Hollyhock Flock at the Oxford REAL Farming Conference

On the week of the Oxford Farming Conference – the yearly event where agribusiness, government and retailers get together to set the agenda for the year ahead in commercial farming – the Campaign for Real Farming & New Agrarian Renaissance put on a fringe event that they called the Oxford REAL Farming Conference – an alternative to the mainstream agricultural industry conference. Day one explored the science of real farming, and was curated by Colin Tudge (Author of Trees, & Feeding people is easy amongst other titles), and day two was on the health implications of real farming, edited by Graham Harvey (agric story editor of Archers, author of The Carbon Fields). Below is a summary I made of what was talked about, and here you can watch some footage of the day.

Day 1 Real Science for Real Farming, convened by Colin & Ruth Tudge

Tom Curtis – discussion of the benefits of non-linear, complex systems vs. the linear systems which are the basis of our existing supermarket oriented food production system. Potential for several small farms working together to share facilities / infrastructure (which is similar to a model that Growing Communities in Hackney uses and one that Church Farm – see below – hopes to build up), given that at a certain scale a farm could become too big for a non-linear, complex system to work.

Simon Fairlie is a small-scale farmer who previously worked as an editor for the Ecologist magazine and wrote the book that got Monbiot to change his mind on meat (‘Meat, a benign extravagance’). His big thing was pig swill…who knew it could provoke such enthusiasm! Following BSE/ foot & mouth, it became illegal to feed pigs on pig swill (food waste) except for personal use, thereby resulting in the loss of a significant recycling mechanism for food which is more efficient than composting and anaerobic digestion (and obviously landfill). Classical swine fever is seen as an acceptable risk for small scale pig farmers not trading on the international market; the ban in fact only supports large scale pig farmers for whom disease is a much bigger issue. Discussion of ways to get around this ban – could shared ownership schemes allow many people to benefit from the meat of a single pig?

 Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), an animal welfare charity. Discussion around factory farming, showing that it feeds fewer people per acre than extensive farming given requirements for food, water, waste & disease prevention.

Dr Charlie Clutterbuck has done a lot of work on agriculture and sustainable food  with Tim Lang (City University) but now works for supermarkets helping to monitor their supply chains. He was arguing for the need for education and skills for (sustainable) agriculture in the form of both farmers and research scientists given the significant decline in both over the last 20 years. Highlighted the disconnect of people, animals and plants from the land and the need to re-establish the link through education.

 Day 2 –  Real Farming – The Nations Primary Health Service, convened by Graham Harvey and chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell and looked at biological alternatives to the conventional modern farm

 Sir Crispin Tickell chaired and begun the day. He is Warden of Green College Oxford and Global Environmental Advisor to the Arizona State University. Bit of a fearsome chair but very good and raised some great points,  particularly around allowing agriculture to be thrown to a free market

 Iwan Jones is a dairy farmer with 100 cows in North Wales, running an organic pasture fed system and selling to a cooperative of 20 organic family farms. He talked of the national importance of grassland and compared the yield comparisons of his organic cattle and conventional cattle – his producing the same yield as conventional cows of the same breed (british fresian) but producing 1/3 less GHG and requiring less cereals and land. He also made some interesting points about the Nocton Dairies proposal, suggesting that in the planning documents it talks about each employee having a specific task e.g. cleaning the floor, cleaning the equipment, and this leads to deskilling and un-motivated staff. If we’re to get young people into farming, you need to have farmers that understand the system and are motivated by the job.

 Matt Dale started North Aston Dairy in 2006, an organic micro dairy just outside Oxford that serves 250 local customers locally with milk, beef and veal and sells 75% of it milk in a 2.5 mile radius of the farm. He’s created it from scratch, and now can support 2 livelihoods from 40 acres with just 16 cows milked twice a day. The farm cuts down on costs by processing on site where possible; this means they can sell at an average price.  His model is seen as the blueprint for others going forward. The dairy is housed on land belonging to farmer with a number of other projects including a small-scale farm producing veg boxes for local people. Each enterprise is a distinct entity but linked through ownership of the land by one family.

 Nick Snelgar is one of the founders of Future Farms Ltd, a community based business in Martin, Hampshire. I’ve been along and was really impressed with what they’ve set up – they have rotas for shutting up the chickens, a village shop from the produce they grow, have the demand to support around 5 full time labourers, the facilities to order online and are in the process of setting up a micro-dairy. Lots of community involvement in the form of volunteering, forum for discussion of ideas and issues in the village and interaction through the village shop. He also talked about the ‘frightening Y generation’ and how we needed to change their attitudes towards farming  we need to see the occupation once again as a meaningful and useful job, potentially by re-designing the job around humans (working hours, salary) to make it a more attractive and realistic option for youngsters. Lots of small, lively, dear little businesses running on land with farmers as self employed craftsmen…

 Robert Plumb runs Soil Fertility Services in Norfolk and seemed to know all there is to know about soil auditing and “bio-logical” farming. He wouldn’t have an opinion on anything if he hadn’t tested the soil first, he said. Basically he advises farmers, including many large commercial farmers, on how to improve their soil fertility under the theory that health soil = healthy plants = healthy animals = healthy people. He began by saying America/UK is full of fat yanks that are chronically hungry i.e. highly nutritionally deficient – since we’ve now got a system where almost all processed foods are derived from a few products – corn in US and wheat and sugar beet in UK. Soils are the ‘stomach of the plant’ and soil deficiencies are destroying the nutritional content of conventionally produced foods drastically. Mineral deficiencies to look out for include Manganese and Selenium.

 Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride is a neurologist and neurosurgeon and founder of the Oxford Nutritional Clinic, and completely stole the show. She was eloquent and credible, and completely dispelled the myths upon which modern nutritionalism are based – i.e. that eating fat makes you fat and in particular that high cholesterol is bad news and causes heart disease, cancers, type II diabetes etc and many of the modern western diseases now plaguing our society. Considering traditional societies survived on diets of animal fats and dairy products (as well as fresh fish, leafy veg etc)  where did the idea come from that fats are making us fat and ill? The answer is one scientist in 1953, whose theory (never proven) was seized upon by big business, pumped full of money by gov and brands for research, and has now built a huge commercial and political machine around it. Traditional food provides little opportunity to raise big bucks, but new foods promising diet benefits roll big profits. The food business is ‘not there to feed you, its there to make profit’. So, we’ve created a new science of nutritionalism (low/hydrogenated fat high sugar = good, high fat traditional food = bad), and we’ve also seen the advent of things like heart disease etc, that were not heard of before the 1920s.

Her evidence shows that:

–          a diet in low blood cholesterol is dangerous – and is associated with heart disease, cancer, violence, aggression and suicide, parkinsons disease, memory loss and early death.

–          those who eat most fat have the lowest incidence of disease,

–          those with high blood cholesterol live longest, because cholesterol is necessary to produce bile salts, vitamin D (you cannot repair anything in your body without vit D), hormones, myelin, memory, cell membranes

–          and that blood cholesterol does not come from food, it is produced by the liver, and even if you’re super skinny you may have high cholesterol

what happens with our current diet, based on processed carbs (bread, biscuits, pasta, cakes, breakfast cereals), is that we’re left with a permanent glucose overload, which leads to overproduction of insulin  and messes up our insulin mechanics long term. In the US, Children as young as 2 are being diagnosed with bi-polar syndrome because they swing from sugar highs to sugar lows. Too much glucose = too much insulin = more stores laid down as fat. Even worse, the drugs out there, and foods promising to lower blood cholesterol have not only got it all wrong, they’re also contributing to cancer, liver damage and kidney damage.

Eating fat with sugar balances blood sugar.

Other things associated with western diseases:

–          laundry powders

–          personal care products (aluminium chloride deodorants etc = breast cancer)

–          smoking

–          pharmaceuticals

–          nutritional deficiencies

The message:

–          stop eating processed foods

–          stop polluting your body

–          look after your digestive system

–          don’t be afraid of fats. Eat more fats (saturated), but make them animal fats. Pure ones. Butter, lard, goose fat. Get carried away, just steer clear of anything that has been heavily processed, and is unsaturated, like margarine, vegetable oil.

I was such a fan of her that I brought one of her books, and since the talk there has been a lot in the press about the myth that eating fat makes you fat/low fat is best, including a torygraph article suggesting that eating sat fat ‘may not always be bad for you’. Take a look.

Charlotte Hollins (daughter of influential ecological farmer, Arthur Hollins) started Fordhall Community Farm – England’s first community owned farm – with her brother, Ben. She went straight from university onto the 140acre farm, had a battle with the landowner, and eventually decided to set up a pioneering model funded by community purchased shares in the farm – £50 each and based on foggage farming – where all animals are farmed outdoors the year round.  A farm shop sells produce from the farm but and has diversified recently to sell other items/services (including Hog Roast, local products etc.) which supplement the income of the farm without having in increase the number of animals and compromise on sustainability.

Tim Waygood is the entrepreneur that started Church Farm, the farm that Sam Henderson now works for. Its a bit more than a farm now though. His moto is ‘you cannot live by bread alone’, so you have to have a little bit of everything: it does festivals, has a cafe and farm shop, biodiversity watching (because biodiversity has to pay for itself!), camping and log cabin hire, green gyms, catering service, box scheme, conference facility, weddings…. It also has farm pupils and interns, which together hold 32 university degrees on the farm; all they need to work effectively is proper training and passion in abundance. Having been running since April 2009 (nearly 2 years ago), it’s now just hitting the profit margins. Identified need for entrepreneurs, replicable enterprises and customers (!) for this model to work elsewhere.

Graham Harvey finished the day off by giving a history of farming, from the birth of nitrogen fertiliser and its intensive use in World War II, to the government advisory boards that championed intensive chemical farming. He paid tribute to some of the pioneering ecological farmers and farms of recent history and today, including Ben Reed, Martin Wolfe and Jodi Scheckter. And he talked about the recent IAASTD report which called for agricultural science to be more ecological in its approach, before it was hushed up by business and the government.

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