Back to the Land: A Farm to Call Home

By Wing Yee Li, Diversity Bursary Fund Beneficiary

POC caucus venue: Willowbrook Farm, Oxfordshire. Photo credit: Nonhlanhla Makuyana.

Although I was born and bred in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, I never felt at home. Maybe it was something to do with living far from the land where my food was grown. Maybe it was the absence of a sense of community in an urban society characterised by individualism. Maybe being born of first generation immigrants from Hong Kong, not being able to speak Cantonese, and being of a Chinese culture, meant that I grew up very much feeling like an outsider. In hindsight, I know well that all of these definitely contributed to feeling disconnected; to the land beneath my feet and the communities around me. I was looking for belonging and found it on my journey back to the land. A journey that spans our dear green and blue planet and many years.

I decided to leave the UK in 2012 with my life savings and went WWOOFing for 4 years in New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. Living with people doing it already, it was then that I realised: I wanted to farm the land. My parents immigrated to Scotland in the 1970s. My father was from a farming community, something I discovered as a young adult. A few years ago, I discovered that his family lands were sold off, I guess, to property developers in mainland China.

A good friend I made while WWOOFing in New Zealand, originally from Oxford, told me about ORFC 2018 and I knew that I just had to go. It was inspiring, educational, revelatory and, most importantly, it was somewhere with a mission the same as mine: to farm sustainably. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the programme and learned about the Diversity Fund. The ORFC are trying to reach out to, and welcome, People Of Colour [POC] (a term originally from USA), known as people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic [BAME] communities in the UK. I’m deeply grateful to the Lush Foundation, the generous benefactors, for the opportunity to attend this year’s conference.

Sometimes living in the city, as I currently am, I forget about my dream to farm the land. It takes being at ORFC to kick me out a groove and activate the determination to make my dreams come true. That’s what makes ORFC so special; it effortlessly achieves a fine balance between the science and the heart, between the practical day-to-day management and the theoretical big picture thinking. Thanks to it’s dedicated team of trustees, organisers and volunteers.

I was very excited about the 2020 programme because it seemed that race equality in farming was clearly on the agenda. I hoped that this year’s conference would be as great as 2018’s and I was definitely not disappointed. Most memorable was Leah Penniman’s presentation to a packed main hall in which she told us about Soul Fire Farm in New York state, ‘a BIPOC [Black, Indigenous & People Of Colour]-centre-ed community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system’. She also talked about the radical Reparations Map for Black-Indigenous Farmersthat aims for social justice in land and resource management. This, plus the participatory workshop I attended, ‘Towards A People’s Land Policy’facilitated by the Land Justice Network, the ‘Securing Land for the Common Good’presentation, and lunchtime talk ‘Putting Social Justice at the Heart Of Your Farm’all spurred me to reflect on the history of land management here, especially in Scotland, and how social justice could be achievable.

Change happens from all directions and a good start is from grassroots. So, in true ORFC style, I received an invitation to a caucus for POC happening the day after the conference and organised by LION [Land In Our Names], co-founded by Josina Calliste and Ọlá Ayòrindé, at Willowbrook Farm, ‘the first halal and tayib farm in the UK’. You can hear more about LION and the conference on the Farmerama podcast, ORFC’s official media partners. The caucus was the highlight of the conference for me. Leah Penniman helped us welcome our ancestors at the beginning of the day. As we said farewell, I’ll never forgot the powerful nourishment I felt standing hand-in-hand around a fire at moonrise with my new family, calling our ancestors from across the ages:

We are an old family,

We are a new family,

We are the same family, stronger than before.

I was reminded again of the importance to farm with stewardship for our future family, and by family, I mean all humankind and earthkind.

This year ORFC has upped it’s game on inclusion and diversity, pro-actively and successfully increasing representation of POC, visibly and on the agenda, across speakers and delegates. I hope that the race quality agenda is here to stay and wait with anticipation to discover where this road leads to. In the meantime, I’m resolved that 2020 will be the year I find a farm to call home. Going back to my roots in community at ORFC this year helped me understand how important it is to remember where I come from, to tap into the ancestral wisdom and strength that will guide me on my journey back to the land.

Also memorable and nourishing was the Land and Farming singers’ session and taiko drumming. What a way to start a conference! Here’s the video, although you really had to be there to fully appreciate the vibrations. I wonder how ORFC 2021 is going to top that?

THANK YOU to everyone who makes ORFC the enriching experience that it is.

Every year, we are stronger than before.