Permaculture blog

The REAL Farming Conference

Published by Sam Page on 16 January 2016

Image Jane, Milly and Sam attended the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference.

The Real Farming Conference followed straight after the National Farmers' Union's Oxford Conference. But while the NFU Conference focussed on industrial agriculture that depends on badger culling, river dredging, monocropping and fossil fuels, the REAL farming conference is a place where diverse, environmentally-friendly farming methods, such as agroecology, organic and permaculture are discussed. There were more than 36 concurrent sessions, spread over 2 days, on issues ranging from soil health and GM technologies to life without noenicotinids, seed-saving and agroforestry. 

The session on Food Sovereignty was presented by the Land Workers' Alliance, a producer-led organisation of small-scale producers and family farmers, who use sustainable methods to produce food, fuel, fibre and flowers.  They spoke about the need to link with other organisations to radically change the UK food system - which currently relies on more than 70% of imported food.  The Land workers' Alliance also took the opportunity to launch their 'Rural Manifesto' which has a series of recommendations on ways of reducing rural poverty and deprivation.  This manifesto was immediately supported by both the Green Party and the Labour Party.

Soil was a constant topic following the International Year of Soil 2015…..2016 being the International Year of the Legume (jokes about wind farms no doubt).  The Soil Association want targets set for increasing the organic matter in soil - quickly. Evidence suggests that planting legumes would be good value for money as the benefits accrue in the first few years with no need to keep adding. Bare ground is being frowned on, with the increase in the use of cover crops.

Community Supported Agriculture projects are on the increase, CSA is seen as a collective act, with both benefit and risk of the enterprise shared between grower and shareholder (those who eat the produce) - it takes commitment on both parts. A project in South Wales was particularly successful -  volunteers had built a straw bale education building, with additional funding. A more local, very successful, community-led CSA exists in Stroud.

The difficulty accessing land was highlighted - Community Land Advisory Service could help? or Ecological Land Co-operatives? Dyson was revealed as the largest landowner in the UK.

(Jane is planning to visit some more local CSAs if anyone would like to fill a car sometime……)

Image Innovative Farmers is another initiative of the Soil Association that supports farmers who may feel isolated trying out new, more sustainable, ideas.

One session had a speaker from Hodmedods. Nick Saltmarsh had wondered where the field beans in his area were going - assuming, like many of us, that they were for animal feed - actually, they were being eaten by people in Egypt! Pictures of typical recipes using these legumes followed, looking mouthwateringly good.  He is now part of a company that grows legumes for UK consumption, bringing more land into use for local food. The soil benefits too with increased fertility. Trials of lentil growing have begun.

The Soil Association also hosted a session entitled 'Runaway Maize' which highlighted the threat that this crop is posing to our soils. Maize is used for both animal feed and as a biofuel for anaerobic digesters, therefore attracting a double subsidy. Unfortunately it is causing massive soil erosion wherever it is planted, due to being harvested in October or November, by machinery that compacts the wet soil and leaves it exposed to run-off throughout the Winter. The NFU wants farmers to plant 125, 000 more hectares of the UK's best agricultural land with maize.  This massive area of land could produce sufficient wheat for 2 billion wholemeal loaves. George Monbiot described DEFRA as 'Do Everything Farmers Ask' and the NFU as 'the champion of bad farming practice'!