Saturday, 7 January 2017

New Fashioned Farming...

It  would take weeks to write up, and discuss all the issues raised and impressions gathered from a meeting of over 800 delegates, all of whom are concerned in some way, or involved with land use, ecology, and food sovereignty.

 At the Oxford Real Farming conference

So I will try to highlight a few things things that stood out for me, personally.

 It is increasingly apparent, even to those not directly involved (although everyone eats yes?)

That there is an ongoing, and urgent need for action, and change, if we are to nourish ourselves and future generations, with decent food. in the long term.

Whilst of course at the same time ensuring that food production is done, in such a way that the ecosystems upon which we all depend are not destroyed.

Big; big problems are built into the present system which is driven mainly by short term profits, for a few key players, and which relies heavily on the massive use of fossil fuel resources that by their are nature finite.

Overall productivity shouldn't be a case of just calories produced. Good nutrition is about far more than that; and besides, once you start 'doing the Math' vis a vis calories in terms of diesel in, to get those calories out, then the sums don't look so pretty.

Which results in these heavy handed farming practices being major contributor to climate change, and causing the depletion of our precious soils. the stuff upon which our very lives depend.

So it has to start, and end, with soil care.

The depressing story is. that if we carry on consuming and farming globally as we are, then soil depletion caused by intensive agriculture means we only have 60 harvests left... Scarey stuff.

 Soils properly managed, grow healthy crops and livestock.

 Soil life given a proper amount, of the correct sort of organic matter, and mainly left to get on with its job undisturbed by deep ploughing, or over cultivating, can make available to plants, all the nutrients they need.

Plus any associated animals fed by those plants are in turn healthier and give more nutritious products too..
It could be suggested that even a 'stockless' organic farm, has a massive amount of livestock by way of the micro fauna living in the soil.

I often feel bad that I don't know so much about soil biology. But it turns out that even the experts don't really know the details of how it all works, or what function many of those micro beasts living there perform.

Maybe as practical farmers it doesn't require that we know what everyone is up to, down there.

Perhaps its more important to keep the party in full flow. The private interactions between, and activities of, individual beasties, aren't really so much our business.

Just keep supplying the love, and compost.

Soils properly managed, and relatively undisturbed can also hold and store a tremendous amount of carbon, which it is generally agreed would be good to get out of the atmosphere.

I'm still very interested in the use of 'bio char' as an additional method of locking carbon into soils long term. The science, and practicalities of doing this have been debated for some time. But the technologies and methods are still very much in development.

This soil amendment would also provide extra habitable niches; enabling the micro life to party on.....

I'm wondering if it would be possible to efficiently make, and use, bio char here; given that the hybrid Italian Alders planted as windbreak trees nine years ago, now need reducing in height.
They are starting to be so high, as to shade out adjacent cropping.

 Those prunings could provide plenty of feedstock material for this specific method of charcoal making.

Any excuse to get a fire going really.

Unfortunately; for those of us who appreciate a towering inferno ;
a properly managed bio charring pit won't look anything like this.....

Then there is the ongoing search for best practice around efficient weed control.

 Most growers, and farmers, who eschew the use of synthetic herbicides would agree that this is a very big issue.

How this is approached is a very farm, and crop specific matter, very particular tools and techniques are required if we are to have sustainable farms.
 So we can grow a crop to make a living, but not at the expense of soil health or ecology.

No one ever said it was going to be easy.
But a little extra funding for research and development, even capital investment, wouldn't go amiss.
On farm making do, and adapting kit can be interesting, and stretch the ingenuity, but its always useful to have input from elsewhere.

Which is where farm walks, growers learning exchanges, and events such as this come into their own...

And finally for me personally an issue very close to my heart, is the politics around land ownership, and who gets access to land to grow food for their communities.

This was one of my prime motivators for becoming a core group member of the Land Workers Alliance.
 It really it shouldn't be such an almighty mission to  even get near becoming a farmer or grower in the first place.
There are many many energetic, and inspired good people who can see the value of producing good food for their community, and would like to try making their livelihood from it.

But how 'on earth' do they start?
land prices are at n all time high, pushed up by land speculation and further skewed by pillar 1. Common Agricultural Policy  payments that reward landowners just for owning it.
unless you happen to own less than 5 ha'........ But that's another story....
Payments to farmers perhaps to provide ecological benefits, and land stewardship, such as flood prevention, and habitat creation, might be a way forward.

 The Agricultural land of the UK is owned by 0.25% of the population.
Farm size is increasing, through consolidation, often leading to the associated biggering and intensification of farming methods.

If we are to extricate ourselves from this very deep hole we've dug for ourselves we need in my opinion to repopulate the countryside.

Active 'hands on the land'.
People actually doing things, growing good food, building community, interacting and supporting each other, and providing services locally, in a myriad of ways,but always with an eye on ecological and global impacts.

This blog isn't entitled 'A Broadview' for lack of any other ideas as what to call it....

After all sustainable food systems need to be encouraged and preserved worldwide, not just in our own bucolic back yards.
Which is why policy changes such as possible protection of markets, to allow UK farms to be profitable, has to be balanced against any negative impacts overseas... It's all very complicated, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to keep all these matters in mind, and listen to the quieter voices.

For years the commercial success of a farming operation in this country was measured by how many workers the farm could do without.
Horribly isolating for those few labourers left, and those laid off workers were of course, replaced by heavy machinery with associated hidden costs.

For too long living in the countryside has long been an aspirational lifestyle choice, for commuters, downsizers, and retirees.

All very nice for them, but given the skewed price of land and accommodation, it is nigh on impossible for any new entrants to farming to get going.

Unless they have a city property to sell, in which case its unlikely they've had chance to acquire the skills and knowledge to make a land based living.

So we have the' hidden poor' of the countryside, just about making a living from what they can grow and produce. But at the same time having to sacrifice a lot of the security, and comforts that the average westerner expects to enjoy.

Growing food in an agroecological manner, that can feed us all well and tastily, long term should be seen as a viable, and respected way of making a living.

Not be viewed as a 'niche' activity that requires you sport 'interesting' knitwear, and be regarded as a starry eyed dreamer, with a primitive lifestyle.

County council farms are nearly always sold off on the open market, as soon as the present tenancy expires... Best value for the council taxpayer apparently, but diminishing for rural communities.

So if we are to get more 'hands onto the land' growing decent nourishing food for everybody; we are going to have to have some political change, around more equal access to land, secure tenancies for those renting. Combined with a post Brexit farming policy.- that recognises the value of agroecological enterprises.

Food systems which support, yes, the needs of producers to make a profit, of course.
But that also helping to find ways of feeding ourselves that supply those more intangible, harder to quantify 'goods' such as community, preservation of ecological systems, and the sustainable well being of the landworkers themselves.

So much to do; and think about; and of of course there are times when it would be easier to throw up ones hands with a weary "Oh well its all broken; there's nothing we can do; nothing ever changes"

But to me that's just giving up, giving in to the powers that be, accepting the broken, and iniquitous status quo.
Which ultimately plays into the hands of those who would like to preserve their right to exploit and profiteer unchecked, and unquestioned.

And I'm not quite ready to heed the call of lazy cynicism just yet.

Which to my mind is just trying to look clever, whilst at the same time doing precisely nothing to help.

That would be easier for sure; would leave one less open to charges of idealistic fervour; would even leave more time for other 'fun stuff'...

Such as wandering about in places such as this perhaps?
But really; a balance between all these things should be doable,
 It just requires a bit of forward planning, cooperation, and delegation.
Sharing the load I suppose..

 Events such as ORFC at the very least can re energise, and motivate, by bringing people together who feel they still have some appetite for change.

And to be honest there is some fun to be had there too. Good company with your tribe, to whom you don't have to explain why you do what you do; fabulous food and drink naturally; and some quality eventide entertainment too.

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