People at a farmers market

The future of farming will depend on what the public asks for

This article was first published in the Cambrian News 

When NFU Cymru Livestock Board chairman Wyn Evans was growing up, his grandparents’ upland farm near Aberystwyth was a model of self-sufficiency. They grew grain, hay and green fodder for their animals, just buying in a little extra feed for a milking herd of 20-25 cows, and sent their small flock of sheep up the hill to graze in the summer. The land supported four people working full-time on a wide variety of tasks and produced milk, beef, lamb and potatoes for local consumption.  farmer in barn with sheep

It’s a way of farming that has vanished. Speaking at February’s Let’s Talk About Food event in Aberystwyth, Wyn described how he and his wife combined that farm with other land they bought and now keep sheep and beef cattle on 230 acres, sending lambs to the abattoir in Llanidloes and on to Sainsbury’s, while the calves go to other farmers for fattening. He employs only a little part-time labour.

“The main change has been the grip of the retailers,” he explains. “We love to do our shopping in one place, and so we go to supermarkets. But that way, beef and sheep farmers get on average less than the cost of production, and depend on subsidies.” With Brexit, Welsh farming is at a crossroads: it will either move to very large-scale farming to stay competitive, or with government support, strong domestic sales and access to the EU market, family farms might stay in business.

All this might be seen as simply a problem for farmers to sort out, but the public are involved too. The countryside, its wildlife, its soils, its amenities and of course its capacity to produce food are of concern to all of us. Now is a crucial time for food producers and the public to come together and ask what food system we want to see, and that was the bigger question at February’s event, organized by the Aberystwyth Food Forum with support from Ceredigion Council’s Cynnal y Cardi programme.

Looking for local alternatives

The Forum was set up last year to see how everything to do with food in our area can be developed and celebrated for the good of all. Members include Aber Food Surplus, who redistribute supermarket surplus to charities, and Penglais Community Garden, and it holds regular Pay-As-You-Feel meals in cafes and community centres in town, bringing people together for discussion.

We want to ask questions about where our food comes from. The supermarkets are not the only show in town. The Treehouse buys direct from many local organic and low-input producers, selling vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy in its shop and café, and there are several excellent family butchers selling local meat. The twice-monthly farmers’ market is thriving, and many eateries boast local produce on their menus.

Perhaps Brexit is an opportunity. “I would support any outlet for agricultural produce,” said Wyn. “Let’s educate people – they don’t have to go to the supermarkets. There are other choices.”

chefs serving soup

Bringing Aberystwyth around the table

This article originally appeared in Aberystwyth’s Ego magazine

A large glass jar is crabottles of sauerkrautmmed with chopped white cabbage, carrots and apple, mixed with some salt. As each layer goes in, it’s bashed with a wooden pestle. Finally the jar is full and the vegetables are pushed down under the brine that’s naturally formed, and set aside to pickle over the next few weeks.

We’re here to learn the art of making sauerkraut, from fermentation expert and food writer Annie Levy, who’s come over from Llanidloes for the evening. The demonstration over, we sit down to dinner. There are about 25 of us gathered in St Paul’s Methodist Centre enjoying a selection of curries and we’re part of a Pay As You Feel pop-up community café, making new friends over food and developing plans to change the food culture of Aberystwyth.

For the Aberystwyth Food Forum, food isn’t about fine dining so much as bringing a community together through food. Some of the vegetables in the meal have been supplied by AberFoodSurplus who collect waste food from local supermarkets. So far, they have set up links between Morrisons and local charities including the Wallich, the Salvation Army, and the Care Society. They have also provided food for educational events that have aimed to raise awareness about food waste, including one at the university.

The group has plans to do much more, so that all the food that supermarkets reject – perfectly good to eat, but needing to be used promptly – goes to a good home. They want to engage with more retailers and charities and have had interest from several other businesses in town. To do this, they are seeking premises to cope with the large volumes of food available, and maintain health and safety standards.

The Forum also wants to involve more people in growing food, whether in community gardens, on allotments or at home, and to work with schools, the university, local farms, cafes and others to bring people together over healthy food that invigorates the local economy and builds social links.

You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/aberfoodforum and on Twitter.

The future of farm subsidies: what really matters to farmers?

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, farmers are understandably concerned about the future of agricultural support, and the big decisions that need to be made. The payments that currently come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – without which many farms, especially small ones, would be unable to carry on – will then end, and UK national governments will have to decide whether, and how, to continue them. This means a new rationale – how much and in what ways should taxpayers support agriculture and the countryside in the future?

This most contentious of policy areas, farm subsidies – tarnished by past associations with butter mountains and barley barons, set-aside, ripped-up hedgerows, and then reinstated hedgerows, and the current problems of plunging biodiversity and increasing food insecurity – is open for discussion like never before. So often we see a power struggle conducted in an atmosphere of fear and blame, where positions become increasingly polarised. But maybe now is a good time to try another approach. Behind the rhetoric, what is it that really matters to farmers?

This past summer, as part of a wider project to investigate the values that shape our food system, I was part of a team led by Bangor University that interviewed half a dozen farmers at the Royal Welsh Show. The result, while hardly constituting the last word on farmer attitudes, nevertheless revealed some core sentiments that provide a new starting point for discussion.

It was clear, for a start, that being a food producer was a very important part of how farmers saw themselves. “Farmers don’t feel appreciated by general society,” one of them said. “People take food for granted and seem to think we’re just subsidy junkies.” Another one added, “If we could have a fair price for our produce, we wouldn’t need government handouts.” Some remembered the lesson of World War II when the UK’s dependence on food imports became a threat to national security, and farmers were called upon to join in the national effort to increase food production.

Producing food, however, appeared to mean much more than having a commodity for sale. It was about contributing to society by feeding people. It was also about supporting rural communities by generating employment for contractors, abattoirs and the like, and spending their money in local towns on market day – or at least, that’s how it used to be. They also talked about skills, taking pride in traditional craftsmanship and being ready to learn new things. And it was about keeping the land in good heart, conscious of inheriting it from previous generations and passing it on to the next.

Behind all that lay a sense that in farming, we face one of the mysteries of life: how food is conjured from the soil, in an alliance with the natural world – with all its challenges of weather, pests and diseases – to support the human race in its most basic need. Farmers are at a crucial intersection between human demand and the integrity of the biosphere on which we are absolutely dependent.

“I’d love to have one of those people from government spend a few weeks in the countryside seeing what farmers do,” one of them said, and it wasn’t with any sense of vindictiveness. He was trying to convey that farming is not reducible to its economic outputs alone, but is rather a complete way of life. Food production, nature conservation, and a beautiful countryside that sustains a thriving rural economy are part of a whole, which has great meaning and is for many farmers their life’s work.

That is perhaps the sentiment that lay behind the negative response from the farming unions to a proposal from the National Trust last summer, which suggested that public payments to farmers should be entirely linked to their stewardship of wildlife, soil and water. The problem with this way of thinking is that it breaks the fundamental unity between food production and nature. While it treats environmental benefits as a public good to be funded by the taxpayer, food production becomes a private business decision to be weighed up on the basis of its profitability alone. Whether a farmer uses their best land to raise lambs for the export market, to grow potatoes for the local town or to host holiday-makers in luxury yurts, by this logic, is entirely up to them.

Of course, good environmental practice is essential, and we depend on the biodiversity which farming can maintain, from soil bacteria to birds of prey, from wildflower meadows to oak woodlands. There is no doubt that any support for farming must make conservation an essential requirement. But it is so much more than that. To state the obvious, we cannot live without food. Attempting to separate out food production from wildlife conservation using that most powerful tool of social engineering – money – sets the champions of food production against the supporters of conservation in an entirely unhelpful battle, which neither side can or should win.

What if we moved beyond a trade-off between wildlife and food production, and looked at the whole system? What if we decided food production was too important to be left to the market and invested in growing more food in the UK, perhaps bringing it back to the 87% self-sufficiency it reached at its post-war peak?

What if public understanding of the countryside was also seen as vital? What if we recognised the role of farming in preserving some of our deepest cultural roots – here in Wales for instance keeping Welsh, one of Europe’s oldest languages, in current use along with a rich tradition of skills and customs? Indigenous livestock breeds, traditional crops such as black oats, mixed farming, the transhumance system of ‘hafod a hendre’, water-powered milling, the informal exchange of labour and community solidarity – all these are, or were, part of the life of the countryside and enabled a better relationship between food production and the biosphere. They represent a technology of survival that may not quite be ready for relegation to the museum. Even now when farming has been driven by economic and social forces into an activity that is often environmentally destructive, much wisdom remains and we need that continuity with a past that was as low-carbon as we need our future to be.

It is heartening that nature conservation organisations are increasingly taking their message beyond the easy and photogenic appeal to save butterflies, birds and wildflowers, and are talking about farming itself. The National Trust and the RSPB, for example, are both talking about the food they serve at their visitor centres, drawing attention to local produce farmed in nature-friendly ways, increasingly with the Food for Life Catering Mark accreditation. They are pressing home the message that wildlife depends on good farming practices, and on the public paying a bit more.

The creation of a healthy food system fit for future generations needs the wisdom of everyone, and is not helped by confrontation across tribal lines. We are all on the same side here. Farmers deserve a proper hearing, not because they are any more important than anyone else, but because they stand at the start of the food chain, and that gives them a perspective that others miss. As one of our interviewees said, “If we are to succeed together in the countryside we all need to understand each other better – town and country”. It has never been so important to listen to each other.

You can view the video and find out more about our Food Values project here.

When farmers meet the public

For anyone with a tender conscience, deciding what to eat is a daily dilemma. Fairtrade bananas or local apples? Local red meat or imported soya? What about organic and how bad is a ready meal? A conference on ‘What Shall We Eat?’ organized by Powys Transition and Low Carbon Communities this October was always going to be lively, and one of the best things about it was a chance to hear from two farmers.farmer-and-public

The first was Patrick Holden who has farmed organically near Lampeter for over 40 years, admittedly part-time, alongside stints as Director of the Soil Association and now Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. His dairy farm was one of the first to be organically certified in Wales, and it produces Hafod cheese from cows fed on pasture as well as homegrown barley and oats, with a sideline in carrots, all grown with minimal external inputs. Holden has made a career out of pondering the future of farming and he put forward a vision which runs roughly like this.

Soil fertility is best maintained by mixed farming – more arable crops and horticulture in Wales and more livestock in East Anglia – and crop rotation, where fertility is alternately built up with grass and clover, and extracted by cereals and vegetables. That means that about half a farm will be under grass at any one time, and in order to make the best use of that pasture and cycle nutrients efficiently, you need sheep and cows. Human diets, meanwhile, should be aligned with the farming systems around them, which in the UK would mean eating more red meat, for which there is some support from nutritionists.

The other farmer was Mark Williams, FUW county chairman for Montgomeryshire, who produces beef and sheep from the upland farm where he lives with his young family. Unlike Holden, who came to Wales in search of a new way of living on the land, he grew up on a Welsh hill farm and followed a direct route into the industry, adopting the standard practices of conventional farming. Fields are cleared with the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, and grass is given a boost with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. He takes advantage of the knowledge exchange opportunities provided by Farming Connect and is enthusiastic about technical advances such as the improved ryegrasses bred at IBERS and the use of drones to monitor crops and livestock.

So, two rather different perspectives on farming, and I think it is safe to say that the audience, most of them inspired by the idea of Transition, that is, a move towards a society that is less dependent on fossil fuels and makes better use of human knowledge and cooperation, were more receptive to Holden’s views. They were unhappy about the use of glyphosate, now suspected of carcinogenic properties, and more generally what many saw as an uncritical acceptance of the agricultural establishment with its links to big business. The panel debate at the end of the day received many questions along the lines of “how can we get conventional farmers to see the light?”

It is easy to focus on the differences between these two ways of talking about farming, picking over the pros and cons, and deciding which we want to support. No doubt some of those present found it a straightforward choice and went home satisfied. I think though that many enjoyed the rare chance of a conversation across the ideological divide, responding positively to one conventional farmer’s willingness to face an audience whose starting point was that there is a problem with modern farming, and to do so with good grace, meeting some provocative questions (notably on badgers and TB) with a genuine attempt at explanation based on personal experience. There was an aliveness to the discussion which seemed to touch many of the delegates and lead them to reflect more deeply on their own principles.

Rather than dwell on the differences between the two approaches, then – and of course there are farmers who wouldn’t agree with either of them – let’s look at what they had in common. Both are committed to farming livestock in a climate where red meat is under attack from many quarters: its carbon footprint, its links with heart disease and a moral objection to killing animals reflected in the growing trend towards vegetarianism and veganism. Williams may have rejected organic farming on the grounds that it could not feed the world and led to expensive food, but he spoke up for crop rotation and the need to cut down on synthetic fertilizer. He took nature conservation as a given, had reservations about corporate control of GM crops and was concerned about animal welfare standards.

Ultimately, both were standing for the importance of food production in a world of cheap food. Patrick Holden made this explicit with his observation that his vision of a localized food system based on mixed farming and minimal inputs cannot happen unless the public is willing to change its diet and pay more for food. Mark Williams had less to say about the role of public education, but his very presence in the room was testament to how important he presumably feels it to be. Both of them know that general ignorance of how food is produced leads to trouble for farmers, whether it’s unwillingness to support higher standards of animal welfare or a rejection of the local farming system altogether.

This is surely what really matters: that farmers and the public engage with each other, not just to talk about farming methods but also to find common ground through shared values. Once that basic relationship between the producers and the eaters of food is established, and it calls for openness, empathy and respect on both sides, then there is a chance that food production, land use and nutrition will naturally come into alignment.

The Food Values video on what farmers care about is  available here.

It’s our food system which is in poverty, not individuals

According to research at Bangor University, the number of food banks in Wales increased from 16 in 1998 to 157 in July 2015, apparently as a result of welfare reform and austerity policies. For a generation accustomed to the notion that starvation is something that happens in places like Africa, it is hard to believe that people in this country are going to bed hungry, so perhaps it is not surprising that food poverty generates an emotional response and a refusal to believe it even exists.

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

At an event I attended a while back, one woman spoke out forcefully. “People who go on about food poverty these days don’t know what they’re talking about! Real poverty was back in the 1930s, when people were really destitute. They never threw anything away then and they really knew how to cook with leftovers. Nowadays we just waste food. I’ve delivered food parcels to so-called poor people and I’ve seen their houses – they’ve got televisions and they eat takeaways. They just need to learn to cook from basics and there wouldn’t be a problem.”

There was an uneasy silence around the room. Her dismissive attitude was painful to those of us who have heard some of the stories of poverty in modern Britain, as the all-party report Feeding Britain made clear. We didn’t want to leave her assertion unchallenged, but how to respond respectfully? We didn’t find a way at the time, and we moved rather swiftly on, but I think her point deserves proper consideration.

I think she was speaking up for values and skills which have been lost. In the 1930s – or perhaps in her idealized version of it, it doesn’t matter – Britain was still a relatively traditional society with a much closer link to food production than we have today. Food took up a high proportion of people’s income, and so you didn’t waste it. You kept the bones from your chicken (which you hardly ever bought anyway, because it was so expensive) and made soup. You bought actual potatoes and boiled them, and fried them the next day.

I think she was speaking up for thrift and resourcefulness, for a world in which food is valued and shared, keeping families and communities together, and she was regretting the rise of consumerism and the fragmentation of our society that has accompanied it: the TV dinner, the ready meal, the over-packaged buy-one-get-one-free baubles that we are sold instead of nourishment.

Who could disagree with that? There is of course something wrong when people choose consumer goods over nourishing food, in the obvious sense that good nutrition will make you happier for longer than a flatscreen TV will.  And basic cookery skills could help many to improve their diets. The trouble with her remark I think was not that she was wrong in her starting point, but that she didn’t take her argument nearly far enough. She was content to pass the blame on to the nearest convenient suspect and leave it there.

Instead of shouting her down, maybe we could have honoured the values that she was speaking up for and explored them further. We could have agreed that we waste too much food nowadays, with an estimated 30-50% of all the food that is grown being thrown away – whether left in the fields, or discarded by the supermarket, or left in the backs of our fridges to go off. We could have agreed that growing your food and cooking from scratch is a great way to eat healthily and lamented that so many people have not had these experiences and have only ever known processed food.

We might also have agreed that as a society we have become ensnared in consumerism. We are likely to find our sense of belonging not in sitting round the table sharing a meal, but in having a smartphone like our friends, or the right trainers, or the right car. We have let the advertisers tell us that we need a steady supply of shiny new gadgets to make us happy, and to sell us food in the basis of its attractiveness, convenience and addictiveness, not its nutritional quality.

We could have agreed that food is in fact essential to life, and that it deserves a higher priority. We might have found more examples of this: the rushed lunch hour in schools and offices, the children who don’t know that milk comes from a cow, the scandals of horsemeat and BSE, the pesticide scares, childhood obesity, the high levels of sugar and salt in processed food, the bankrupting of dairy farmers and the fate of the battery chicken.

There wasn’t time to explore all this in the meeting but I think if we had, we would have seen that our whole society is out of alignment. We have put economic growth, status and immediate gratification ahead of feeding ourselves properly, and it is inevitably the poorest who are going to be affected most, simply because they always are. Maybe they don’t have cooking facilities at home, maybe they can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the local shops, maybe they’re disabled or very old, or maybe they have such pressures on them that healthy eating, however important, falls down the list.

And then we would have got to the nub of the matter: singling out the poorest in our society for criticism of their eating habits not only misses the point but unfairly adds insult to injury, blaming the weakest and letting ourselves off the hook. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is one of the most basic civic duties there is, and it falls to each of us to ask ourselves what we can do to create a healthier society, where everyone has a place at the table, and food is grown in a way that doesn’t deplete our soils and warm up our climate.

I think now my answer would be: “You have raised a very important point, although I see it differently from you. There is indeed something wrong when people rely on emergency food aid. It shouldn’t happen in a rich country such as ours. And I also think that in many ways we had a better attitude to food in the 1930s, and that we have lost a lot of skills and values, and that has caused problems.

“But I don’t think people who use food banks are any different from the rest of us – most of us could do with better housekeeping and eating more healthily. Rather than blaming individuals, let’s look at the wider context and get to the roots of the problem.”

Food poverty means the poverty of our food system and we are all part of that. Are we ready to see ourselves as citizens and step up to our responsibilities?

Feeding future generations: the need for collaboration

This month, Wales sees the Well-being of Future Generations Act pass into law. That means that public bodies in Wales will be required to explain what they are doing to safeguard the wellbeing of people not yet born, and how they plan to make the world a better place for everyone.

The Act does not just describe the sort of Wales we want to see – thriving, prosperous, healthy and living within environmental limits, with strong communities, social justice and a bilingual culture – the principles that have inspired the Welsh Food Manifesto. It also provides guidance on how we get there, specifying five new ways of working for public bodies (and, let’s hope, everyone else) to follow. These are: to think long-term, to focus on prevention rather than cure, to integrate different activities and be consistent, to involve everyone in the decision that will affect them, and to collaborate with others.

Collaboration works best over a meal

Collaboration: talking over a meal usually helps (pic by Anthony Pugh)

Collaboration was one of the main topics of discussion at the Delivering for Future Generations conference on 16 March at which Sophie Howe, the recently appointed Future Generations Commissioner, took up the baton from Peter Davies who had led the process of developing the new Act and the ‘Wales We Want’ conversation which informed it. The big question was: How can businesses, the public sector and the third sector – that is, charities, the voluntary sector, campaigning groups, and the public generally – work together effectively to give us the Wales we want?

Sophie Howe was quick to celebrate the third sector, which with its inventiveness and freedom of movement can do things that government can’t, citing the example of Actif Woods Wales, who have been working with Aberystwyth MIND to take people with mental health problems out into the woods where they find a space for healing through nature, crafts and companionship. Examples like this abound, supported by a combination of public sector funding, civil society volunteering and business sponsorship.

Speaking from the public sector, Paul Matthews of Monmouthshire County Council was inspiring on the need for public servants to show leadership by moving out of their comfort zones and risking failure. The challenge of the future was not a technical one so much as a test of adaptive leadership, he said, and this was what public servants most deeply wished to offer. Businesses meanwhile, with their capacity to innovate and drive change, are encouraged to engage with the Sustainable Development Charter, where they can be acknowledged for the steps they take to improve their practices and learn from each other. As Peter Davies said, we need a business sector that supports the environment and social justice, so this is a crucial area.

So how is all this going to pan out? There were many positive examples of collaboration at the conference, but there are also all sorts of reasons why the three sectors, and the many subsectors within them, don’t always get on. Our Food Values project last year revealed some of the differences as they play out in the food system: businesses may be driven by a profit motive that sees food as a commodity, while community groups see it more as a social connector, and lament the lack of food skills in the younger generations. Government is torn between apparently competing objectives of health, economy and social justice. NGOs compete for funding with their niche approaches – should we be spending public money on food festivals, or teaching children to garden, or health education, or food poverty, or protecting wildlife?

Some groups are even in outright opposition to each other. There is not much common ground between the pro-GM and anti-GM lobbies, and there are plenty of polarized debates about farming versus wildlife, globalization versus local food, and livestock rearing versus reduced meat diets, to name just a few tricky areas. Everyone has plenty of reasons why it’s going to be difficult to change the way they work. That isn’t a reason to draw back, though. Just as the boundary between two cultures can produce a rich diversity with possibilities all of its own, as Wales demonstrates, so the faultlines between and within business, civil society and government are where different value systems rub up against each other and change happens. All three sectors are simply ideas to which all of us subscribe to a greater or lesser extent, and it is our humanity that counts in the end. Are we up to it?