Month: October 2020

Rewarding results for nature friendly farming: session outcomes

The session explained to the audience about the concept of results based payments for agri-environment schemes. The Yorkshire Dales is host to two projects testing out the alternative concept to the standard management / action based agri-environment schemes. The projects, one run by the National Trust, the other a partnership between Natural England and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, are paying farmers according to the condition of their habitats and soils. With training and guidance provided by the two projects, the farmers undertake management actions they feel best improves the condition of these features and then carry out surveys to assess condition. The farmer engagement has been very high and their understanding of the management needs of the habitats and soils has increased significantly. Condition of the habitats and soils have responded accordingly. The audience learned about the results of the pilot projects and also heard from two participating farmers. A guest presentation from the project manager of Irelands Hen Harrier Project showcased how this approach is being implemented at a large scale with over 1000 farmers participating.

During the session there were two Q&A sessions where the audience was able to comment and ask questions. In general, the audience were very interested and supportive of the two approaches. They could see the benefits, but also some of the risks as well but supportive of the approach and its potential inclusion in ELMS. The scaling up of the projects was a concern but the audience could see that it was possible given the Hen Harrier project example. Advisor help was key to helping these projects to be a success, but there was concern around the perceived cost of this element and therefore whether government thought it was too costly in the long run.

The comments and questions will feed into both projects and therefore into the Defra Test and Trials program.

You will be able to watch the recording of the session here.

Food for crowded populations in an uncertain and compromised future: session outcomes

In this session, Rosemary Morrow and Marguerite Kahrl shared their experiences of refugees and permaculture – giving the key summary that permaculture with refugees has important outcomes for the refugees and for the future of mass migration and shortage of labour with an elderly farm population – and a detailed case study by Marguerite.

Actions, themes, and ideas to take forward were summarised as:

  • Changes in refugee policies are necessary
  • Refugees are keen and able to take permaculture into rural situations
  • Teaching permaculture to refugees is vitally necessary and also has valuable outcomes for the host population.

You can watch the recording of the session here.

What could your dung beetles be doing for you? Session outcomes

So, what could your dung beetles be doing for farmers and land managers? Lots,  according to the expert insight of farmers Sally-Ann Spence and Bruce  Thompson. If the dung beetles are looked after in return, that is. 

Opening the session, host Ali Birkett (Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University) gave an academic introduction to the ecology of dung beetles in Britain. The main content of the session took the form of pre-recorded video farm tours: 

• Sally-Ann Spence (Berrycroft Hub) demonstrated how to find dung beetles out on the farm,  including describing the diversity of species and how by breaking dung they reduce livestock  parasite load and improve soil health 

• Bruce Thompson (Nuffield Scholar) showed actions he is taking on his dairy farm to support  dung beetle population, including actions taken to reduce his use of veterinary insecticide  treatments  

• Tonia Armer (Cumbrian beef and sheep farmer) shared her first experience of looking for dung  beetles on her farm, with comment from the other speakers on what she discovered 

Themes arising: 

The size of the audience, the number of questions asked of the speakers, and the number of  requests for access to the videos as a learning resource shows the growing interest in the subject.  Themes arising from the questions suggested an interest in: 

1. developing the skills required to assess the size and health of dung beetle populations on farms / in the landscape 

2. learning from each other’s experiences of the positive benefits dung beetles can have on  livestock and soil health 

3. sharing details of each other’s successful and unsuccessful approaches to change farming  practices to support dung beetle activity 

As the novice in the group, I was quite staggered by the possibilities of improving my soil health to  improve stock health as well as improving the land’s ability to retain water and resist flooding and  bury carbon. I’d heard of holistic farming before, but never really ‘got’ it. Dung beetles are such a  good way of making you think about the whole system and what your actions do to it.’ Tonia Armer 

Dung beetles were also discussed in detail by Vet Sustain in their NRFC2020 session, showing  the crucial support the vet community is developing for this subject.  

Thoughts for the future: 

• Given the interest, it would be great to create a knowledge-sharing network of farmers, farm  advisors, conservation groups, researchers and veterinarians interested in dung beetles.

• Bruce Thompson and Sally-Ann Spence are developing the website ‘Dung beetles for farmers’ that will provide a great resource (and could be used as a  hub for a knowledge-sharing network) 

• There was a call from the audience for a training course on the subject and exploring whether NRFC and partners  fund and support the development of this

You can watch the recording of the session here.

Moving a flerd long distance: session outcomes

Moving livestock across large transects of land can be challenging, but is often a reality faced by farmers who have parcels of land that are spread out.

In this session, Bracken Morris and Vicky Palmer shared their experience of moving a flerd (a flock of sheep combined with a herd of cattle) at Hillcrest Farm in North Yorkshire through two dales, including a wood, to return to the start of the grazing pattern. 

The top tips given included:

  1. Planning — plan the trek afresh everytime, because circumstances change, and you can always improve things.
  2. Preparation – using fencing and what’s available to create a walkway.
  3. Preparation – on the day walk the entire journey before moving livestock, leaving gates open to make it easy to pass through.
  4. People – briefing the people on your team before you begin so you know who is doing what.
  5. People — trust each other, adapt to reality on the ground, be flexible.
  6. Animals – get to know your animals, and let your animals get to know you.
  7. Ask the question, ‘What would nature do?’
  8. Think through the move from the animal’s point of view.

You can watch a recording of the session here.

From research to action: Supporting food, farming & health transitions to a greener & fairer society for all: session outcomes

We, The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission are turning the recommendations from the ‘Our Future in the Land’ report, developed over 2 years of participatory research, into practical actions with our partners in governments, businesses and communities. This is being supported through 6 place-based inquiries – 3 in England (Cumbria, Dartmoor, East of England), and 1 in each of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, with funding from Esmée Fairburn Foundation. The recommendations are, at their core, focusing on connecting food, farming and the public’s health for a just transition to a greener, fairer economy in response to the climate, nature, health and now Covid-19 emergencies. To enable these actions, we are helping to convene collective leadership and collaboration across sectors and stakeholders.

This session focused on the Cumbria Inquiry and there were nearly 40 participants from various parts of Northern England and beyond, with people keen to learn from Cumbria and share ideas. We started the session with a visioning exercise that Hannah, the Cumbria Inquiry Coordinator, took the participants through. Hannah invited people to imagine what a particular part of Cumbria that they are familiar with might look, sound, smell, taste and feel like in 10 years’ time if actions had been taken to create vibrant and thriving communities, ecosystems and economy. Some examples of people’s visions included:

  • “More diversity in the grasslands, trees on the hillsides, more diversity in the food produced – veg, fruit trees (the smell of the blossom in the spring), animals, even some grains and the local shops/pub sourcing from the valley.”
  • “A vibrant, healthy, bountiful landscape, with people, community and variety.”
  • More diversity in the landscape and more diverse people in it.

Sue Pritchard (Chief Exec, FFCC) introduced the FFCC’s national and place-based work that has happened and is happening including the three broad, key areas being looked at: convening collective leadership around contested issues, implementation of recommendations in the Our Future in the Land report, and resourcing resilient and adaptable communities. Julia Aglionby (Chair of the Cumbria Inquiry) and Hannah then introduced the Cumbria Inquiry more specifically, where broad areas for action that are being discussed include feeding into a routemap to ELMS, piloting the National Nature Service, supporting better health and wellbeing through inclusive access to the countryside and getting local food to market. We had a poll to see where the support was for these ideas, and it was essentially evenly distributed across the board.

There were rich and diverse discussions around these four areas of work had in the breakout rooms. Some points made were:

  • National Nature Service is designed to be a movement- building initiative to deal with a critical issue (like the NHS was at its inception) that provides employment, training and volunteering opportunities to recover and restore nature, whilst designing and growing the green jobs of the future.
  • Training in land and nature skills with ecology as a fundamental underpinning – the loss of Newton Rigg as an opportunity to reimagine agricultural education
  • Need to inform farmers about the benefits of growing better food.
  • Being realistic about land ownership and power over decision making in farming, farm income on marginal lands and ow to incentivise change.
  • Seeing Cumbria as a centre for wellbeing and recovery, but ensuring that the benefits of visitors were re invested in landscape and farming and skilled jobs for people working on the land and being able to make a good living form that
  • Supporting aspiration in farming and rural communities.
  • Farmer and community led examples like Danny Teasdale (Ullswater CIC) are a great model – how do we find more and scale up?

There are other great insights from the discussions, too many to list here. There was much resonance with the other conversations we have had in Cumbria as well as new points to consider. These will become part of our reporting on the Cumbria Inquiry, and will be shared with and fed into the stakeholder groups’ conversations in Cumbria.

If anyone would like to follow the FFCC’s work or hear more about the Cumbria Inquiry, there are some twitter accounts to follow and Hannah’s email address:

FFCC website for reports, blogs (conversations) and more:

FFCC Our Future in the Land report:

@hannah_thelakes @FFC_commission @suepritch

You can watch a recording of the session here.

What’s a Hill Worth? Preparing public goods for payment on upland farms around Pendle Hill: session outcomes

This session presented findings from a piece of research commissioned by Forest of Bowland AONB, looking to use a ‘natural capital approach’ to assess the presence of ‘public goods’ at a farm scale; and to assess if payments for these goods were adequate to compensate for the loss of other farm subsidies over the next few years. We also looked at the implications for the changes in land use on the farmer and their business, and on the landscape of Pendle Hill.

We had a useful discussion with farmers and practitioners about the strengths and weaknesses of the natural capital mapping model, and how a variety of assets (soil, trees, grassland) and management types could affect the carbon emissions and sequestration of the land and the farming practices.  We also discussed how farmers might resist adapting to such an extreme change in land use and the difficult issues this raises in how the uplands could be farmed in the future. Finally we discussed the impacts of wood-pasture on the aesthetics of the landscape, and the number, breed of livestock and different systems of management it may require.

Issues to take forward include how to influence the levels of payments in the proposed ELM scheme; and to continue feeding these findings into other ‘Tests and Trials’ being carried out by various partners across the Northern Upland Chain local nature partnership.

You will be able to watch a recording of the session here.

Selling better food – the Better Food Traders: session outcomes

The Better Food Traders session enabled us to introduce the Better Food Traders accreditation, a new gold standard for ethical food retailers.  Launched earlier this year, this mark allows customers to know that a whole raft of questions across the multiple pillars of sustainability, are being addressed by their retailer.  Amy Shadbolt of Veg Box People, part of the Kindling Trust in Manchester, spoke about their ethical food enterprise why being a Better Food Trader has been really useful to their business – we facilitate peer-support, training and mentoring for our members too.  We finished up with an interesting discussion ranging from whether prioritising buying ‘British’  feeds into the nationalist rhetoric that has led to Brexit, to what kind of standards Better Food Traders uses to ensure that retailers are only selling agroecologically grown produce.  

We went away feeling that there was plenty of interest in the group in continuing the conversation about how to move our food shopping away from supermarkets towards smaller, ethical food retailers.  Already, we’ve had one participant sign up to our Know Better Food peer-led training waiting list, and another who we are in touch with about their veg box business becoming a member of the Better Food Traders.

You can watch the recording of the session here.

Organic at the heart: Developing an agroecological food and farming network in Northern England: session outcomes

We believe that one of the key components of a transition to agroecological food and farming systems is the need to move away from input-intensive systems and towards knowledge-intensive systems. Agroecology must cover everything from food production to the protection of healthy socioeconomic relationships. We aimed to bring together interested parties from across the food and farming sector who are already practicing forms of agroecology. We felt that the timing was opportune to open dialogue on what is happening, what is needed, and how networking is important, but also to facilitate action: to address challenges as a collective and build the movement.

We structured the discussion around three questions:

  1. How are you already working as part of a food and farming network and what do you find to be the highs and lows of this? 
  2. Is there a specific challenge that is of interest to your business experience that you feel could be addressed better by being part of a larger network?
  3. How might you see a collaborative network around the organic principles working?

The discussion was fruitful and varied. It was great to hear from a range of people engaged in different food and farming businesses, some of whom have been working as part of organic networks for some time and others who are exploring innovative ways to engage with their customers and share experiences of food production from field to fork. 

Headline ideas to take forward:

  • Reflecting on our experiences to make sure we ‘catch the wave’ – that is, the momentum building behind finding alternatives to the current system, and the desire to build transparent, direct connections and relationships in food and farming in the North. Providing support through the risky and tough times (including financial). Learning from the fortunes and misfortunes of the past to create a brighter future. 
  • Bringing communities together (within the movement) across the region (mapping out current state of play) – creating an alliance that enables learning between the local level alternative food/farming network initiatives. Widening networks and pooling resources helps everybody. 
  • Communicating a common cause and expanding beyond our existing communities (e.g. different cultural landscapes) – including the notion of consumers identifying with the role that they play in developing a healthy, resilient food system. This includes directly communicating on values so to overcome any myths or prejudice, and to rally around accepted values be that earth care or regional identity and often around both. This can lead to de-mystifying labels and making the fruits of an agroecological food and farming system accessible and not something ‘elite’ – and also, beyond / encompassing organic, exploring how consumer – farmer networks can support farmers to be able to transition to a truly agroecological food and farming system (potentially building from the soil up) that delivers delicious, local, healthy food.

The session organisers will review the recording and notes then create a summary to share with all those that registered an interest in network building. We have promised to host a follow-up discussion via Agricology. We will also discuss this with the NRFC team as network building, learning from one another, reaching out to diverse communities, and inspirational communications seem to be common themes to build on from for the conference as a whole.

You will be able to watch a recording of the session here.

Alternatives to contentious inputs in organic horticulture: session outcomes

On Tuesday 6th October, researchers from Coventry University’sCentre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience led the NRFC session, “Alternatives to contentious inputs in organic horticulture“. As part of the EU H2020 project Organic-PLUS, they are investigating alternatives to materials that whilst permitted in organically certified systems have significant downsides. 

The session focussed on soil-related contentious inputs, specifically: plastic mulch, peat growing media and animal manure from non-organic farms. Around 20 growers attended and brought with them a range of experience and opinions. After an introduction to the project, participants split into groups for more detailed discussion. 

It was found that most people shared the project’s concerns but had other worries, in particular, the overall use of plastic in horticulture (not just mulch): plastic packaging (food and growing media sacks), fleece and netting, pots and modules. Many growers are already using alternative materials including cardboard and wood chip as mulch and plant derived fertility sources including comfrey – there was a strong appetite for more research around such alternatives. Although, there are always time limitations, the group were broadly in favour of ‘systems-solutions’, where alternative materials could be sourced on-farm rather than simply exchanging a contentious input for another brought-in product. Growers would also like more support and collaborative schemes to address these issues collectively. The team at Coventry found the session incredibly informative and helpful to their research; they hope to progress their work with this added insight and collaborate with some of the growers from the conference in the near future.

A summary of the group discussions:

Part 1, Use of contentious inputs and concerns about them:

  • participants, overall, were concerned about contentious inputs in organic systems
  • growers had experienced contamination of non-organic manure with aminopyralid
  • as well as the plastic mulches we are investigating, other plastics are a big concern for people (vegetable packaging, packaging for growing media, fleece, netting, polytunnel coverings, pots and modules)
  • some growers had struggled to find good peat-free compost for seeds
  • there were concerns around the amount of chicken manure used (welfare, residues, leaching of nitrates)
  • it was acknowledged that plastic can be incredibly useful and long-lived plastic items may not be so bad

Part 2, Interest in alternatives, current use of alternatives and barriers:

  • the availability of good peat-free growing media has improved but is still not perfect
  • some growers had experienced success with cardboard mulch and suggested it would be good to have a scheme linking growers to excess/waste packaging materials
  • public awareness is biased towards the side of production that consumers actually see, e.g. plastic packaging rather than plastic mulch
  • unawareness among the general public of horticultural practices – they do not know why materials like plastic mulch are used (IE why weeds are such a problem to crops)
  • we identified a need to have a local approach to the use of resources, e.g. some people can obtain fallen leaves whilst others cannot
  • time was a limiting factor in utilising on-farm solutions (could potentially be ameliorated by effective collaborations, particularly locally)
  • many growers use green waste compost but had concerns about plastic and pesticide contamination
  • some growers are already using comfrey and nettle
  • a large proportion of participants were either using woodchip or were excited about it and wanted to know more as it is available to them

Part 3, On-farm solutions and alternatives needing further investigation:

  • it was felt that on-farm solutions tend to work better on a small scale
  • farm scale may also influence whether an alternative will actually work or is available in sufficient quantities
  • what works for one grower/site/climate/crop/soil may not work for another
  • on-farm solutions are more likely to be trialled by smaller producers, whereas larger farms operated by employees are less likely to experiment
  • there was interest in using humanure – more research needed around removing harmful residues, hormones etc.
  • it was suggested that there should be a system of certification for animal manure
  • it was identified that there is a need to see alternativeness being effective at scale and for this to be communicated to other growers
  • people wanted more definitive information on the use of coffee grounds and brewers’ waste
  • more research around using various kinds of wood chip (different species, different chip size, ramiel etc.)

You will be able to watch the recording of the session here.

Japanese Rural Development & Marginal Hill Farming: what can we learn from farmers in other cultures? Session outcomes

This session outlined how the Japanese have addressed the decline of their marginal hill farming businesses and communities. Whilst there are the usual grants and schemes from the government, Japanese farmers have taken it upon themselves to come up with a range of innovations (some which we are familiar with, and others we are not) in order to maintain their farm businesses and their farming communities. Japan is a developed country facing a range of identical and specific challenges to UK uplands. How can we harness their ideas to help our upland economy flourish?

Ideas from Japan include: bringing farm woods back into productive capacity, novel food production eg charcoal in food stuffs (delicious!), added value and community-led projects such as local food/craft outlets for local product. The audience were also introduced to the FAO’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) which emphasises the cultural, economic and environmental value of traditional farming systems by helping them use the landscape as a brand tool to increase GVA for the wider community. 

The presentation generated a number of discussion points drawing from Japanese innovation revolving around the relationship between public and private investment, capacity to diversify at the farm level and how we can create more community driven projects.  The consensus was that access to labour was a key element for any hill farming business in this country to benefit from new opportunities. With respect to community, there were divided views as to how to encourage more community-driven projects as farmers rarely have time to engage (due to lack of labour again); there are examples in a few places where these are happening eg Ullswater CIC in the Lake District, but even within that, there are time commitment challenges. Perhaps the Shared Prosperity Funds will provide opportunities here. The issue of succession was also discussed as to how we could make land or full time jobs available to more young people wanting to go into farming. Again there are a few pilot examples such as the Fell Farming Traineeship Scheme supported by Cumbria Fells & Dales LEADER+ back in 2008. The GIAHS concept created much interest and the presenter would like to hear from anyone who thinks we need to raise this concept up the political agenda to support agricultural heritage systems in the UK.

You can watch the recording of the session here.