Teaching children where their food comes from – A Pembrokeshire view

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization PLANED, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

This article originally appeared on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

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.