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  • Posted January 9th, 2016

    Why the Real Farming Conference gave me grounds for optimism

    Why the Real Farming Conference gave me grounds for optimism

    Sometimes, when I’m sitting in front of my laptop screen, I forget how many great people there are out there doing wonderful things, and it’s easy to believe that we’re never going to get rid of this damaging system, and that it will eventually damage ecology so much that this planet just won’t be able to support us any more.

    Then I go along to an event like this and suddenly I’m surrounded by hundreds of people working to bring about change – and this is just in the food / farming sector – which means that there must be thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people working for change in the whole economy in this country, and perhaps millions across the globe. It makes me feel part of something much bigger, and gives me a much-needed infusion of optimism.

    Here, in no particular order, are some of the people I met or heard speak during the two days of the conference.

    I sat next to James Campbell of Garden Organic for one session – they’re running the Heritage Seed Library, which preserves varieties that are no longer available through mainstream seed merchants, and heirloom varieties that have been saved over many generations. This isn’t a gene bank though – the seeds are made available to members who grow fruit and vegetables from them and produce more seeds for the library. Their very important work preserves the diversity and therefore robustness of our food base.


    I attended ‘Retail: The Missing Link in Scaling Up’ and heard Phil Haughton of the Better Food Company speak. The BFC retail organic, locally-produced food in Bristol. Also speaking was Julie Brown, who I did a Permaculture course with 20 years ago. She’s gone on to found Growing Communities in Hackney, running an organic fruit and veg bag scheme and farmers’ market.

    I bumped into Scarlett Penn of WWOOF UK, who link up volunteers with organic farms and smallholdings. She introduced me to Adam Cade, who is developing LLOOF, which will turn into a huge learning resource for WWOOFers and others.

    Simon Fairlie (top photo, left) of the Land Magazine sold me a binder for my copies of the Land (I’ve got ’em all – it’s the best magazine in the world, imho); and George Monbiot (top photo, right) was banging away on his keyboard, turning out his usual excellent stuff for the Guardian.

    There was a ‘soap box’ session during which anyone could stand up and tell everyone what they were up to. I was impressed with Carolin of the Food Assembly. They’ve set up a system whereby local people order food online, and local producers deliver the orders at a pop-up farmers’ market. Great stuff!

    I saw Helena Paul and Ricarda Steinbrecher of Econexus talk eloquently about GM food, especially how they attempt to avoid regulation and try to persuade us all that they’re doing it for us – to ‘feed the world’ when in fact the way to produce the most food from the least land is via small mixed farms and smallholdings. GM is for the corporate sector to take over more of our food supply – don’t be fooled.

    I came down to breakfast at my guest house and there was someone reading the conference programme. He turned out to be Tom Lines, author of Making Poverty: A History, currently investigating TTIP and corporate land grabs. Well, to say that he’s an interesting chap is a huge understatement, and we chatted so much that we missed the first session of the day.


    I bumped into Peter Harper, who ran a course on compost toilets that I attended at the Centre for Alternative Technology around 20 years ago, and which set me on a course that ended with my founding Lowimpact.org in 2001. Thank you Peter.

    I’ve already blogged about the session on the corruption of science in agriculture and the launch of the rural manifesto, but it won’t hurt to mention them again. And here’s a nod to the great speakers at the ‘Access to Land’ session – Robin of the Community Food Growers Network, Toby from Shelter, Ed from Chagfood and Humphrey of Edible Futures. More power to all of your elbows.

    I had a meal on Wednesday evening with Tracy, Rob, Rupert and others from the Community-supported Agriculture (CSA) Network, and attended a session on the growth of CSA in Europe, with presentations from Fabian of GartenCoop in Germany and Christea and Elena of ASAT in Romania – very inspiring.

    And finally, thank you Reuben of Locavore for the conversations on how to stop successful independent or community enterprises being swallowed by the corporate sector. They are busy setting up retail outlets for local food, to try to reduce the 97% share of the grocery market that corporate supermarkets currently hold. Good luck guys.

    Sorry to all the people I met who I’ve left off this list. Email me and I’ll put you into our directory.

    Have a browse around those links and see if you feel inspired too. And see you at next year’s conference.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Daniel Scharf January 9th, 2016

      Like Dave I had a really inspiring two days. But like him I was meeting people doing the same thing not just twenty but forty years ago. So I have posted on DanthePlan to explain some of my frustrations.

      Friday, January 8, 2016

      A planner at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

      I gather that 850 people attended this event over the two days that sought to define the essential elements of ‘real farming’ (organic, diverse, local, labour intensive etc) and then explore ways in which real could become normal. Having written about planning for the three Rural Resettlement Handbooks starting in 1978, Practical Self-Sufficiency and Undercurrents I found it difficult to uplifted by the enthusiasm and genuine hope the exuded from the speakers and delegates. I found that the potential role of the planning system was being ignored and at every session I had to put in a shameless plug for this Blog where I suggested that some of the ways in which the planning system could work for them could be found. I offered to hold a lunchtime workshop to which two people came.

      In the previous Blog I have quoted an extremely useful paragraph from the NPPF on the single challenge of flooding and climate change (also quoted in the January edition of The Planner), and those looking to advance the cause of real farming might find the following of some use.

      “161.Local planning authorities should use this evidence base to assess:

      ●the needs for land or floorspace for economic development, including

      both the quantitative and qualitative needs for all foreseeable types of

      economic activity over the plan period, including for retail and leisure


      ●the existing and future supply of land available for economic development

      and its sufficiency and suitability to meet the identified needs. Reviews of

      land available for economic development should be undertaken at the

      same time as, or combined with, Strategic Housing Land Availability

      Assessments and should include a reappraisal of the suitability of

      previously allocated land;

      ●the role and function of town centres and the relationship between them,

      including any trends in the performance of centres;

      ●the capacity of existing centres to accommodate new town centre


      ●locations of deprivation which may benefit from planned remedial action;


      ●the needs of the food production industry and any barriers to investment that

      planning can resolve.”

      Every year the Conference attracts the most intelligent and articulate group of people with a very encouraging number of the younger generation. The planning system has remained so off-putting that it has never really been put in the position of having to acknowledge that ‘real farming’ should be supported and privileged in the public interest. It has been a minority pursuit where the occasional proposal made by a very determined individual has established a residential smallholding in the countryside on the basis of proving essential need. Meanwhile use of the urban fringe remains in use by industrialised agriculture and horses.

      I wonder what it would take for 850 intelligent and articulate people to actually produce the evidence referred to in para 161 to convince the ‘planners’ that they should be removing the barriers to investment in real farming?

      Just as the planning system only acknowledged that there was a material difference between a house and a house that could be afforded by a person on local wages when this was accepted by a judge in 1992, the case could now be made that there is a difference between agricultural land that can be afforded by horse owners and speculators and that where the price bears a close relationship with the value of what could be produced. This would justify the use of s106 to provide affordable land and associated affordable housing when developments around settlements are being considered (more detail in previous Blogs).

      However, the planning system cannot yet differentiate between real and industrial farming. If and when it became clear that this would be reasonably necessary in the public interest then the law would need to change to make changes to and between agricultural uses ‘material’ for the purposes of planning control. There are many considerations that are already taken into account in the determination of planning applications that have come to the fore since the drafting of the original legislation in 1947 which would justify a change in the law. Different types of farming imply different treatment of soils, and different levels of biodiversity, employment, health, water run-off and sustainability. When the real farming lobby creates the evidence base for being privileged in the exercise of current planning controls, this could also be used to lobby to change the law to enable this support to be widened.

      Posted by DanthePlan at 5:14 AM No comments:

    • 2Dave Darby January 9th, 2016

      I’m with you. But ‘If and when it became clear that this would be reasonably necessary in the public interest’ is a big ‘if and when’. The other, corporate farming conference is still way, way ahead when it comes to influence, and our political processes are dominated by corporate interests.

      One speaker (at the ‘real’ farming conference, not the corporate one, mind) said that one way of scaling up sustainable businesses is by selling to the corporate sector! When I asked at the end whether he was joking, he really wasn’t. He told me that we shouldn’t rule it out, and there should be a role for the corporate sector. I told him that we were on different planets. What I should have said was that he was at the wrong conference. There can’t be a ‘role’ for the corporate sector in a truly sustainable and democratic society, because it can’t stop growing – it’s ‘role’ will be to grow until it dominates everything again – media, finance, food, energy, housing, employment, politics. It can’t stop – it’s cancerous.

      We might be able to influence the planning system in the West – to push it towards allowing sustainable agriculture (and associated businesses), and I hope we can, but at the same time, there’s a corporate land grab going on across millions of square miles of the global south.

      I don’t really think we’ll make much of a dent within this system – I think we have to think in terms of systemic change before real change in other areas is possible.

      But I’m still up for it. Here’s a question – do you think there’s any mileage in pushing for a new land use category (low-impact land?) that can be built on, but only by smallholders, and with strict eco-criteria in terms of size, building materials, water, energy, land use etc? Mid-way between development land and open countryside – that landowners and farmers can sell at a premium – nowhere near as much as development land, but more than open countryside?

    • 3Dave Darby January 9th, 2016

      … and have you talked with Simon Fairlie?

    • 4Dave Darby January 14th, 2016

      Hi Daniel – are you not interested in dialogue? Might be why you’re not getting much response.

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