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Written in Exeter January 11 2012

A CROSS-THE BOARD RE-THINK

Colin Tudge reflects on the 2012 Oxford Real Farming Conference

This year's theme was 'A Cross-the-board Re-think' - for nothing less will

do. If we truly want agriculture that provides everyone in the world with

good food without wrecking the rest we need to re-think farming itself - the

husbandry, the underlying science, the structure; and the whole corresponding

food chain that takes the food to the people; and this leads us into food

culture because good farmers can't thrive unless people appreciate what they

do. Overall we need nothing less than "Agrarian Renaissance".

 

So we are led into economics, and into politics and the law - which at

present are obstructing the kind of farming that the world really needs. Then

we need to ask " why bother? " which takes us into morality. But beneath

science, and morality, and all human effort, lie the biggest questions of all

such as "what is the universe really like?" and "where do we fit into it?" The

answers define our attitude to life and in the end, attitude is all; and this, like

it or not, is metaphysics.

 

We had to discuss all this in two days which meant parallel sessions which

meant that no-one could get to everything -- but it's all on film (all 30-plus

hours of it!) and should soon be view-able on the ORFC website. This is just

my own, personal, instant take. (I've space to mention only a few of the 50-

odd speakers. Apologies to the rest.)

 

To begin at the beginning - we need to farm differently. In line with the

simplest principles of ecology, we need farming that is diverse (polycultural)

from genes to landscape; low input (organic by preference); and therefore

complex and therefore skills-intensive (many more farmers than we have

now!). Grass - represented not least by the newly-formed Pasture-Fed Livestock

Association - and city-linked horticulture must feature mightily. All

this is precisely opposite to what we have now and what the government advocates

-- which is high-input monoculture on the grandest scale with as

few workers as possible (if we don't count the bus-loads of immigrants).

 

Industrial farming is favoured because it is profitable and in the present, corporate-

led, neoliberal, heavily rigged but allegedly free global market, profit

is all. So we must ask as a matter of urgency, like Lucy Ford of Brookes

University, what can replace neoliberalism? More specifically we need to

pin down, as writer Felicity Lawrence began to do, "what exactly is wrong

with the corporates?" Are they damaging because they are so big, or because

of their mandate (which is expressly to reward their shareholders) or because

they are run by the wrong people? But then - one answer to all this is simply

to set up alternative funding; and hence the pre-conference seminar, chaired

by Sir Crispin Tickell - how to finance a new kind of farming and food

chain by ethical investment; money invested by people at large with values

in mind apart from short-term profit.

 

How do we get more farmers' Revolution, mega-land reform, and a total

people's buy-out of farmland (at around £270 billion) aren't going to happen

- and mercifully, probably aren't necessary. Tom Curtis from LandShare has

described the routes to tenancy and many landowners and farmers - including

Chris Jones of Cornwall - would positively like to encourage young

farmers on to their land. But who are these young farmers? Some already exist,

like Russ Carrington and Ed Hamer. Others are clamouring to get in, like

"Cultivate", newly set up in Oxford by post-grads represented by Julian Cottee.

But, said Nicole Vosper of "Re-claim the Fields", young townies won't

just take themselves off all alone to what for them is the middle of no-where.

Farms must be re-conceived socially - labour-intensive conviviality. Combine

that with Andy Goldring's and Tom Curtis's concept of "the spongy

city" and we begin to see that farming can and should be re-structured absolutely;

the city-country barriers broken down.

 

The whole needs new technologies geared to the small to medium-sized

mixed farm - as advocated and used by Ed Hamer; and behind that we need

science that is geared to the public good and the wellbeing of the world and

is not, as now, simply the handmaiden of big governments and big industries.

As Tim Lang of City University said, we need to re-claim and re-open

the once publicly-owned agricultural colleges, experimental husbandry

farms, research stations and university departments that have been closed or

privatized over the past 30 years. Or as Michel Pimbert of IIED puts the

matter, above all we need democracy.

 

The task us huge, and it's all waiting to be done. But as the many excellent

speakers and delegates at the 2012 ORFC are demonstrating, it's all do-able.