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.

One thought on “When farmers meet the public

  1. The Snail of Happiness says:

    Thanks for this summary of the conference. As always, the answer has to be in education and dialogue. Here in west Wales we are fortunate to live in an area where we can see the agriculture around us and, if we wish, talk to the people who produce our food. I am a big fan of mixed farming – it makes sense to me as an ecologist – and I feel very strongly that much food is too cheap… and it is the planet that is paying.

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