Putting farming in the context of wider society – the work of WRFFC

Republished from the WRFFC website. We’ve now done five of these events and people still worry that we don’t have enough farmers. I wrote this to explain why we have exactly the right number.

People who have been to the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, which has now been held every November since 2019, tend to speak highly of it. They say how much it inspired them, how much they learned and how good it was to spend time with like-minded people. And then often, as if they might have been taken in by something too good to be true, they will add: “but how many farmers do you actually have?”

The short answer, at least at Lampeter in 2022 for which we did analyse the ticket sales as best we could, is about 13%, together with a similar number of growers, and a further set of consultants and advisers working with them, so that perhaps 30% of the delegates were closely connected to commercial land management. That may not seem a very high percentage for a farming conference, but it makes perfect sense for an event that aims to put farming in a wider context.

First of all though, let’s look at the question. Why are people so keen to see a good turnout of farmers? Certainly, there is concern about intensive farming methods and a desire from some to have that debate head on. And others see that farmers might be missing out on something that would be very helpful to them. Ultimately though, I think the concern is that if farmers are not part of the discussion, then it loses credibility.

This reflects an understanding that farmers (and growers, and fishers) manage a vital connection between human society and the natural world. Farming poses dilemmas that relate to the economy, food security, wildlife, flood management, animal welfare, tourism, the Welsh language and health, to name just a few. The heat and sometimes acrimony associated with these topics – most recently, tractor protests against the Sustainable Farming Scheme – is a measure of how much is at stake, for all of us.

But land management and our food supply are too important to be left to farmers and growers alone. There is some justice in the complaint that farmers are being required to shoulder much of the burden of achieving Net Zero while the rest of us carry on much as before. How many of us, going round the supermarket with our trolleys, check labels to see where our meat, veg and milk came from and how they were grown, and choose to reward good farming practices out of our own wallets? How many of us have created wildlife habitats in our gardens, or reined in our car use, or supported projects that share cooking and gardening skills in the community?

The debate must go wider, and that’s why we have the other 70% of the delegates: community food organizers, nutritionists, environmentalists, food businesses, vets, educators and food traders, to name a few. Farmers are at the sharp end of food production, and we need to build a healthy food system around them. That is ultimately the purpose of our event.

At our fifth conference in the agricultural college at Llysfasi, we had sessions on farming itself, looking for instance at flood management, livestock health, emissions from dairy farming and soil analysis. But we also explored local food trading, community composting, beekeeping, seed saving and a host of other topics, illustrating how food runs through our society and connects us all. Iwan Edwards’ talk following wildlife from gardening to the landscape was a particularly powerful statement of that, and Prof Tim Lang’s call for a civil food resilience framework was the inspiring conclusion.

This isn’t just about showing the network of transactions that links the farm (whether in Wales or elsewhere) with the table. More fundamentally it is about building a culture of respect and a sense of community. This in turn creates the safety that arises from deep commitment and allows difficult questions to be faced. Farmers are facing tough challenges at the moment, but they are going to come to all of us in the end. We need to stick together and work things out.

It helps here to have a vision. A healthy soil is the foundation of healthy crops and livestock and therefore of human society: that was the founding principle of the Soil Association (hence its name) and a similar vein of thought runs through the later arrivals to the progressive farming movement, notably regenerative farming and agroecology. That is a view which has wide intuitive appeal, and it gives farming (and growing) a central and honourable role in a greater whole. It is that whole that the conference exists to serve.

In a session on ‘the way forward for farming and nature in Wales’, which featured three farmers, it was interesting that the conversation moved towards public education and school visits. I think it is in these settings that we can ask the most fundamental questions about what farming is for and where food comes from, and begin to mend the gap between farming and the towns and cities most of us live in. It was heartening to hear in other sessions the work now being done on school meals in Wales, which draws on earlier work by the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, and by the local food partnerships.

Finally, the conference is about personal stories. In the opening session, Llysfasi principal Elin Roberts drew a line between her grandmother’s resourceful farm diversification a century ago and the creative drive of the students at Llysfasi, while Sarah Dickins, organic farmer and former BBC correspond remembered the miners’ strike that she covered early in her career in calling for a just transition to agroecological farming. We are all in this together.

And so the question is not “how many farmers came to the conference” but “what quality of connection did the conference make between farmers and the rest of the food system?” On that measure, I think we did very well.

Image: Amber Wheeler

small group sitting in a circle under a tree

A people-led renaissance needs people-centred spaces

This piece was written for Colin Tudge’s Great Re-think, which is intended to “develop the ideas needed to rescue humanity and our fellow creatures from what is now the brink of total disaster. Colin and his wife Ruth West set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference 15 years ago.

Discussions of food and farming in progressive circles usually call for an ‘agroecological transition’. But we all know that human society in the industrialised west is heading in a different direction, locked into increasing consumption that is destroying the ecosystem that supports us. We need a radical fresh start, and that is the appeal of grassroots action, bottom-up development or, in Colin Tudge’s phrase, a ‘people-led renaissance’. 

How do we do that? I think a key step is the provision of new spaces for public discussion. The word ‘space’ is doing a lot of work here, however. We need not just physical and virtual spaces for people to meet, but also spaciousness that can allow new thinking to arise, and it is above all the quality of the space that makes the difference. This doesn’t just happen by itself; it needs to be shaped by clear intentions, in line with our values.

It’s worth asking what those values are. Instead of novelty, for instance, I think it is time to value commitment. Instead of fame and success, let’s focus on service and wisdom. Rather than building and defending an attractive self-image, we need to cultivate the willingness to face our faults and learn from mistakes. The word ‘humility’ comes from the same root as ‘humus’ and it is just as important for our flourishing. These values of course are at odds with the society around us, but they are timeless as well.

I have been attending progressive gatherings on food and farming on and off for over thirty years: Permaculture convergences from the 1990s, Soil Association conferences in the 2000s, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) from the 2010s and more recently the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (WRFFC) of which I am a founding organiser. These events have all marked out a space which is markedly different from the mainstream, building a vision of human community in the context of a healthy biosphere, and powerfully embodying the intention to renew our society from the soil upwards. They are invaluable.

But as the forces of business as usual intensify around us, so we must continue to differentiate our spaces from the wider culture. We do not want to be another consumer choice among many, even if we could be the most popular choice, because we stand for something deeper than that. We are trying to create a new society, after all, and each event is an opportunity to give people an experience of a new way of being. When we see how our individual aspirations mesh with the flourishing of the collective, we are simultaneous humbled and uplifted, and we leave with a new sense of direction. But we should not take this transformation for granted. Here are some thoughts on how to do it better.

Get clear on our intentions. The quality of any social space is determined by the intention at its centre. Is it to showcase a new way of doing things, making a splash in the media and changing the wider narrative? Is it to build a community of like-minded people, nurturing its members? Is it to spark debate between opposing views, and so go deeper into inquiry? All these are good things to do, but we are probably going to have to choose one of them. Unless we revisit the question regularly and get clear on why we are gathering, we will default to simply repeating a winning formula, and we will be back to the pursuit of sales and numbers, just like everybody else.

Put people before organisations. While some delegates at ORFC and WRFFC will be paying their own way, many are paid for by the organisations they represent. This brings in a transactional element: an organisation which sends a delegate may expect to get something out of it, and this colours their presence, with a knock-on effect on the whole event. A large organisation that can afford to publicise its own sessions, for instance, will attract delegates at the expense of smaller ones, and any type of organisation will tend to look after its own interests, skimming off the energy of the grassroots. We need to counter this tendency by drawing attention to it, and cultivating its opposite, which means that organisations (and individuals, come to that) make a special effort to hold back on their own agendas. My pet idea is a new convention that for every self-promoting social media post an organisation puts out, they should create at least three – or why not ten? – celebrating the achievements of others.

Honour service and experience. Equality suggests a flat structure, where everyone’s voice is heard. But the words of a farmer who has been growing food agroecologically for thirty years will naturally carry more weight than those of an office worker whose main experience of farming comes from social media. Similarly, someone who has volunteered for years behind the scenes on a community project will see things that the newcomer misses. We must learn to listen for wisdom and authority.  

Create paths for people to follow. A conference can have a big effect on its participants, shaping whole careers and projects. At the end of this year’s ORFC a woman told me that the previous year’s event had been so exciting that she almost needed medical attention. But we could do much more with this transformative power. We want to draw people along a path from customers to participants to leaders. This means getting to know them personally, over the long haul, and understanding the challenges that we all face, particularly the cycle of burnout and renewal.

Be more self-aware. All organisations and events have their blind spots and contradictions. Fortunately, it is not necessary to be perfect. What matters is that we see ourselves as we are, and are open to feedback. Whose voices are privileged, and why? Who sits hesitantly at the margins? Who doesn’t come at all, because they can’t afford it, or for fear they will not be welcome? Who is putting in long hours of unpaid work, and who is paid well for less? How well is the event fulfilling its aims?

Talk more openly. We want spaces where people can speak freely, and where ideologies take a back seat to civility and enquiry. Social media is having a polarising effect on public discourse, as the algorithms herd us into more extreme views, and we need to open up the centre ground. We need to practise deep listening and cultivate curiosity about views that are different from our own. That is much more important than the holding of correct opinions.

Put community building ahead of networking. The gaps between sessions are some of the best bits of a good conference. To meet old friends and make new ones, discovering shared intentions and bringing companionship to otherwise solitary struggles, is a joyful thing. It is also very likely to lead to new partnerships and the spreading of new ideas. But working the room, assessing people in terms of their usefulness to our projects, and checking out the competition – no. We want community, not a marketplace.

It can be very hard to stop and ask these questions. The pressure to keep doing more of the same is so great, and especially now that the economic climate drives organisations to compete and to fear for their future. But that’s all the more reason to create spaces which put humanity first, cultivating hope and solidarity and building a new vision. We must trust that that is what people are really looking for, in their hearts. From that place, we will be able to connect with others who are trapped in the vice of business of usual, and spread new hope. 

Image: Small group meeting at a Permaculture convergence in Wales, Jane Powell.

Attending the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is a political act

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.

Food citizens

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.

Book your tickets now

Intensive Poultry Units and the Well-being of Future Generations Act

Article published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs on 4 April 2023

A public demonstration against intensive poultry units (IPUs) outside the Senedd on 15 February was just the latest eruption of public concern over the pollution of the Wye, Severn and their tributaries, which is blamed on the explosion of intensive poultry farming in Powys over recent years.

This demonstration was organised by grassroots community group Sustainable Food Knighton who successfully brought a case against Powys County Council in 2020 after they gave permission for a new poultry unit without proper consideration of the environmental impact. The event brought together a range of concerns. 

River pollution was the primary focus of campaigner Angela Jones with her ‘Death of the Wye’ coffin. Nutrients from livestock manure and fertiliser running into rivers cause algal blooms followed by a serious loss of biodiversity, and it’s not just IPUs. Dairy farming, horticulture and sewage are also implicated. 

For the rest of this article, which discusses the role of the Welsh government and the Future Generations Office and calls for stronger citizen involvement in the food system, see the IWA website.

Image: Sustainable Food Knighton

Celebrating the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference

This article was originally published on the Food Citizenship blog

What fun we had, meeting in person at the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Lampeter late last year, where we were welcomed into the new Canolfan Tir Glas.  No longer taking for granted the wonder of being able to gather at a particular place and time, with all the random interactions that happen as you scramble for a cup of coffee or navigate an unfamiliar campus, I marvelled at how a conference can be so much more than a choreographed exchange of news and ideas.  

Looking at the photographs afterwards and seeing white-haired elders, twenty-somethings in dungarees, farmers in fleeces, salaried professionals with their pop-ups and Powerpoints, and many more, the sense is of a family gathering – a big one, with 300 people over two days of talks and discussion, plus a third day of field trips. Our registration desk doubled up as a home base for newcomers while our dinner, with poetry from Sam Robinson and music from Owen Shiers and Camilla Saunders, was a celebration of friendships going back variously decades or a day.  

Although it’s common to disparage a gathering of like-minded people as an echo chamber, I think it is no bad thing to call our tribe together.

It’s an opportunity to synchronize our intentions for a better society mediated by food and farming, and celebrate what we have achieved.

Together we puzzled over how everything fits together: getting good quality local food into school meals, bringing up children to better understand food, helping people to access land, marrying up food production with care for nature, building an inclusive food culture, reducing carbon emissions, growing the food economy, trading fairly with the rest of the world. Our 35 sessions covered these topics and more. 

Radio Four Food Programme presenter Sheila Dillon kicked us off with an overview of the challenges facing the food movement, and a theme soon emerged of how change happens. Wales is becoming well-known for its pioneering Well-being of Future Generations legislation, but not many people know how it works. A session organised by the Food Policy Alliance Cymru gave us a look at the machinery by which popular sentiment can be refined and translated into action – and it is frustratingly slow.  

“I feel like an imposter here, with so many experts,” confided one delegate, a retired person representing a small campaigning group. But in fact, she was one of the large pool of concerned citizens who are our best hope. Policymakers cannot do much on their own, and I think an important purpose of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is to amplify the voices of the thinking public, connecting them with the experts who can share knowledge and shaping programmes of action that are fair and realistic. 

The local food partnerships that are springing up across Wales (Food Cardiff and Food Vale were both represented) as well as other place-based partnerships like the Dyfi Biosphere, Canolfan Tir Glas and PLANED provide spaces for such conversations to happen, and so do people’s assemblies and various co-design projects such as Tir Canol in mid Wales. With mounting anxiety about the obvious unsustainability of our current way of life, we need outlets for constructive action, and participatory democracy is a practice whose time has come. 

It was encouraging that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales sent several delegates and contributed to the sessions at the Conference. They were there to listen as much as to speak, responding for instance to a few challenging questions that came up in discussion. One anonymous delegate, on their evaluation form, coined the term ‘keynote listener’ for this role and suggested that they have a slot at the end to respond to everything they had heard, which is an excellent idea. 

The third day of the event was given over to field trips – a vineyard, several farms, the Lampeter university campus with its collection of centuries-old volumes on horticulture – and the discussions sparked during the first two days continued in smaller groups. It was clear from talking to these enthusiasts how much the conference had achieved in terms of establishing a place for conversation and commitment and shining a light on the burgeoning goodwill. 

Spaces like this, where people can connect across divides of age and sector and begin to enact a better way of being together, are rare. And it is just as true to say they are everywhere, once we know what we are looking for. It’s just that with our busy lives we tend to forget.

We need events like this to build our confidence in our collective ability to create a better future together – and remind us that underneath all the conflicts, that is what we most deeply want to do.  

See also: From a ‘call to arms’ to carrot crushing: a review of WRFFC22, for a farmer’s perspective.

Main image: Clic Productions. Recordings of some conference sessions are available here.

three women at a table in the street

Closing the democracy gap in Wales, bottom up and top down

Much is made of the democracy gap, which means the failure of government to deliver what the public really wants. It can be read either as the reluctance of apathetic citizens to engage with the political process – at a minimum, by voting – or as a story of political elites which are increasingly detached from society, cynically exploiting popular sentiment for their election but not troubling themselves with the details. Or a bit of both, of course.

At the closing celebration in September of Renew Wales, a project that for ten years provided action planning and peer mentoring for community groups to respond to climate change, the democracy gap was a leading topic of discussion. Councillors and activists alike reflected on the difficulty of driving the change they wanted to see at local level, and identified several causes – bureaucratic inertia, the political climate set by London and Cardiff, and public apathy among them.

Set against that, we have the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which does provide a model of how government, business and civil society can work together, even if change is slow to materialize. And several people shared their experiences with People’s Assemblies, which have been springing up around Wales in recent years and which give ordinary people a chance to air their concerns.

People’s assemblies

An online event in Aberystwyth this year, for instance, brought together 40 or so people to discuss food in the area. It was a self-selected group, mainly community food activists and a few farmers, and hardly representative of the town and its hinterland, given that the supermarkets and cafes were not there. Nevertheless, there was enough difference of opinion to make it lively and instructive. A strong contingent spoke up for local food: short supply chains, buying food from people you know, growing more vegetables around the town and so forth. But this cosy consensus was challenged by some of the farmers.

“We need to question what we mean by local food,” said one (in Welsh). “Most people in the UK live in urban areas, they can’t grow their own food and they don’t have access to land or free time to do it. Is it right for us, in a nice rural area, to define local as Ceredigion or mid Wales?” From his point of view, urban Wales, England and the EU are the traditional markets, and also the responsibility, of Ceredigion farmers. It didn’t make sense to throw away a finely honed farming system in favour of much less reliable horticulture and arable crops, simply to satisfy the notions of idealists.

Is he right? That isn’t the point here. What matters is that people get to share their perspectives in an atmosphere of active listening, where the principle is that we want to hear from everybody, not to win arguments. This allows complexity to emerge and builds trust. For the local food contingent, it was an opportunity to sharpen up their ideas – what support might they be able to give farmers to diversify, if that’s what they really want? Meanwhile the farmers were, I think, gratified by the interest that people showed in food production, and glad of the opportunity to explain what they do and why.

Culture change

Change is also coming from the top. The Well-being of Future Generations Act makes it mandatory for public bodies to consult and collaborate with the public, and the Welsh Government has accordingly developed a programme of cultural change which aims among other things to level power differentials and encourage creativity, concentrating particularly on how meetings are conducted. Silent pauses for reflection, talking in rounds so that everyone gets heard, and even meeting outdoors are all encouraged. Although the Act is only binding on public sector staff, any civil society group wanting to change its working methods is invited to join in, for instance joining a ‘community of practice’ or simply trying out tips for better meetings.

Clearly we need a wave of change across Wales if we are to realize the potential of the Future Generations Act, and the recent proliferation of People’s Assemblies is an encouraging sign. Around the same time as the Aberystwyth event, Swansea held a similar one to develop a plan for its Bwyd Abertawe initiative, now funded by the Sustainable Food Places project. Later, an in-person People’s Assembly in Denbigh in June gave a boost to an emerging food partnership which was still buzzing at last month’s Denbigh Plum Festival.

All of these Assemblies drew on a growing pool of trained facilitators and a method of working which began in the Extinction Rebellion movement and then flourished on Zoom during lockdown. They also drew on the networking capacity developed by Renew Wales with its Food from the Ground Up events, the government’s culture change programme, and others.

Now, Vicky Moller of Grwp Resilience and Dawn Lyle of 4theRegion are creating a new organization to support deliberative and participatory democracy in Wales, training facilitators and sharing best practice. As Dawn says, “If we want the Welsh Government, and other public bodies, to involve more people in decision making and embrace the principles of participatory, deliberative democracy, then we urgently need to develop the resources and the expertise to do it well, here in Wales.”

Co-design and co-production

Farmers at a Tir Canol co-design meeting

There are many other strands to this citizen movement. In Gwynedd, the Lottery-funded Gwyrdd Ni project has been pioneering community assemblies to develop a shared approach to climate change. In mid Wales, the former Summit to Sea project – now Tir Canol – used a co-design approach over two years, running workshops and consultations with farmers, environmental groups and rural businesses in order to produce a ‘blueprint‘ for the area. It has now severed its ties with the original funder and partners are using the blueprint to seek funding for a range of projects to restore both human and natural wealth.

Another example of co-design comes from the Valleys, where the people of Treherbert came together to make a plan for the woodland around their town, documented in this film. Inspiration also comes from the Co-Production network which promotes citizen involvement with public services, and will be part of the as yet unnamed project that picks up the work of Renew Wales next year.

It’s easy to spot the weaknesses in government, whether at UK, Wales or local level. That presents us with a choice: we can give up and retreat into our private worlds, or we can seize the opportunity to create something new. In Wales, the government is inviting us, however imperfectly, to step up and join in. Let us all ask what we can do for our communities, and get involved.

The Well-being Economy Alliance Cymru (WEAll Cymru) is organizing a Zoom discussion on Revitalising Democracy on Thursday 10 November 2022 at 7pm. The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022 in Lampeter will feature many examples of citizen action, including a session organized by Sustainable Food Knighton who are planning a demonstration at the Senedd in February 2023.

Both images courtesy of Tir Canol

gorse flowers

Lampeter Resilience Hub, a community group that is changing university thinking

The area around Lampeter has long been a magnet for creative incomers. Most well known perhaps are the organic farming pioneers of the 1970s, but the rolling hills and valleys abound with many other artisan enterprises and imaginative environmental projects. These co-exist with a native, strongly Welsh-speaking community with whom they share many values to do with community, traditional knowledge and connection to the land. Now these values are starting to permeate the University itself, and it all began with a letter.

Speaking at the launch of the Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) last November, Provost Gwilym Dyfri Jones told the story like this:

“Some three years ago, the University received a letter from the Lampeter Permaculture Group offering a number of suggestions for development here in Lampeter. Those suggestions centred on how concerns for a sustainable future, especially in local food production, together with the great beauty of the landscape, attract people to this area.”

The University responded positively. A series of presentations and meetings followed and as a result a group of people drawn from Lampeter Permaculture Group formed Hwb Ymaddasu Llambed, or Lampeter Resilience Hub, which is working with the university to embed systems thinking in the curriculum. Andrea Sanders, one of the founders of the Hub and a former teacher who was at the time a graduate student at the Centre for Alternative Technology, explains the rationale.

“We had the networks, they had the facilities,” she explains, “and so we saw an opportunity for the university. There’s a huge skills shortage in horticulture, renewable energy, green building and community development generally, especially at undergraduate and further education levels, and we knew we could help. We wrote to everyone we could think of, even Prince Charles.”

The group is at pains to emphasize its origins in collective action, drawing on the contributions of many in the Permaculture Group, which for the past 20 years has been connecting smallholders and gardeners in practical work on each other’s land. The Hub has begun by preparing modular courses to get things moving. “It’s about teaching the staff, as much as the students,” says Andrea, “introducing systems thinking and breaking down silos, moving away from conventional thinking.”

Their first module, Resilient by Design, will be part of the Continuous Professional Development programme which is being offered to staff across the institution. It sets the foundation for other modules, which will include food, horticulture, regenerative farming (in association with agricultural college Gelli Aur, which is a member of the UWTSD partnership), green building with architecture students, sustainable business skills, and aspects of inner and social resilience.

Angie Polkey, founder member of the Permaculture Group and now a Director of Lampeter Resilience Hub, explains how permaculture can be thought of as a way of designing human systems according to natural principles. “It’s about nurturing relationships that work, and minimal intervention for maximum effect,” she says, “and it’s about cyclical, rather than linear, processes. It’s also about allowing new perspectives to emerge, which is what an ecological system naturally does. When you understand that and work with it, life gets a lot easier.”

Angie, who is also an external tutor at Aberystwyth University, understands the challenges that a partnership across the academic and the community sector brings up. “There is potentially a cultural clash here, because we do have very different ways of working. But ultimately it’s about personal connection. I don’t know a single person at the university who doesn’t resonate with what we’re talking about, and wants to see the same changes, but they are sometimes held back by structures and procedures, while we have freedom to experiment.”

It has been important to attend to the imbalance of power between the university and a small, new community group. With help from Renew Wales, the Hub incorporated as a community interest company last year, and the University is drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hub that will cover things such as intellectual property. “We weave and flow around university processes, but It’s important to maintain our autonomy too. We are an outsider body with an outsider viewpoint, and we don’t want to lose that,” says Angie.

It’s just as important to them that things are seen to change visibly on the ground. As Hub member and former smallholder Louise Nadim explains: “We walked the whole campus and drew up an interactive map showing the potential for food growing, enhancing biodiversity etc. Estates Management have been incredibly supportive and this winter we will see new fruit tree plantings as well as more places where students can grow their own food”.

This is an ideal complement to another Lampeter initiative, Incredible Edible Llambed, which Hub member Julia Lim is also part of: “We know how difficult it is for people to afford healthy food – growing more on the campus and teaching these skills is part of building future resilience in our local area,” she says.

Lampeter Resilience Hub also came up with the concept of the new Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony, whose values and environmentally sensitive ways of working will in turn underpin an ambitious new project, Canolfan Tir Glas. Headed by restaurateur and broadcaster Simon Wright, this new Centre will draw together the Town Council, Ceredigion County Council, the local business community and others to reinvigorate Lampeter, which has suffered from falling student numbers in recent years. Food and farming – natural strengths of the area – will be the basis of the new centre’s work, which will include a new Academy of Contemporary Food Wales and a food village.

Lampeter Resilience Hub therefore now finds itself part of a web of formal and informal partnerships which is a focus for new vision. By helping to shape the work that is at the core of the university’s purpose – its teaching activity, the knowledge and skills it transmits to civil society, and especially young people – it is in a position to shape the future in subtle but significant ways.

‘It’s not all down to us,” says Andrea, pointing out that former Environment Minister Jane Davidson did much to set the scene by embedding education for sustainability across the undergraduate curriculum during her time in Lampeter, while the Provost has led a visionary approach to UWTSD plans, “but I think we got people thinking in a different way. We helped a university to change direction.”

Julia Lim of Lampeter Resilience Hub will be talking about their work in a session on systems thinking at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November in Lampeter.

cheeses on a shelf

Why Welsh food history matters

This article was originally published on the Food Manifesto website.

Welsh Food Stories, by Carwyn Graves. University of Wales Press, 2022.

The unassuming title of this book suggests an anecdotal tour of the Welsh food scene, a blend, perhaps, of nostalgia and foodie adventures, entertaining but hardly serious. Indeed, there is plenty to enjoy as food historian and linguist Carwyn Graves visits farms and food businesses from saltmarsh lamb on the Gower to sea salt in Anglesey, and from cider orchards in the southeast to cheesemaking in the west. But do note: this is a scholarly book with a serious message.

A series of interviews with farmers, growers and food processors gives a vivid snapshot of the way that traditions going back many centuries are expressed in the present day. Each is the jumping off point from which Graves painstakingly unearths a complex history and even a pre-history. Here are the Welsh armies feasting on mead in the 7th century poem Y Gododdin, the Romans importing white-fleeced sheep to add to the dark-fleeced flocks that were already here, the colourful culture of the Drovers, the intrepid nineteenth-century travel writer George Borrow rhapsodizing about mutton in a Llangollen inn, the rise and fall of Caerphilly cheese, and an army of women, (presumably), proficient in turning oatmeal, water, salt and dripping into oatcakes on a bakestone, producing ‘wafer-thin rounds as large as a dinner plate with fine even edges’.

Harvesting cockles

For those of us who think it is enough to know about Welsh cakes, laverbread, Caerphilly cheese and cawl, Graves provides a bracing corrective. Welsh food is a serious thing. It is not just a peasant cuisine, the making-do of an impoverished and marginalised people, to be forgotten in the face of technological advances and changes in nutritional fashion. We have our hundreds of apple varieties, our distinctive cheeses that are the product of our acid soils and native breeds, our nurserymen and country estates, and our knowledge of the wild foods to be had from the sea and the hedgerow. This is vital knowledge for the future.

In nine chapters, Graves covers topics such as bread, butter, salt and seafoods. Each is full of fascinating facts that certainly changed my understanding of farming history. Red meat, for instance, is not just one thing, whatever the impression given by Hybu Cig Cymru. Cattle were to early Welsh society what bank accounts are now, and so it was not surprising that beef became a commodity out of the reach of most people when the drovers began to herd their cattle down to London in the Middle Ages, responding to (and helping to create) the English demand for roast beef. Sheep, meanwhile, stayed at home, although their wool travelled, and so mutton became a mainstay of the rural economy. It was only in the 20th century that a global export trade for lamb developed, where prices justified the early slaughter of animals for the sake of their tender meat. As a result, mutton ‘became ever more associated with the older generations, poverty and poor taste’ – an example of how fashions in food shape entire economies.

Some foods have all but disappeared. A nineteenth century boom in the oyster trade around Swansea led to a collapse in the price and the exhaustion of the beds, although there are hopes of a modern revival involving artificial reefs. Cockles have fared better, but they are hardly the staple they were, and the economics of the traditional methods of gathering them by hand, don’t work out. Perhaps changing tastes come into it as well – the shellfish of Cardigan Bay may be celebrated in France and Spain, but there is little demand for crabs and scallops at home, and young people are not queuing up to join the industry.

Other traditional foods are enjoying a modest success. Here are stories of cider makers in south Wales reviving an ancient craft, of Hen Gymro wheat being grown again in Ceredigion (thanks in part to the foresight of Aberystwyth agriculturist Sir George Stapledon and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg), of new cheeses blending cow’s and sheep’s milk, of growing demand for Welsh sea salt. Meanwhile, cawl adapts to new ingredients, vegetables are grown organically and profitably in rural Ceredigion, and bakers are finding new interest in sourdough loaves made with local grain.

Why does all this matter? The power of the book lies in its use of present-day stories as a pivot between a rich and neglected tradition on the one hand, and an uncertain future on the other. Implied, rather than spelt out, is the question of what diet would best meet the various requirements of healthy nutrition, environmental sustainability, affordability and cultural expectations. Thanks to Graves’ scholarly research we have a much clearer picture not only of what our ancestors produced and ate, but why they did so, and how it brought them not just sustenance but pleasure and meaning.

The challenges we face now are nowhere more poignantly illustrated than by the author’s sad tale of growing leeks. Thanks to the ravages of the leek moth, a recent Asian import, he can no longer grow the national vegetable in his garden at home, and other pests like the allium leaf miner also threaten the crop’s future. How can we imagine cooking and gardening without this familiar standby? But we might have to, and meanwhile climate change allows new crops to grow. It is the principle of growing vegetables, and the recipes that enshrine them, that really matter and that will carry us through.

For the past few centuries, Welsh identity has centred on language and religion, with little thought of such basic concerns as how we feed ourselves. But times change, and now it is food, Graves suggests, that can help to unite us, especially as we begin to welcome refugees from war, drought and flooding. And of course, food is not just a marker of social connection, inviting us to adapt our traditions to new ingredients and tastes. It is also a marker of our relationship with the natural world – or lack of it – and so a powerful way to save our civilization. It deserves our full attention.

Read this book (I wish it had an index!) and be grateful for the past generations who gave us such a rich food culture, and resolve to pass the best of it on to the people who will come after us. For ‘to base the food economy on the foods of a faceless global village and a soulless global market, would be to do not just Wales but the entire world a disservice.’

Carwyn Graves will be talking about the history and future of Welsh food at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022, in Lampeter.

Main picture: Caerphilly cheese, courtesy of Carwyn Graves. Cockling picture, from the National Library of Wales.

Channelling the enthusiasm of the food citizen

This article was originally published by the Food Ethics Council’s Food Citizenship project

As the English National Food Strategy stimulates fresh thinking across the UK, Wales is digesting the implications for its own position. Although there have been many food strategies and action plans since devolution, they have all been partial, leaving vital policy areas unconnected. Farming for instance is about meat and dairy, the food industry celebrates high-value items like gin and ready meals, while the health message is to eat more vegetables.

What we do have, though, is a promise by the new Labour government in Wales to develop a Community Food Strategy during its term in office. Although it is not clear how this will work at a national level – how much of our own food should we try to grow, what are our global impacts? – there is a lot to be said for this approach.

Place-based decision-making

Importantly, working locally brings things down to earth, literally. When ideals like sustainability, resilience and social cohesion interact with the history and current reality of actual places, the difficulties show up and a dialogue can begin. Where do we want to be, and how can we get there?

Then we ask questions like is the food bank able to meet demand, which shops are selling locally grown food, what cooking and gardening skills are our young people learning, and how do we coordinate community meals so that we don’t double up? We see the contradictions as our children eat chicken from Thailand in the school canteen while our farmers cannot make a living from producing food, leisure centres sell unhealthy snacks and supermarket abundance ends up in anaerobic digestion or is offloaded onto food banks.

Another reason to focus on place-based action is the sheer energy of the community food scene. Across the UK, grassroots projects are organizing gardening sessions, distributing supermarket surplus food, cooking community meals, linking with farms to buy local produce and much more. As a result, staff and volunteers discover that they have more agency than they realized and develop an appetite for deeper change. This is the shift from consumer to citizen.

Future Generations Act

In Wales the Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015 provides a channel for this civic enthusiasm. The Act requires local and national government, and other public services, to involve their stakeholders in decision-making and collaborate with them on long-term change. In theory therefore a community food strategy becomes a national food strategy, crowd-sourced in the 22 local authority areas.

In practice, such change is difficult and the old ways of working will be with us for a while. Nevertheless it is an inspiring story, with some good examples. Food Cardiff has been around for a while, and a regional conference in southwest Wales recently brought a wide range of stakeholders together to share their visions for change (and so did Aberystwyth). These initiatives reach out into the countryside, where there is concern about the proliferation of intensive poultry units in Powys and the sale of whole farms for carbon offsetting in Carmarthenshire.

Talking is of course not enough; we also need infrastructure. This means kitchens, access to land, distribution hubs, cold storage, processing facilities, training and much more, allowing more people to join in the effort. There is a case for food businesses to share some of their facilities and expertise in order to build a food culture that would benefit them as well, encouraging shorter supply chains and regenerating rural areas.

Citizenship and solidarity

Such a bottom-up approach faces formidable obstacles. Some are psychological. Most of us are so used to our comfortable lifestyles that it is hard to contemplate the realities on which they are built – the low-paid farmworkers, the overworked truck-drivers, the decimated wildlife, the loss of traditional skills and of course the fossil fuel that holds it all together.

Just as unsettling is the fragility of our just-in-time global food chains, something that is becoming increasingly obvious. Our instinct for self-preservation makes us look away although for many people, even in the UK, hunger is already here.

And it isn’t just about material comforts. We also lack the solidarity that would enable to us to take charge of our futures. Rather than extend ourselves to work with others who see things differently, we prefer to stick with what we know.

Community food projects can be the antidote to social fragmentation. But they have their own difficulties, including conflicts over resources, unequal partnerships, burnt-out volunteers and strict hierarchies. We need new ways of working, from community to government, and more spaces – virtual and real – which are dedicated to the common good.

The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference to be held online on 24-26 November 2021 will be looking at the Community Food Strategy and asking how citizens can shape it. Please come along!

What Wales could do with a Community Food Strategy

This article was originally published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs here.

As pressure to meet net zero emissions targets grows, Oxfam has warned that the drive to plant trees could lead to vast areas of land being taken out of food production, leading to hunger for the most vulnerable.

Now carbon offsetting is causing concern much closer to home. As reports emerge of corporations buying whole farms for afforestation, Ceredigion MP Ben Lake has warned that rural communities, the Welsh language and food production are being sacrificed to a ‘green-washed business-as-usual’.

Wales has its own target of net zero by 2050. Following guidance from the Climate Change Committee, it plans to move around a fifth of agricultural land from livestock rearing to carbon sequestration, supported by a change in diet away from red meat consumption.

However, even given the need for more trees, there does not need to be a simple sacrifice of food production for forestry. What is needed is a comprehensive land use policy, one that recognizes that food production, forestry and other land uses all have a place, and can even sometimes be combined, as for instance in agroforestry.

A food strategy for Wales

An effective land use policy would need to be linked to a food policy. England has come up with some pointers in its recent National Food Strategy, an independent report to which government has yet to respond. Such a food policy could help us decide what our land is for, as well as pulling together other threads, from farming and the economy to health and social inclusion.

Both the Welsh Food Manifesto and the Food Policy Alliance Cymru have been calling for just such a joined-up food policy for some time. Now, the Welsh Government has announced that it will create a Community Food Strategy during its current term.

At first glance, the reference to ‘community’ seems limiting. It makes no reference to how Wales as a whole intends to feed itself, or to the global impacts of outsourcing food production to countries with lower farming standards, or of importing livestock feed grown on land taken out of tropical rainforest.

Maybe, though, communities are a good place to start. We have many inspiring grassroots projects which are busy reconnecting people with food production. Numerically small, these projects nevertheless represent the citizen power so essential to the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

They are pioneering new ways of doing things, including community gardens, local food hubs, community meals and Community Supported Agriculture projects.

Local integration

In particular, community food projects could be an important way to integrate farming and food policy.

On the one hand, we have a forthcoming Sustainable Farming Scheme that will reward farmers for managing the land environmentally, while at the same time supporting them to develop their businesses. Food production, which is not considered to be a public good, will not be directly supported and so will depend on other policy moves.

On the other, we have an action plan for food that is mainly about developing the food and drinks industry, with an aspiration in the next version to contribute to community development.  This strategy has little to say about farming.

What community projects might do therefore is to bridge the gap between these two policies, by reaching out to local farmers and growers and connecting them with markets, tapping into growing demand for local food.

These markets include retail, the hospitality sector and public procurement; Carmarthenshire is already backing local sourcing as part of the government’s Foundational Economy programme.

The missing link here is infrastructure, including small abattoirs, processing facilities, cold storage and distribution, which will need investment. The returns are big though: the regeneration of rural economies, vibrant communities and a healthier population with cooking and gardening skills.

Alongside physical infrastructure it is also important to build democratic processes that allow citizens to contribute to local decision-making, something that is encouraged by the Well-being of Future Generations Act but difficult to attain in practice.

Here there is inspiration in the shape of Food Cardiff, Our Food Crickhowell and the Sustainable Food Places network which have shown their worth in mobilizing community responses to the pandemic.

Land use

Food security is a key concern of community food projects, and provides an impetus for local food production. But this depends on access to land. As outrage builds over the sale of the countryside to corporate interests, what can we do?

One approach might be to develop a Rural Land Use Framework, as the English food strategy recommends. The English model would assign land to one of three compartments: intensive food production, natural habitats or an agroecological combination of farming and nature.

We might not follow that model in Wales, but without any plan at all, we may default to a combination of intensive farming and rewilding which will disappoint many.

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is calling for the English land use framework to be led by local communities, and again, a Welsh Community Food Strategy could allow for that.

Another approach would be to follow Scotland’s example of the community right to buy, so that Welsh farms that came on the market could be bought by local groups, such as Community Land Trusts.

Alternatively, local authorities could step in and increase their stocks of county farms, neatly reversing the sad case of Trecadwgan, where a community group failed in their bid to buy a 14th century farm from Pembrokeshire County Council.

Wales has no equivalent of either the Scottish land reform legislation or the English Localism Act, and we will need to establish our own principles of land management.

One starting point could be to find common ground between those who want to preserve traditional family farms, with all they contribute to the local culture and language, and new entrants to farming, often from urban backgrounds. A community food strategy could help to do this.

Food democracy

There is strong public feeling about the Welsh countryside. Concerns about the sell-off of farms to corporate interests and the proliferation of intensive poultry units are rooted in a deeper concern about our national culture and the natural world.

A Community Food Strategy must give people the means to ground those concerns in practical action, and a voice into government.  The mechanisms exist: the Future Generations Act provides for communities to influence local authorities via Public Services Boards, and the Environment Act invites collaboration through the Area Statement process.

The Public Services Boards do not have the power to block the sale of farms for carbon offsetting, any more than they can stop the proliferation of intensive poultry units.

What they can do, however, is provide a space for community organizations to propose strategies for local land use which could then be picked up by national government. This would allow local and national priorities to be matched.

They could also set up mechanisms by which environmental goods such as carbon sequestration and flood prevention can be rigorously audited to allow for a blend of public and private investment, leaving farmers in control of the land. In Pembrokeshire, the BRICS project is pioneering a blended model for water quality.

It will not be easy to create these new structures for a new form of governance, but working locally does bring the energy and creativity of communities, and maybe they can do what government cannot.