Ellen Pearce of LESS writes about the hopes and values underlying the Northern Real Farming Conference.
Most of the food we eat today – whether from a supermarket or cornershop – is part of an industrial farming system that tends to prioritise profits at the expense of people, animals and the wider environment. It is characterised by the terrible treatment of animals, over-use of chemicals and depletion of ecosystems. It is increasingly controlled by large corporations that have no connection with local communities or landscapes and it can be hard to unveil the backstory of most of our food.
However, there’s a growing movement of farmers, food businesses and communities that stand for a different future – a future where healthy affordable food is at the centre of communities and where farming itself is a regenerative process.
In ‘normal’ (non Covid-19) circumstances, next Monday would have seen Lancaster welcome participants for the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference. Local farms and cafes would have been running tours and hosting dinners, and our local community would have been extending a hand of friendship, welcome and solidarity to all those in the North of England and Scotland that are practically working towards a different farming future.
Coronavirus may have changed the plans, but it has not dampened the enthusiasm! The Northern Real Farming Conference is now being held online, with talks from over 60 farmers, along with researchers, food activists and other food and farming workers.
‘Real’ farming has a specific definition and three underpinning principles.
The first is economic democracy – we want decision making to be taken locally. We believe that farmers, communities and customers should be able to make decisions about the farming and the food systems that impact them, their culture and health.
The second is food sovereignty and relates to individuals and communities having control over their own food supply.
And finally, we want farming to be regenerative; working to help restore nature and repair nutrient depleted soils and polluted waterways.
The Northern Real Farming conference is a chance to share practical and progressive actions. The range of topics include the importance of dung beetles in returning nutrients to the soil; cow-with-calf dairying where the calves are allowed to stay with the mothers until they are weaned; moving away from using plastics and peat in organic horticulture. Other sessions explore social prescribing and the role of community urban food growing in supporting health and well-being; natural flood management and moving beyond food aid.
We also have more social, informal sessions taking place over breakfast and lunch and some evening sessions playing with vegetables with Madame Zuccini and songs and stories from the Whinpot farm band from Cumbria.
Despite the backdrop of the climate emergency, Covid-19 and the ongoing political focus to industrialise our food system, we can take hope from this vibrant and diverse community of committed citizens, farmers, policy makers, activists and researchers. We look forward to watching the conversations, connections and networks build over the next two weeks.