Can organic principles and practices guide us in building community-led food and farming systems?

Hosted by the Organic Research Centre

At NRFC20 we ran a session to explore how we could develop an agroecology food and farming network in the North of England – at the same time, growing and connecting networks emerged as a strong theme from across the conference as a way to continue to develop the movement for better food and farming in the North of England. In our session, we identified three key areas to expand:

  • Bringing communities together across the region – creating an alliance that enables learning between the local level alternative food/farming initiatives.
  • Reflecting on our experiences to make sure we ‘catch the wave’ – that is, learning from existing successful (and not so successful) initiatives on how to make the most of the momentum building behind finding alternatives to the current system.
  • Communicating a common cause and expanding beyond our existing communities (e.g., different cultural landscapes) – including the notion of citizens identifying with the role that they play in developing a healthy, resilient food system. Being clear about the vision for the future that we want.

At NRFC21, we would like to build on this through the exploration of the values that we believe must underlie the self-sustaining hubs/networks that can build local economies. This will include exploring past and current experiences from organic farming in the UK – particularly in the North of England, where opportunities for expansion of organic and agroecological practices have been identified but challenges have also been identified.

There is a strong belief that real organic and agroecological principles can only be put into practice through the development of local communities and economies, although communities and economies built on shared values can (and do) exist and thrive beyond localities. However, ‘values’ in the abstract are not enough, communities and economies are built on ‘functional hubs’ e.g., markets, equipment or input sharing (e.g. seeds), shared transport/labour and shared identity (which occasionally emerges as local currencies, branding). Traceability, accountability, and support must also be considered.

Identifying and nurturing such ‘functional hubs’ based on farm practice and working structures is critical in developing genuinely alternative farming and food. To support this, in this session we will explore how the Organic Principles can guide the development of such hubs; what the practices are that we feel should feature on the farms and food businesses we choose to build local hubs around; and, how community culture and needs can be channelled as a driver to achieve truly sustainable local economies.

We would like to invite all those working towards embodying the principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care, that offer the example of what is possible, to gather and share their experience. The ambition is to determine the synergies between what currently exists, identify gaps, and develop a framework to guide the development of local initiatives – from field to fork – that can de-mystify labels and make the fruits of an agroecological food and farming system accessible.

Speakers/hosts include:

Charlotte Bickler – Charlotte leads the Knowledge Exchange and Policy team at the Organic Research Centre, ensuring that ORC’s research gets out to its key stakeholders in the best format possible. She is based in West Yorkshire and has worked as a researcher at the ORC, Kew Gardens and The University of Bristol. Most recently, she has studied the application of evolutionary breeding within organic systems and developed an on-farm organic variety testing network (now a DEFRA funded project, LiveWheat) with her ORC Crops Team colleagues, Organic Arable and a group of participatory farmers. She has also coordinated knowledge exchange and on-farm trials of crop mixtures and worked to understand the enablers required to deliver crop diversification in European agriculture. She is working to develop local hubs built around Organic Principles and practices via the Organic at the Heart project which developed out of the NRFC20 session that she led (https://www.organicresearchcentre.com/our-research/research-project-library/organic-at-the-heart/).

Lawrence Woodward – Lawrence is a co-founder of the Organic Research Centre and was its director for 30 years. Under Lawrence’s directorship ORC and its advisory service helped establish and develop many farmer-based initiatives including the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op, Organic Arable, The Organic Growers Alliance and a national Organic Farm Demonstration Network. Lawrence is currently a director of Whole Health Agriculture and continues to work with a range of farmer-based projects on health, food quality, seeds and producer development. He was one of the lead authors of the international Organic Principles of IFOAM (the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements).

Hannah Field – Hannah coordinates the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s (FFCC) Cumbria Inquiry and is a PhD Student at the University of Cumbria, researching Common Land. Hannah has spent the last 10 years in Cumbria, having worked for Forestry England and run her own business in wool craftwork, as well as studying at the University (BSc (Hons) in Animal Conservation Science and PGDip Ecosystem Services Evaluation). Her research and practical interests relate to how diverse perspectives and values in land management can be brought together for social and ecological benefit through place-based decision-making.

Steven Jacobs – Steven has been working in food and farming for 30 years, starting in market gardening and moving through farming to retail via catering. Following work with the Permaculture Association, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, Fresh & Wild (now Wholefoods Market) and Essential Trading Co-operative, Steven joined Organic Farmers & Growers in 2007. Steven represents OF&G on a number of roundtables, forums and working groups: Agricology, IFOAM EU, the NFU Organic Forum and the Agriculture Working Party of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. Steven is the founder and coordinator of the annual organic farming conference, the OF&G National Organic Combinable Crops, also known as NOCC. Steven chairs the Welsh Grain Forum and also sits on the steering committee for the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference – WRFFC / Cynhadledd Gwir Fwyd a Ffermio Cymru – CGFFfC and Food Manifesto Wales.

NRFC in-person gathering: Opening session

Hosted by NRFC

We are at a crucial point in developing the farming and food systems for the future. As the UK transitions to new post-Brexit frameworks for agriculture and seeks to emerge from the impact of Covid-19 stronger, the wider crises of biodiversity loss, ecological breakdown, inequality and social unrest continue. 

The Northern Real Farming Conference is a space to dream, to re-think and to share practical experiences of regenerative and socially just ways to farm and bring food to markets and kitchen tables. We focus specifically on the North of England and Scotland and the unique landscapes and cultures of these regions.

This opening session will hear from a range of speakers, exploring northern farming and the vision for the future. There will be music from Deep Caberet.

Speakers/hosts include:

Caroline Jackson – Caroline Jackson spent 35 years as an English teacher in the north west finishing her career as headteacher of a small rural secondary school. Since then she has, with a friend, set up the Claver Hill project, a 6 acre site on the edge of Lancaster dedicated to teaching anyone and everyone how to grow food and care for the land in sustainable ways.. She is a local Green Party councillor and currently Leader of Lancaster city council.

Pete Richie, Nourish Scotland – Pete is the Executive Director of Nourish Scotland, a charity focusing on food policy and practice. He also runs Whitmuir Organics with his partner.

Roz Corbett – Roz is a market gardener and beekeeper based in Glasgow in Scotland and works for the LWA on coordination of our work around COP26 and supporting a La Via Campesina delegation to COP.  She previously worked at Taybank Growers Cooperative in Perthshire and is also a founder member of the Scottish Farm Land Trust. Roz is also studying part-time for a PhD with Aberdeen University and the James Hutton Institute, looking at the community land ownership and new entrants in Scotland.

Michelle Parry – Founder and community builder at The ReWilding, based on a local dairy farm in Cockerham, Lancashire

Paul Cambre – Paul joined Growing Well near Kendal in 2020 in a new role to maximise sustainable income from our organic growing enterprise. Paul is from New Orleans and has worked and studied in the US,  Canada and China. He has a Masters in sustainable agriculture and was previously Head Grower for a local two Michelin-starred restaurant.

​Steve Lewis – Steve from Deep Caberet has been a vocalist, guitarist, percussionist, improviser, songwriter, community musician and bandleader for 30 + years. His ‘Deep Cabaret’ projects, from solo torch songs to African dance band to 15-piece improvised opera have in common a desire to explore the musics that most fascinate him. This most recent manifestation is the culmination of that work curating jazz, improv, African, folk and leftfield pop to set fragments of text taken from novels, journalism, spiritual and other texts that have important things to say about being human.

Replacing imported soya – a supply chain or a farmer issue?

Hosted by the Soil Association

Sold as either a ruminant food with an oil by-product, or a by-product of the production of human consumption oil, soya has become a main stay of livestock production in Europe but is also a driver of large scale deforestation in south America. Efforts to reduce its use often fail, often for some very ‘reasonable’ reasons – widespread availability, relative cheapness and seeming lack of interest in alternatives. But is this all the fault of the supply chain or are we as farmers partly to blame? With a climate suited to grass growth, a need for break crops and a need for UK farmers to reduce GHG emissions and move away from N fertilisers, is now the time to produce our own protein?

This session explores the issue from all sides, with a panel comprising a supermarket representative, a livestock feed producer and a farmer.

Speakers/hosts include:

Jerry Alford,  Soil Association Arable and Soils Advisor – Jerry is interested in a systems approach to farming, looking at farms as a whole system rather than a mix of enterprises or a series of crops in rotation. He is also looking at options to reduce cultivations within organic rotations and the adoption of more agroecological and organic type systems in non-organic farms. Jerry coordinated research for the OKNET ECOFEED project, which looked at regional production of proteins for monogastrics.

Sam Lee-Gamgee – Sam is Group Ethics and Sustainability Manager, raw food sourcing (food) at John Lewis Partnership

Rob Daykin – Rob is Managing partner at Daykin partnership Ltd

Mike Mallett – Mike is Farm Manager of Maple Farm Kelsale, a 137ha family owned mixed organic farm situated on the Suffolk Coast, where Mike has been manager for the past 6 years. It is mostly arable but is also home to the Maple Farm Kelsale Organic Eggs, which is integrated into the arable rotation. The primary role of the arable cropping is to supply food for the hens whose eggs are sold all over East Anglia and London.

What makes a farm advisor?

Hosted by the Ribble Rivers Trust

This session will focus on what is a farm advisor, and aim to discuss the following:
– What is a farm advisor?
– How farm advisors work with farmers to implement environmental methods which will have a positive impact on both the environment and farm business?
– What evidence is used to target certain features or areas?
– The challenges involved
– What do farm advisors need to be aware of in the future?

The aim is to have an open discussion about farm advice and the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Speakers/hosts include:

Kathryn Oddie- Senior Farm Advisor, Ribble Rivers Trust
Kathryn joined the team in 2019. Kathryn works as a farm advisor for the trust on the Ribble Life Together project and runs the River Loud Facilitation Fund group. As well as being a local farmers daughter, she has a background in agri- environment and environmental monitoring.

Jack Spees – CEO Ribble Rivers Trust
Jack started at the Ribble Rivers Trust in 2008 as the Fisheries Scientist before being made Trust Director in 2010. Jack now oversees the work undertaken by the Trust and the team as well as providing a wealth of information on all aspects of the river environment.

Kristina Graves – Woodland Creation Officer
Kristina began working for the Trust in 2019, joining us to fill the new role of Woodland Creation Officer. Having worked on a range of habitat projects Kristina has an excellent knowledge of woodlands and ecology which is already proving to be a huge asset to the team.

Ellie Brown- GIS Data And Evidence Officer
Ellie joined the team in 2015 as part of the Ribble Life Together project. She combines her love of wildlife and the environment with her knowledge of GIS (mapping software) to support many aspects of the Trust’s work. Catchment-scale analyses to aid the Trust’s strategic planning of projects, to target locations where they will have the greatest benefit; collating and mapping evidence to support funding bids; creating interactive maps for the Trust’s website to educate and inform the public; managing the Trust’s GIS datasets; and helping other members of the team with various mapping tasks are all in a week’s work for a GIS Officer. Ellie also manages or assists with other non-GIS-based data and evidence aspects of the Trust’s work.

Heather Whalley – Farm advisor
Heather is a farmer from the Hodder Valley, with a passion for the environment and combining sustainable farming and conservation. With a great knowledge of the local area, her work as a farm advisor she will be to engage, visit and support farmers to make positive changes for the catchment

FarmStart: Support and progress in the north

Hosted by the Urban Agriculture Consortium and the Landworkers’ Alliance

The Urban Agriculture Consortium (launched in summer 2020) has rapidly established itself as an innovative part of the emerging regenerative agroecology movement. The Urban Agriculture Consortium has joined forces with The Landworkers’ Alliance to set up and coordinate a series of workshops to support an emerging cluster of FarmStart projects across the north.

This session will describe the experiences to date, and will explore emerging opportunities to embed and promote further agroecological FarmStarts across the UK.

We hope the session will inspire further FarmStarts in other parts of England and Wales in 2022, potentially with DEFRA support.

People will gain an insight into the rapidly establishing movement of urban FarmStarts and collaborations between local, regional and national partners.

Speakers/hosts include:

Maddy Longhurst – Maddy has always followed her instincts to work on initiatives and ideas that lie in the fertile margins and serve future generations. Recently this has involved the protection of land and soils, community-led thermal imaging of cold homes, Ecosystem Restoration Design, creating regenerative Tiny House Settlements, Sociocracy and Gleaning training for communities. Maddy worked on Phase 1 of the urban agriculture project in 2019, and is now co-coordinating the Urban Agriculture Consortium.

Fran Halsall – After a decade-long career as a landscape photographer and writer, Fran completed an MA in landscape architecture at the University of Sheffield. She has been involved in the creation of three community growing spaces in Sheffield: the Kenwood Community Growers; the Food Work’s farm and the Regather community garden. Fran is ShefFood’s Urban Agriculture Co-ordinator, leading on Sheffield’s participation in the national Fringe Farming and Urban Agriculture Consortium programmes.

Hatty Richards – Hatty’s background is in project development, management and fundraising within the community sector, mostly related to bicycles and community supported agriculture. She has also spent years grafting out on the fields and hosting different groups on the land to learn about and take part in growing.

Local policy and sustainable farming: Sticking points or a genuine impasse?

Clearly, efforts to generalise sustainable farming practices face some pretty considerable barriers: unforgiving market conditions, unhelpful subsidies, uncooperative banks, unrelentingly inflated land values, and so on. What role can local authorities play in addressing these issues and supporting a transition to a more regenerative farming landscape? From county farms to public procurement, development banks to planning reform, over the years various measures have been proposed to support sustainable farming, and in many areas local councils are currently experimenting with their implementation.

This session will draw on case studies from across the North (and beyond) to assess their performance, and reflect on the opportunities and challenges for local policy approaches. The panelists will outline how local agricultural policies have been put into practice, what impact they’ve had on the sector, and what lessons have been learned for our big-picture strategies for food systems transitions. Through discussion we’ll attempt to confront some of the most challenging questions: where do these policies hit limits, and to what extent can they be overcome? If policy has its limits, what other options do we have?

Speakers/hosts include:

Callum Sunderland – Callum is a graduate student at the Centre for Alternative Technology. He recently completed dissertation research on the impact of Preston City Council’s local economic strategy on Lancashire’s agricultural sector. He grew up in Hull and currently lives in London.

Rebecca Laughton – Rebecca has many years of experience in organic market gardening, farming and research relating to small scale agriculture and low impact planning, and is author of “Surviving and Thriving on the Land” (Green Books 2008) . She currently works part time at a glasshouse in Somerset, growing salad crops, while focussing on advocacy and research in the Landworkers’ Alliance Horticulture Campaign.

Ruth Westcott – Ruth co-ordinates Sustain’s work on the Climate and Nature Emergency and on Sustainable Fishing, working to make food a central part of policies to tackle the climate and nature emergency at a local and national level; also to encourage businesses to adopt a fully sustainable fish policy, and thereby help transform the way the world’s oceans are fished.

James Woodward – James joined Sustain in September 2020 and works on farming policy and campaigns. Previously, he has worked in farm advice for Natural England, supporting farmers into sustainable whole farm systems. He has also worked in farming policy for Defra and the National Farmers’ Union. Alongside this, he also likes to spend time on his step-family’s Cumbrian farm.

Safeguarding our food and our farms – why new GMOs are a real and present danger

Hosted by GM Freeze

Most agroecologists understand that genetic engineering has no place in a responsible, fair and sustainable food system but the PR campaign promoting new gene editing techniques is clever, well-resourced and gaining ground. The UK Government is accelerating plans to remove vital regulatory safeguards and, with them, our ability to say no. Post-Brexit market rules mean that even Scotland’s strong policy rejection of all GMOs will be under threat if we don’t stop the headlong rush towards a high-tech quick-fix takeover of our food and our farms.

Join an expert panel to learn about the latest scientific and political developments as well as the most effective ways to make your voice heard. There will also be plenty of time for questions on any aspect of GM in food and farming.

Speakers/hosts include:

 Liz O’Neill – Liz is the Director of GM Freeze, the UK umbrella campaign on GM food, crops and patents. GM Freeze is working to help create a responsible, fair and sustainable food system.

Steven Jacobs – Steven is the Business Development Manager of Organic Farmers & Growers which certifies more than half of UK organic land and provides support, information and licensing to Britain’s top organic food businesses.

Pete Richie – Pete is the Executive Director of Nourish Scotland, a charity focusing on food policy and practice. He also runs Whitmuir Organics with his partner.

Northern Real Farming Conference Opening Session

Hosted by the NRFC conference team

The opening session of the Northern Real Farming Conference explored the principles of real farming, the need for system change and the experiences of farmers in the North. There was also be an opportunity to network and meet other conference participants.

Speakers included:

Ellen Pearce has been coordinating FarmStart work in Lancaster for the last 3 years, undertaking a feasibility study, pilot programme and setting up a local funding scheme for the project. She co-chairs the Food and Economy working group for FoodFutures, North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Network and coordinates the Northern Real Farming Conference.

Colin Tudge is a biologist by education and a writer by trade. He worked for Farmers Weekly, New Scientist, and BBC Radio 3 before going freelance in about 1990, and is author of about 15 books on natural history, evolution, genetics, ecology – and, in particular, on nutrition, cooking, and agriculture. Around 2008, together with his wife Ruth (West) and help from good friends, he began the Campaign for Real Farming — which has given rise to the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the still peripatetic but ever-growing College for Real Farming and Food Culture. The aim is to help bring about a global, cross-the-board Renaissance – beginning with food and farming.

Anna Clayton sits on the management committee of Claver Hill Community Food Project and is a member of Spud Club (a community grown agriculture scheme) and Lancaster Seed Library. For the past ten years, Anna has worked on a variety of community food and environmental initiatives and currently coordinates FoodFutures: North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Network. Anna also works part time as a Worker Director, Writer and Researcher at Ethical Consumer Magazine.

Rod Everett has over 60 years of living at Backsbottom farm, has experienced many floods and has recently set up a Natural Flood Management educational trail as part of a wider project working with neighbouring farmers to reduce flooding. He was instrumental in setting up the Northern Real Farming Conference.

You can read a blog post by Colin Tudge on Real Farming and why it matters.

Rewarding results for nature friendly farming

Hosted by the Yorkshire Dales National Park with colleagues. 

Results based payments are being used to inspire and incentivise nature friendly farming in 2 projects within the Dales – Payment By Results (managed by Natural England and Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority) and Payment for Outcomes (National Trust).

This session was an interactive webinar cum panel discussion to showcase an alternative approach to agri-environment schemes that’s being trialled by farmers in the Yorkshire Dales and which may play a role in England’s future Environmental Land Management scheme. There were opportunities to hear from farmers taking part, including a panel discussion on how they feel about the results based approach, the pit falls and the positives. In addition, there was a guest presentation from Irelands Hen Harrier project to show how a results based scheme is being delivered successfully, at scale in other upland areas.

Throughout the session the  audiences’ views were sought on results-based incentives to gain a greater understanding of their perceptions and views.


Helen Keep is the Senior Farm Conservation Officer at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. She manages the farm conservation team who work with farmers to help them improve the nature conservation value and reduce pollution risk on their farms via accessing agri-environment schemes. Her career has spanned 24 years within the upland farming and agri-environment sector, starting in ADAS in 1996 as a Countryside Stewardship adviser, then transferring to the Yorkshire Dales in 2005. She has worked on results based approaches since 2015 and has co-designed and helps deliver the grassland pilot of the Defra Payment by Results trial.

Annabelle LePage is a Senior Adviser in the Strategy & Government Advice Team at Natural England based in York. She has been the project manager of the grassland and arable pilots of the Defra Payment by Results trial and its EU funded precursor since 2016. Her long career at Natural England brings a wealth of expertise to this topic

Lauryn Mcloughlin has been with the National Trust since December 2019 as the Project Officer for the DEFRA ELMS Test working on engaging with National Trust Tenants and wider stakeholders to deliver a feasibility study of the Whole Farm Approach. She has a background in oil science and public engagement

Dr Elizabeth Sullivan has been the National Trust funded Payments for Outcomes project officer since 2019, working with 5 National Trust tenants in the Yorkshire Dales in relation to Soil Health, Pollinator Health and Natural Flood Management. She has a strong research background relating to hay meadows and is affiliated with Edgehill University

You can read a blog post about the session outcomes here.


Scotland’s Changing Landscape – exploring the tensions between farming, forestry and rewilding in the uplands

With multiple pressures coming from all angles, one thing is clear: our landscapes will, and must, be managed differently. This session discussed the opportunities and the tensions between upland farming, commercial forestry and rewilding in a post-COVID, post-Brexit, climate-changing future.

Bringing you an all-Scottish panel of farmers and conservationists coming from a range of perspectives – from rewilding to agroforestry to moorland management – we held this space to host a lively debate about the tensions and possibilities that lie ahead for the upland land manager.


Alan McDonnell is Conservation Manager at Trees For Life, a rewilding charity in the Scottish Highlands.  While focused on ecological regeneration and involving volunteers in practical, mindful action to restore habitats and species, much of his work is about finding ways to use the skills, knowledge and livelihoods in today’s landscapes as the basis of a future with a sustainable balance between the needs of nature, business and people’s quality of life.

Andrew Barbour is a farmer and forester, working in Highland Perthshire.  He was the chairman of the Scottish Government’s Woodland Expansion Advisory Group which reported back in 2010, looking at the ambitions of Govt to expand forestry at that time.  More recently he was part of the Deer Working Group which has just recently reported to Scottish Government.

Finn Weddle is a self-directed student of agroforestry and an advocate of regenerative livelihoods, ecological design and agroecology. He is especially passionate about the landscape and the businesses and communities that shape it, and is bringing this session to the NRFC to highlight the work being undertaken in Scotland and cross-pollinate learnings with English counterparts. He is also a Director of Reforesting Scotland, has worked extensively with Permaculture Scotland and consults on ecological enterprise, sharing learnings through The Regenerative Livelihood Podcast.

Patrick Laurie worked as a project manager for the Heather Trust over eight years, promoting integrated moorland management for a variety of land uses across the UK uplands, including agriculture, peatland, renewables and fieldsports. He then moved to Soil Association Scotland to deliver their Farming with Nature program, before setting up as an independent moorland management consultant. Alongside this work, he now manages the Galloway Hills Network, a project to promote diverse and sustainable upland farming in southwest Scotland. He has also been running a herd of pedigree galloway cattle in a variety of conservation projects for black grouse and curlews since 2015.

You can read the session outcomes here.