. This is an enormous task and it is imperative we seize this moment to guarantee we see the development of public policies and governance structures that are coherent, complementary and protect our food system and food cultures.
The key message that came out of the Oxford Real Farming Conference is that going forward we need a united, co-ordinated front to maximise our power, and we are only going to achieve this by really uping our cooperation and our ability to work together for focused, concrete outcomes.
To do this we need to
1. Come together to create clearly articulate common positions that we are all supporting and organising around. To do this we need to drastically change the way food governance making happens in this country so that the people most affected and most marginalised by the current food system are at the heart of shaping and changing it. And this process must be intergenerational and intersectional.
2. This is going to take us drastically rethinking the way we do alliance and coalition based change to develop civil society mechanisms for participation.
Those organisations, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academic institutions and think tanks that do have political access and resources need to offer support to the civil society organisations that are representatives of the most affected people like small scale farmers, food workers and people experiencing food insecurity.
3. There is a growing group of people from different civil society organisations, unions and community groups from across the food system that are working on developing the backbone of a People’s Food Policy.7 This process has been emerging over the past year, and if we really begin to collaborate and receive support this is a document we believe we could use as part of developing a Food and Farming Act in the coming years. It has the potential to be powerful but we need to make this bigger and get a lot more people involved. Olivier de Schutter spoke very openly about the time for these processes to emerge. And we’d like to need big organisations support us to develop these policies, sign up to them and get it recognised politically.
Despite some restistance, I believe Food Sovereignty8 is a framework through which we can achieve this. The Land Workers Alliance, as a member of La Via Campesina, supports the principles of Food Sovereignty. The biggest unions of affected people in the world have spent decades coming to a consensus on these principles, and no other governance framework provides such a powerful alternative framework. It has taken over twenty years of work, advocacy and campaigning for this framework and its foundations to have the momentum, traction and recognition it now has at national and international levels by institutions such as the Food and Agricultural Organize (FAO) as a viable alternative framework alternative to food security. We can use the frameworks of Food Sovereignty here a foundation and set of principles through which we can look at how to democratize the governance of our food system by taking a rights based approach to food policy making and putting those that produce and eat at the heart of it.
This is going to be hard, it’s going to be uncomfortable and it’s going to be challenging, but we have no other choice and no other option but to unify ourselves, strategies together and take strong action together so that we have the power to save our food system. A food system which is the beating heart of our cultures, our histories, our earth, our communities and our future generations.
John Meadley of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association reflected in the closing plenary on the depth and power of experiential knowing and learning in farming communities across England, Wales and Scotland. He expressed this through sharing the Quaker sentiment ‘this I know experientially, this I know from experience’.
I went away from the Oxford Real Farming Conference inspired by the trust that this experiential knowing from our lived experiences and what it evokes in us all will give power to our actions and our message in the coming year. And it through this knowing that we strengthen our support and solidarity with each other as a food and farming movement that is more than just sowing the seeds of resistance, but in our everyday actions already producing the solution we need – a food system based on agroecology, food sovereignty and social justice.9
The author is Dee Butterly, a young farmer working the land in West Dorset, member of the Land Workers Alliance and part of the steering group of the People’s Food Policy (peoplesfoodpolicy.org)
1 Taylor A and Loopstra R. (2016) Too poor to eat? Food insecurity in the UK. London. The Food Foundation
2 Agriculture in the UK 2015 (pg 13) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/557993/AUK-2015-05oct16.pdf
3 Agriculture in the UK 2015 (pgs 19 – 22) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/557993/AUK-2015-05oct16.pdf
4 The Institute of Grocery Distribution
5 People Need Nature (2017), A Pebble in the Pond: available at
6 Kevin Cahill (2002) Who Owns Britain and Ireland
8 Nyeleni Europe: The Principles of Food Sovereignty
9 Olivier de Schutter and Emile Frison, Modern Agriculture Cultivates Climate Change – we must nurture biodiversity. The Guardian (09.01.2017) https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/09/modern-agriculture-cultivates-climate-change-nurture-biodiversity-olivier-de-schutter-emile-frison