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

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