Working together to create a better food and farming system in the North

Northern Real Farming Conference bannerBy Dr Rachel Marshall, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Lancaster University with insights shared by the Northern Real Farming Conference team. 

The inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference (NRFC) saw farmers, food producers and others with a stake, or interest in, regenerative food systems in the North of England and Scotland gather online for two weeks of inspiring discussions, talks and virtual tours in October 2020.

With over 65 sessions to choose from, the themes explored were diverse and covered the breadth of the food production systems in our region, from upland landscapes to our urban areas.

There were contributions from right across our food systems from farmers, vets, conservation groups, ecologists, food activists, nutritionists, food hubs and more. Across this wide range of subjects and perspectives, some clear themes emerged from the conference.

Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of creating and being part of farming and food systems that work better – for us as farmers, conservationists, activists, communities, citizens. We heard from farmers who had set up new online shops during COVID-19, about urban opportunities and land ownership options, and gained an insight into the benefits of community supported agriculture models.

We explored seed saving and also looked at the urgency, and difficulties, of producing for local needs rather than commodity markets, and how questions of land ownership in particular are entangled with the viability of creating ‘small farm futures’.
Understanding strength in diversity also emerged as a key theme – from diversity in crops, business models and supply chains, to the people working on the land.

Right from the opening session, we were reflecting on the question of which voices were not included in the event, and how could we bring them in. A socially just farming and food system requires us to ensure that all voices are heard and we all, collectively, need to do more to ensure that this happens throughout our processes and systems, as well as to enable new entrant farmers from a range of backgrounds.

There is a need for collaboration and dialogue as we work to create a better food and farming system in the North. The importance of sharing perspectives and knowledge, both within the farming community and beyond, came through strongly in the sessions that focussed on upland farming and landscapes. The need to create space for conversation and dialogue arose in many other themes; from discussions around land access and ownership to the value of connecting urban communities more closely with the people producing their food.

After two weeks immersed in this community of 500+ conference participants, I feel inspired by this growing movement calling for people, rather than corporations, to shape and change our food system for the better. Given my involvement with the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, I started to question what policies are needed to create an enabling environment for the ideas and innovations shared at NRFC to flourish.

Defra’s Environment Land Management scheme (ELMs) and the potential for farmers to be paid to manage their land for public goods (for instance, clean air, clean water and biodiversity) was a subject of a number of sessions. This included a session looking at what this approach meant in practical and economic terms for farmers around Pendle Hill, a well-known feature in the Lancashire uplands. Another session explored an innovative approach to ELMs, which showed how permaculture design provides a pathway to farmers looking to diversify their land, improve soil and biodiversity, and generate income.

However, there were also concerns that ELMs might not offer much to support smaller scale farmers and growers in their key role in producing nutritious food. There is also the ongoing wider debate around UK agriculture and trade policies, in particular the risk that new trade deals might result in markets being dominated by cheap food, produced to lower standards undermining UK producers.

We should instead be taking this opportunity to rewrite our relationships with trading partners to put nutritious, healthy food, produced using regenerative methods, at the heart of our policies.

The word innovation is often used across the policy and research sectors and there was much to be learnt from innovators within this real farming community. There were sessions that looked at innovative business models, land ownership and routes to market, as well as a fascinating session sharing approaches taken by Japanese farmers to address the decline of their marginal hill farming businesses and communities.

Innovation can be about learning and adapting existing approaches; we have much to learn from other farming and cultural practices around the world, as well as the potential to uncover lost wisdom. We need to design policy and research that supports not just technical innovation, but socio-economic innovation, whilst enabling the sharing of knowledge between different communities of practice.

Despite the inaugural NRFC being an online event, with limited opportunities for those free flowing, often late night conversations that put the world to rights, the importance of the growing movement in the North is key. Building on these past two weeks, the NRFC team have secured funding for regional networking events over the coming year in addition to a second NRFC.

For those of you who missed out and are looking for some inspiration for your next research project, policy discussion or even your own farming journey, all the conference sessions are being made available on the NRFC website.