Bringing diversity to agriculture: session outcomes

Just how diverse is agriculture? How do we ensure that all feel that they belong? How can we expand accessibility going forward? These were just some of the questions posed at a dedicated panel discussion at the Real Northern Farming Conference this week.

Diversity in agriculture is not a new topic, both in the UK and further afield. Yet despite initiatives and changes from policy and industry, agriculture is still seen and experienced, particularly in the UK, as a white male career. High profile appointments such as National Farmers Union president Minette Batters, have started to challenge these preconceptions, yet there is only little change in the wider industry. So, what of the experiences of those who are not traditionally seen on the agricultural front lines, or throughout the supply chain, and what benefits are there from increasing diversity going forward?

As part of the inaugural Real Northern Farming Conference researchers and practitioners within the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) and School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University, hosted a discussion panel on bringing diversity to agriculture. Everyone involved presented based on their research and practice-based expertise: from Sally Shortall’s work with the Scottish Governments ‘Women in Agriculture’ taskforce; Hannah Budge’s research of the experiences of the often overlooked women in the agriculture in the Scottish Islands; Joanne Coates experiences of working with women in agriculture for her current residency within CRE, and: Ruth McAreavey’s research into migrant workers in the meat processing and mushroom sectors. This was followed by some insightful reflections from Hannah Davis and Julia Cooper, including their own experiences from academia and farming.

Held virtually due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the online format of the panel discussion created some excellent conversation both in the main session and in the virtual chat. It was interesting to hear a range of voices from different sectors of agriculture, including what bringing diversity would look like to these.

A number of challenges to bringing diversity were raised, including issues with existing power and hierarchical structures, the lack of access to employment support compared to other industries e.g. maternity cover and other working practices, and the need for ensuring opportunities for those pursuing a career in agricultural after finishing their education.

The discussions also highlighted several overarching points that need addressing moving forward, specifically the:

  1. Importance of inclusivity: for ensuring that all those who would like to be involved in agriculture have opportunities to do so. For those already involved, ensuring that they have the opportunity to voice their views and have their say, thus ensuring equal opportunities and rights.
  2. Making the invisible visible: the need for the stories of those who are traditionally less visible in agriculture to be told, with many stories of those in the minority going largely untold. As Joanne highlighted, if no one tells these stories then these individuals or groups are not represented, or not presented fairly. Together with point 1, this also provides the opportunity for more and wider role models. 
  3. Ensuring wider engagement: there is a need for all involved in agriculture to engage in some way or form with improving diversity. One example highlighted during the discussion was the farming press and ensuring that it included content for the less represented audience.
  4. Need for interventions at a range of levels: given the size of the farming industry and the range of different stakeholders involved, there is a need for action at a number of different levels. This includes support and initiatives from industry and the introduction of policy to ensure that there is a push across all areas.

Although these points are by no means exhaustive, addressing them will hopefully start to see change. The need for increased diversity is increasingly more apparent as highlighted by a nice analogy from one of the attendees which nicely sums up the issue: “if there is a monocrop anywhere in the system then you are compromising the farm”. More needs to be done in terms of shifting agriculture in the right direction to ensure ‘diversification’ continues.

You can read the NRFC session details here.

The importance and role of seed saving: session outcomes

Hear from Charlie Gray who convened two sessions focused on seed saving at the Northern Real Farming Conference 2020.

On the opening evening of the conference we ran a northern seed saving networking session which was well attended, had a very positive vibe and gave me hope for a vibrant network. We heard from four speakers and then had discussions. I gathered email contacts so it was a very positive event. Great to hear from so many positive people saving seeds or wanting to!

We heard from four presenters, two from Scotland, one from the Lancaster Seed Library, and there was also an introduction to the seed sovereignty programme and the fact there’s now a regional coordinator in place. We heard from Maria and the bere growers in the highlands and how important grain is, Richie and his Kortahork Cabbage in the lowlands and links to Ireland and Irish seed saversI People brought seed, their passion and a story to introduce themselves to the session where we also discussed what they saved, where they grew, what they could offer the network and challenges they faced. 

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

A second session on seed saving explored ‘why is seed sovereignty important’?. There was a wide and varied group in attendance, clearly interested in many different aspects and types of seed saving and there was lots of seed offered during that session!

The presentations showed different aspects of why seed sovereignty is important. We heard from Sinead Manager of the Seed Sovereignty programme about the current state of seed in the UK, politics, legislation and why we need to do this work. Hans Steenbergen previously of Stormy Hall Seeds and now a co-founder and advisor to the Seed Coop also shared experiences and we heard about some of the technicalities of different seed from different places like the seed producers in Germany. Pippa Chapman, a master horticulturist, organic grower and small holder talked about her variety breeding with squash for flavour, storability and taste, potatoes for blight resistance and some of her experiments and challenges. We also heard from Maria about some of the technicalities with growing grain and why it’s important.

You can watch the recording of this session here.

Food security and online shop fronts: session outcomes

Nick Weir reflects on the Open Food Network session at the Northern Real Farming Conference 2020.

We heard from two Scottish food enterprises which have rapidly risen to the challenge of COVID and restructured their distribution systems almost overnight.

Liane Cumming told us how her smallholding, Woodlea Stables changed from a farm shop business to an entirely online service selling eggs and baked products to not only their existing customer base but also a wide range of new online customers through their new Open Food Network shopfront.

Rosie Jack then showed us the online shopfront for Bowhouse Link which brings together a wide range of products from 15 local farmers, growers and food prodcuers.

Nick Weir then talked about the other kinds of enterprises which are joining the rapidly expanding Network including producers selling direct from their farms, food hubs linking together several local producers through one online shop, farmers’ markets moving online, food co-ops, farm shops, buying groups and food banks.  This summary shows how all these enterprises can then link together in the Network to sell and distribute each other’s’ produce, giving shoppers and buyers multiple options for purchasing local produce.

For more details contact Nick on 01453 840037 or

You can watch the recording of the session here.

Colin Tudge reflects on the Northern Real Farming Conference – and on why it matters

The NRFC got off to a splendid start – hugely important in its own right, bringing new-thinking farmers together, and part of a much larger and indeed global movement that some are calling “the Agrarian Renaissance”.  So what’s different about it? 

Well, “Real Farming” is short for “Enlightened Agriculture” which is informally but adequately defined as – 

“Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest quality, both nutritionally and gastronomically, without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world”. 

Many would say – and do say – that such a vision is “unrealistic”, and of course it is a million miles from what now prevails. But why should it be? The world already produces twice as much food as we really need and far more than we should ever need (since the world population is levelling out) – so why do a billion people still go hungry? Britain’s economy is the fifth largest in the world or so we are told yet a million must now resort to food banks – and the response from government is simply to pressure farmers to produce more food more cheaply. Yet it ought to be eminently possible to provide good food for all and to on doing so in effect forever and without the present harshness and the collateral damage. So why don’t we?

Well, in a nutshell, farming these days is not designed – insofar as it is designed at all – to provide good food for everyone and to take care of the natural world (aka “the biosphere”). It is designed primarily to “compete” in the global market with all other businesses – arms, ‘planes, hairdressing, golf – for profit and “market share”. The kind of farming that is expressly intended to provide good food and look after the land and our fellow creatures is sidelined. The present approach is considered “realistic” even though the result is so obviously dysfunctional. 

For ultra-citified governments like ours farming is an economic also-ran, a lot of trouble yet not a huge contributor to GDP. British governments haven’t really taken agriculture seriously since they got over the blockade of World War II. That have spent a great deal of time and our money on it but that’s not the same thing at all. So a prime task right now is to raise the status agriculture and in particular of real farming and farmers. Adam Smith no less made the same point more than 200 years ago in The Wealth of Nations (1776):  

“After what are called the fine arts, and the liberal professions, there is perhaps no trade that requires so great a variety of knowledge and experience…. The direction of operations, besides, which must be varied with every change of the weather as well as with many other accidents, requires much more judgement and discretion than that of those which are always the same or very nearly the same”. 

Spot on – although farming with all its intricacies and its obvious importance should surely be ranked at least equally with “the fine arts and the liberal professions”. In short, the world needs to reinstate farming centre stage. Indeed we would do well to build our entire lives around it – the economy, social life, and wildlife conservation, for without wildlife-friendly farming the cause of conservation is severely compromised, not to say dead in the water. 

To make real farming work we need many more farmers. A good topic for the NRFC – and indeed for the whole world – would be to discuss how many farmers we really do need; what indeed is the appropriate proportion the world over.  In Rwanda at least until recently 90 per cent of people worked on the land, which surely is too many. But, by the same token, the 1% or so full-time farmers in Britain and the US is obviously too few. Perhaps we and the US need 10 times as many. We certainly should not assume, as recent governments and their economic advisers have assumed, that the fewer the better, and that human beings should be replaced by robots and biotech, and that this is “progress”. High tech is now vital but the task of all tech should only ever be to abet good practice – not to replace human beings for short term profit. Both for its intellectual (and spiritual) content and for its practical importance every school should teach farming as a matter of course and every 14-year-old — even or especially in the inner cities — should be offered farming as a serious career option. That implies that it really should be a serious career option.  

Of course, more farmers means more cost – but there would be huge savings too (including  the well-nigh incalculable costs of ecological degradation) and besides, the real reason that so many people even in rich countries cannot afford food is not that food is too dear (in fact it is too cheap) but because of income inequality. It is impossible to establish a sensible price if some people earn 1000 times more than others, as is increasingly the case the world over. In short: we cannot introduce real farming unless we transform the economy. It is a huge mistake to assume, as is assumed, that we should simply try to plug the square peg of agriculture into the round hole of market-driven (“neoliberal”) economics.  To put farming to rights, we need to dig deep. 

Overall, then, the task before farming and for people who care about it is enormous. And the task is not, as the present generation of panjandrums assumes, to raise productivity and go on raising it or to go on reducing the price or simply to make it more and more profitable and to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, but simply to produce good food while looking after the people who produce it and our fellow creatures. In detail that is immensely challenging (as Adam Smith recognized and all farmers know) but in principle it ought to be easy. The world easily has the capacity to feed us all well without wiping out our fellow species and the fact that we so spectacularly fail to do so reflects the barrenness of thought in high places – and a loss of confidence and loss of direction among farmers, who have allowed themselves to be led by misguided intellectuals and the lure of big money. 

It is time to turn things around – and the people best equipped to do this are the farmers themselves, who best understand what’s needed and how to go about it. It is time indeed for farmers and their allies to take the lead: nothing short of a farmer-led Agrarian Renaissance is required, as we have sometimes discussed at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). The task is indeed huge not least because the official mindset remains more or less unchanged – for the post-Brexit negotiations that could help to push things in the right direction will surely be focused on mega-trade deals, and so shove Britain’s and the world’s farming ever deeper into the throes of the global market, with the accent on short-term profit achieved through high-tech and scaling-up. 

But now there are some serious counter-voices – many grass-roots movements and conferences designed to unite the various voices, on line when necessary, like the ORFC, the Food and Farming Conference of Wales held in 2019, and now the NRFC, with others in the pipeline elsewhere. 

In short, the state of the world is disastrous but it is still possible to turn things round – but only if people who give a damn and know what they are doing (or at least are trying) pick up the reins. 

Together with Graham Harvey and Ruth Tudge, Colin Tudge is a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference; and is also co-founder of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture. His latest book, THE GREAT RE-THINKshould be published by the end of this year. 

You can watch the opening session from the Northern Real Farming Conference here.

From upland farming to dung beetles, urban agriculture to regional autonomies, challenge to hope – Thoughts and reflections on the first four days of #NRFC2020 by members of the NRFC Team

The first ever Northern Real Farming Conference opened on Monday 28 September with around 400 registered participants with a stake, or interest, in regenerative farming systems in the North of England and Scotland.

Beginning with a view from Colin Tudge, co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, we explored the principles of real farming and their context within the current global economic framework. The potential benefits of systems- and place-based approaches were put forward by Anna Clayton as an example of practical ways that we can work together to achieve change. Rod Everett, organic farmer from Roeburndale (north Lancashire), then set out the scale of the challenges ahead from a farmer’s perspective, including a depressing range of statistics outlining the impact of industrial farming on our landscapes and biodiversity. While the challenges are formidable, it soon became clear how determined a collectivity there is, ready to confront them.

Twenty six sessions were programmed for week one, plus a number of social sessions and the week unfolded as a series of ongoing conversations, brimming with enthusiasm and hope.

Even though we cannot do justice to the breadth and range of topics and conversations which took place, we would like to highlight five emerging themes from the first few days.

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 about 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’.

Secondly, 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.

Thirdly, one ambition of the NRFC was to create space for discussing the challenges and opportunities of the upland landscapes typical of much of Northern England and Scotland. These upland areas have become contested spaces in recent years and we had lively discussions in a number of sessions around creating a shared vision for how farming, biodiversity, ‘public goods’ (such as clean water and air), culture and tourism can co-exist in this landscape. Sessions discussed practical approaches as to how farming and biodiversity can be integrated in upland areas, including habitat restoration on common lands and agroforestry, along with a popular discussion session on upland perspectives. Throughout these sessions a common theme emerged: the need for collaboration and sharing of perspectives and knowledge, both within the farming community and beyond.

Fourthly, how to counter biodiversity loss and its impact were considered by many of the sessions, with a particularly impassioned workshop on the role of dung beetles in building soil and animal health. In this session, virtual tours with three farmers hunting for dung beetles showed how important it is to look more closely at the land we live and work in, and to manage it to support this biodiversity that in turn supports us.

And finally, it is worth reflecting on the importance of community, gratitude and hope. Despite being an online event with limited opportunities for those free flowing, often late night conversations that put the world to rights, (although some people are managing that via zoom!), the importance of the growing movement in the North is key. One session began with an invitation to consider who you can be grateful to, and this is a practice for all of us standing for a different future. The resolve we share shone through many of our interactions this week, including the chance to chat, share perspectives and inspire each other.

Thanks to everyone who is taking part in this first ever Northern Real Farming Conference; from those who have brought their sessions online to everyone taking part in their first online conference experience!

Join us for week two of the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference.

Ticket are still available:
The full programme schedule is here:

NRFC welcome the Nature Friendly Farming Network as event sponsors

‘The Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN) is proud to be sponsoring the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference. This is a fantastic opportunity to share best practice and new innovative ideas across the farming community which will benefit nature, the climate and our farming businesses.’ Martin Lines NFFN UK Chair

The Northern Real Farming Conference team would like to thank the Nature Friendly Farming Network for their support. They join Lancaster University and the Economic and Social Research Council as sponsors of the event.

The Northern Real Farming Conference will take place between 28 September and 10 October, with over 50 dedicated sessions covering everything from dung beetles to flood management, agroforestry to urban farming, hill farming to seed saving – and everything in between!

Tickets now on-sale!

With over 60 session proposals submitted the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference promises to be a great event, combining webinars and discussions on dedicated topics, networking and social events, and co-creation sessions. Get your ticket now!

Tickets are now on-sale for the Northern Real Farming Conference 2020 which can be purchased via the Permaculture Association website.

You can read more about our ticket policy and pricing here.

You can also make an application for a bursary place at the conference via the application form.

“The climate is different. Farming systems and traditions are different.”

Suzy Russell and Mick Marston from the Community Supported Agriculture Network UK share their views on why we need a Northern Real Farming Conference.

At the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Network UK we’re delighted to be supporting the NRFC. Why? Because it’s much needed. In the last few years we’ve been putting time, energy and resource into encouraging and supporting CSA in the North of England where there has, until, now, been little activity. And it’s paying off. In the last ten months our Northern membership has more than doubled with the increase across both rural and urban areas. Urban CSAs are taking off and forming part of wider sustainable food ecosystems being developed in many of our big post-industrial cities.  

With this growth has come the need to be talking more to the needs and particularities of the north. CSA has, until now, been more prevalent in the south of England, and as a result much of our knowledge and resource has been developed in an environment which differs significantly from the north. 

The climate is different. Farming systems and traditions are different. Land ownership is different, politics are different and demographics are different. 

The desire to produce good local food is the same though as is the desire to get together and talk about what we are doing, how we are doing it and how we can persuade others to do it too. COVID has exposed seismic faults in our food system and chasms of inequality amongst our people all of which call for radical change, and change which is adapted to local environments.  NRFC will provide a much needed and valuable space to come together in enacting this change and unlocking the door to CSA Up North. 

The call for proposals deadline is 26 July. 

By Suzy Russell, member of the core team for the Northern Real Farming Conference and Mick Marston, both from CSA Network UK

‘Creating a legacy of regenerative farms for our children and future generations’

Rod Everett, a farmer from Roeburndale in North Lancashire and member of the Northern Real Farming Conference team talks about the importance of ‘real farming’ in the North and Scotland.

In the North we have hard working and dedicated farmers who care for their animals, look after the countryside and aim to leave a productive and economically viable farm to their children. They take pleasure at hearing the lapwings and curlews calling, heralding in the spring. They observe the livestock and detect unusual behaviour patterns. They work long and hard hours in all weathers for little return. Most are born and bred farmers and will be till the day they die. We need to give gratitude for their efforts in supplying our food system.

Yet our farming system has been largely designed by the agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Our government is easily persuaded by the lobbyists to accept unsafe levels of pesticides and high levels of fertilizer in the run off from farms. At the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Henry Dimbleby stated that 18 of the largest food and drink companies rely on portfolios of food and drink of which 85% are so unhealthy as to be regarded unsuitable for marketing to children under World Health Organisation guidelines. 

Our soils are losing their rich soil biology and no longer provide the rich nutrient soup on which are crops used to grow. Glyphosate in Roundup, a widely used weed-killer, has been linked to cancer and can have disrupting effects on sexual development, genes and beneficial gut bacteria at doses considered safe. This disruption of the microbiome has been associated with a number of negative health outcomes, such as obesity, diabetes and immunological problems. 

Our sheep and cattle rely on a barrage of anthelmintics to kill stomach worms and insecticides to keep them healthy. One of them, ivermectin, is slowly killing our dung beetles. In a rich ecological system, the dung beetles would normally help to reduce stomach worms by destroying them in the pasture. 

Our winter feeding relies on high protein GM soya, (with around 85% of all EU animal feeds containing GM derived products) often imported from damaged rainforest areas. This has implications on global climate change. 

Our fields no longer absorb our increasingly heavy rainfall. The fast run off leads to flooding downstream. Two thirds of our rivers showed samples of over 10 pesticides.

We all notice the decline in the diversity of wildlife. There was a 46% decline in butterflies between 1976 and 2017. Some fields are overloaded with slurry and the soil underneath is now devoid of earthworms and other beneficial microbiology.

Yet in the North of England and Scotland there are an increasing number of farmers who have said to themselves that things must change on their farms if they are to produce healthy food and look after the soil. The realisation that a living biologically active soil is key to a resilient food and farming system has led many to experiment with new ways of farming. The Northern Real Farming Conference will bring together these pioneer farmers who are successfully altering their farming systems to create ecologically and economically viable farms which bring joy to their families and local community. They are creating a legacy of regenerative farms for our children and future generations.

This conference will be online (due to Covid) from 28th Sept to October 10th and will bring together farmers, researchers and food specialists.  This will be an opportunity to connect with other farmers, discuss ideas, explore innovative research, tell stories and be part of an important movement for change. Don’t feel alone any more, become part of the family.

We expect that there will be a wide range of topics included such as pasture fed livestock; holistic management; alternative livestock feeds and different ways to manage grazing livestock such as mob grazing to help the pastures grow deep roots and build natural fertility; and marketing and butchering of meats rich in omega 3 fats.

Sessions may include how to invigorate the soil biology with bio-fertilizers, compost teas and effective microbes;  how to grow vegetables and cereals with minimum tillage techniques; growing vegetables with disadvantaged communities such as refugees and asylum seekers in urban situations both in the UK and abroad; and developing procurement systems that support local and resilient food as part of the sustainable food cities network. 

Other farmers may share about small micro-farms that provide local employment and help build local community; farm caring and farm sharing; succession planning and community ownership; rewilding projects and natural flood management techniques; agroforestry and its multiple benefits to farms; and how we will need to adjust to the extremes expected with climate change and how this is affecting other people throughout the world.  

We will also learn about the new ELM’s Environmental Land Management Scheme and how it will fund farmers for providing public benefits such as wildlife diversity, flood management, restoring our soils and education. 

There will be some speakers bringing their relevant expertise from other parts of the world and of course the strength and learning will be in the important stories and life experience that every participant brings with them.

This event was stimulated and is being supported by the successful Oxford Real Farming Conference which now attracts over 1000 people each year. For many farmers it is the highlight of their year where they can refresh their enthusiasm and courage to look forward to another year creating a new path for farming, supported by the new friends and contacts they made.

Please join us at the Northern Real Farming Conference to make this an important moment in your life where a change in farming habits becomes both a joy and a commitment to a future of farming with a future.

Deadline for submitting proposals for sessions is 26 July.

By Rod Everett, member of the core team for the Northern Real Farming Conference and a farmer from Roeburndale in the Forest of Bowland (North Lancashire), producing apples and cider vinegar on a diverse wildlife rich farm.

Call for proposals opens for Northern Real Farming Conference 2020

We are delighted to announce that the call for proposals for the inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference is now open

In the midst of multiple crises (climate chaos, ecological breakdown, mass extinction, social unrest and Covid-19), it is crucial that we re-think and share practical experiences of innovative and environmentally sustainable ways to farm and bring food to our markets and ultimately our kitchen tables.

Having been overwhelmed with interest, the first ever Northern Real Farming Conference (NRFC) will run from 28 September – 10 October 2020, in a mostly online format (though we have some ideas up our sleeve if social distancing rules permit!). 

The NRFC is inspired and supported by the long-running Oxford Real Farming Conference. ‘Real Farming’ events explore transformative strategies, theories, approaches, and practical and progressive actions for just and sustainable agriculture and food systems. At the NRFC we will be focussing primarily on Real Farming in the northern parts of England and Scotland.

It’s the first of hopefully many NRFCs, and we are looking forward to building the northern real farming community in the years to come.

Submit your conference proposals by 26 July.