Mushrooms, self-sufficiency and peat

Hosted by the Soil Association

The UK is less than 50% self-sufficient in mushrooms which is strange for a crop mostly grown in non-season dependant conditions. Opportunities for increasing UK mushroom production appears to be a low hanging fruit. We explore the aspirations and pitfalls of running an organic mushroom business selling both edible and medicinal produce and discuss scope for mycoremediation – cleaning up the environment using unproductive mushroom substrate. Upscaling mushroom production has its benefits and challenges but could small scale horticultural enterprises diversifying into mushroom production be a solution? We examine how new entrants could access mushroom growing through relatively cheap converted portable spaces and trial-before-you-buy schemes. Peat has been a contentious input in mushroom production (particularly for the infamous button mushroom). As part of Organic-PLUS research the Soil Association has been looking at some of the challenges facing the industry.

Speakers/hosts include:

Hugh Blogg – Hugh is Soil Association Horticultural Advisor, Farming and Land Use Team and has experience running a small-scale enterprise – Fungusloci – an urban mushroom micro-farm growing gourmet mushrooms on spent coffee. He leads on potato supply chain work focusing on the uptake of blight resistant varieties within retail. Further areas of focus include issues around seed for small scale growers, technical organic gardening queries, supporting the Fruit and Vegetable Alliance, and coordinating grower support for organic vineyards. Hugh has been involved in work on innovative solutions in organic agriculture and better connecting organic farming, carbon sequestration and soil health.

Tom Baxter – Tom is founder of Bristol Fungarium – producer of the UK’s only organic certified medicinal mushroom tinctures, grown and produced in Somerset

James Scriven – James is f
ounder of Mycogeneration – an applied mycology business helping small-scale producers diversify into mushroom production

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 (

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.

No-till with living mulches – the holy grail for arable?

Hosted by the Soil Association

No-till arable farming has revolutionised the arable farming mindset and is of interest to organic farmers because of its potential to reduce cultivations whilst providing weed control, fertility and soil health. It is also of interest to regenerative farmers who want to reduce inputs of artificial fertilisers and chemicals. But is it possible? Cover crops or green manures have always been part of organic arable systems but are now commonly used conventionally as part of regenerative farming systems.. The 4 pillars of regenerative farming are no-till, continuous ground cover, crop diversity and livestock integration.

In organic systems, cover crops have generally been ploughed in to provide fertility for the rotation but adopting organic no-till will require termination of the cover crop and this is difficult for organic farmers who cannot use chemicals.

One solution? A non-aggressive, low growing permanent cover crop such as small white clover, which shades out weeds and provides fertility.

In this session, we talk to an arable farming expert as well as the researcher who are looking at the potential of no-till with living mulches with a group of organic and conventional farmers running on-farm trials, plus a Scottish farmer trying out the technique.

Speakers/hosts include:

Jerry Alford- Soil Association arable and soils advisor.
Jerry is interested in a systems approach to farming, and looks at farms as a whole system rather than just 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.

Harry Henderson – Starting out as a tractor, combine and crop sprayer operator. Harry then worked for Rothamsted Research Station UK, before coming farm manager at Monsanto Cambridge. From there he took a role with John Deere UK ltd as a Crop Systems Specialist involved in technical dealer sales support in combine harvester, crop sprayer and precision technology products. In 2013 Harry joined AHDB as a regional manager for the North of England and is now a Knowledge Exchange Manager with a focus technical knowledge exchange, mechanisation, soil management and arable farming.

Stuart Mitchell – Stuart is an organic beef, deer and arable farmer from Denholm Scotland. He is trialling no-till in the Scottish Borders

Dominic Amos –  Dominic works at the Organic Research Centre, having joined five years ago to pursue research interests in sustainable cropping and soils management. Having previously worked testing agrochemicals, providing data for agrochemical companies he now works with farmers across projects including the Innovative Farmers programme, supporting farmers to conduct on-farm research supporting them to test innovation. He works as researcher on the living mulch field lab exploring with the farmers the use of a clover understory as an approach for improving cropping system sustainability and improving soil health.

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.

Beekeeping for permaculturists

Hosted by the Lune Valley Beekeepers

Around 60% of all edible crops are insect pollinated (Defra). The only pollinating insect that can be successfully managed outdoors, at scale, is the honey bee. The presentation will explain an environmentally friendly, low interventionist approach to beekeeping for those who want bees but do not have the time to involve themselves in conventional beekeeping techniques.

Speakers/hosts include:

Fred Ayres – Fred Ayres has been keeping bees for over 20 years and was initially trained as a conventional beekeeper. As his colony numbers increased, along with the time involved in managing them, he began to wonder if there was a better way. He was very clear that his interest lay in finding out what was best for the bees, the environment in which they thrived and pollination rather than the production of honey or to manipulate their breeding. The outcomes were to identify a number of alternative approaches which are being increasingly adopted across the country and the design of an innovative beehive which better suited to a northern environment, avoids the need for heavy lifting and can be managed by someone in a wheelchair. He is the current Chair of Trustees on Lune Valley Beekeepers.

‘It’s Always Been’ – A short film exploring who has access to land

Hosted by Joanne Coates

‘It’s always been’, is a film made by New Creatives north which will be shown on the BBC. This evening session will include a showcase of the film, followed by a question and answer session exploring issues related to access to farming.

Film Synopsis: In the Scottish Borders a farming couple, Kirstie and Kevin, struggle to make ends meet. This film provides a look at the realities of rural living in 2021. Farming can be an impossible road to start on. After an opportunity to have their own farm falls through will they manage to carry on with the hard work it takes to survive in the industry or give up on all their traditions, hopes and dreams?

Speakers/hosts include:

Joanne Coates – Joanne Coates is a working class documentary storyteller who uses the medium of photography. Based in the North of England, she is interested in modes of production, rurality, working life and class inequality. Born in the rural North of England, educated first in working class communities, then at The Sir John Cass School of Fine art (Fda Fine Art) and The London College of Communication (Ba Hons Photography), her practice is as much about process, participation and working with communities. Coates’ key themes are Northern culture in rural places and working class life.

Kirsty and Kevin Duncan – Kirstie and Kevin are the farmers and farm workers. They have worked in farming from young ages, now they are trying to make a go of it and get access to their own land in the Scottish Borders.

Northern seed networks – where we are now?

Hosted by the Gaia Foundation

Last year we held a networking session for northern seed savers at the Northern Real Farming Conference. This session is a follow on from last year to share where we’re at, what’s going well and what our next steps might be. Everyone welcome – come and find out more!

Speakers/hosts include:

Charlie Gray – Charlie is the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Campaign’s Coordinator for Northern England. She has worked in community growing in Yorkshire working with community and growers for more than 10 years, studying food systems prior to that.

Catherine Howell – Catherine is part of Barefoot Community Kitchen and she’s on our cohort of intermediate seed savers in Northern England. Catherine has 15 years experience in environmental projects that include food growing and horticulture, community development, sustainable materials, recycling and ‘zero waste.’ She has worked both within the community and with organisations of variable sizes, including in the private and voluntary sector and with local authorities. She is a passionate advocate of community activism, keen walker and loves sharing what she knows with others so that they too may have a ‘Tread Lightly’ impact on the planet. She also loves creating beautiful spaces for people to enjoy!