As the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference fast approaches, on 1-2 November, it’s strange to think that this is our fifth one. Each one has been so different that it’s hard to see them as a series. Following the model of the Eisteddfod (but minus the Pavilion!), we move around Wales and reflect the character of a different locality, combining it with the latest twists in the national policy scene.
This year we’re at Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, the agricultural college near Ruthin, Denbighshire. Northeast Wales may not get much national airtime, but it has a thriving food culture. Pioneering agroecological farmers, community groups, producer groups and food businesses abound, and are populating the programme, just out.
And after two days of intense conference activity – including a dinner with entertainment on the Wednesday night – there will be field trips to local farms and food projects on the Friday, following last year’s popular innovation. Meanwhile, catering by Coleg Cambria’s Yale Restaurant, featuring a mix of local and organic ingredients, will provide an inspiring example of how food culture can stimulate agroecological production.
Local and national
The purpose of the event is to bring Welsh food activity together, so that everyone involved in food – which is all of us, ultimately – can see the bigger picture of which we are all part. There is certainly plenty happening in Wales.
Opening the event will be Sarah Dickins, familiar to many as the BBC’s former economics correspondent, and who is also an organic farmer in Monmouthshire and member of the Wales Carbon Net Zero 2035 group. Closing it will be Tim Lang, with a powerful message about how Wales must adjust to the global challenge of food security.
In between, we will hear from the new local food partnerships that are springing up across north Wales, consider the potential of repurposing county farms, examine what the Sustainable Farming Scheme means for the relationship between food production and nature, looking at the true cost of food production and how it is to be paid for, and asking how we can square healthy affordable food with good livelihoods for producers.
As well as policy, there will be plenty of discussion of the practicalities of food production, including beekeeping, perennial green manures, profitable business models for small-scale growing, hydroponics, sharing growing skills in the community, medicinal plants and homeopathy for livestock health, and heritage apple orchards. There will also be interactive networking sessions, and permission to sit in the cafe or go for a walk if you need some space to think.
Inevitably the conference will involve much technical discussion between public and voluntary sector staff, but at the heart of the conference is the food citizen. That means that whatever hat we wear, whatever tribe we belong to, we show up as people who belong to families and communities, appreciate the place of the human family in the natural world, and are prepared to take responsibility for this.
That is why we are delighted that while we are hosted by Llysfasi, we are also being welcomed by local groups such as Ruthin Friends of the Earth and Denbigh Community Food, who are helping variously with facilitation, stewarding and publicity, and by Denbighshire County Council’s Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Real change must come from the grassroots, so that we take people with us. But citizen action needs to mesh with public services, and so this year we are inviting ‘keynote listeners’ from Welsh Government and the Future Generations Office to attend the event and feed back their impressions in the final session.
As the new Future Generations Commission Derek Walker has chosen food as one of the focus areas for his seven-year term, this gives us a special opportunity. How exactly do ordinary citizens, concerned perhaps about river pollution, animal welfare, the rise of food banks and disappearing farm birds, influence public policy? How do we amplify their voices, while also bringing in the rigour of scientific knowledge and ensuring fairness for competing demands?
A political act
Attending the conference, then, is not just an entertaining couple of days out. It is a political act, where we come to learn, make new connections and above all show our faith in a better way of doing things. It is a positive choice for the future and a step into leadership.
We have had to put our prices up this year (although please note that the booking fee has gone). That’s partly inflation, and partly because last year we had extra sponsorship which meant we could keep prices down. As ever, we are very grateful to this year’s sponsors whose generosity makes the event possible, along with our volunteers, chairs and speakers. We hope that you will support us again and join the movement for good food in Wales.