ORFC 2017 content is now live

If you would like to relive the ORFC 2017, take a look at our photos here.

I am pleased to announce that all the PowerPoints and audio recordings from this year’s conference can be found in our 2017 Archive.

Nessie Reid, ORFC Manager

ORFC 2017 | Olivier De Schutter at our Opening Plenary

ORFC 2017 | Resilient food systems and climate change: the UK’s international role panel session

The ORFC poet in residence

“Go into the towns and cities laden with produce and stories… too much fact runs off busy people like water from compacted soil. Learn how to open them to the seeds of ideas…” 

The French writer, designer and playwright Jean Cocteau said “the poet doesn’t invent. He listens” and no poet does this better than Adam Horovitz, our ORFC poet in residence. Throughout the ORFC 2017 Adam listened: he heard stories of people’s hope, of their fears and challenges, of visions of necessary systemic change, of stories of regeneration and possibility, of resilience and determination, of desperation and calls for help… the whole gambit of human experience. And from this place he wrote us two poems The Soil Never Sleeps and Where to go from here?

We feel these poems so beautifully capture the essence of the conference and thus decided to make them available to delegates and those that did not get the chance to attend. You can listen to Adam below…

We have decided to offer signed, limited editions of 150 letterpress posters measuring 297mm by 500mm (just longer than A3). The poems will be set in 20pt Gill Sans on beautiful 300gsm card, perfect for framing. These are being prepared for print at the moment, but the posters (which come as a pack of two) are available now for pre-order for £25 (including p&p in the UK). All proceeds from the posters will go towards Adam’s ongoing lyrical celebration of pasture farming as the PfLA’s poet in residence. If you would like to purchase a set of posters, click here

A tale of two conferences

Why run the Oxford Real Farming Conference when the ‘official’ Oxford Farming Conference already says all that needs saying?

Because, says Colin Tudge, they represent two quite different world views.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) and the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) represent two totally different views of farming, indeed two different philosophies of life. And they lead us towards completely different, and in many ways opposing, strategies.

The ‘official’ or ‘conventional’ view, represented at the OFC by corporates and the Secretary of State of the day, is that agriculture is “a business like any other”.

According to the accepted norms of the neoliberal economy its prime task is to contribute to GDP and hence to economic growth and it must do this by competing on the global market, head-to-head, with the subsidized high-tech of the US on the one hand and the vast sunny acres of the Ukraine, Brazil, Africa, and Spain on the other. So long as oil is cheap (or at least is still available and just about affordable) British farming is most profitable when labour is replaced by high tech – big machines and industrial chemistry.

There’s a caveat here though, for as economist Paul Mason points out, when there’s enough dispossessed and desperate labour in the world it can be cheaper to employ itinerants than to gear up; and as Felicity Lawrence told the ORFC last year, some key areas of British farming now rely on virtually bonded gangs of Chinese and East Europeans, largely run by organized crime. In general, though, it’s cheaper just to get rid of people.

In the absence of skilled labour husbandry must be simplified so mixed farms are replaced by monocultures and animals are raised in factories. Machines and buildings are most cost-effective when they’re big, so ‘farms’ become bigger and bigger.

Fifty years ago in Britain 100 acres was big. Now 1000 hectares, 2500 acres-plus, is commonplace; and the many thousands of dairy farms that once made a fair living with 20 cows – as is still common in much of Europe – are mostly replaced by herds of several hundreds, while some high-tech zealots now dream of units of 30,000.  The milk is then homogenized and commonly powdered for export not least (guess where!) to India, where with clever marketing, tens of millions of traditional farmers with no other means of subsistence can be undercut. After all, business is business.

The cost of doing business

The collateral damage in Britain and worldwide is enormous: the countryside strictly for commuters, the few remaining farm workers banished to low-cost suburbs, food demonstrably degraded nutritionally and certainly gastronomically, with all too obvious consequences for health. Add to his the horrendous and indeed frightening destruction of the biosphere – the diversity of creatures, the fertility of soil, and the stability of climate.

Worldwide, for all the razzmatazz, a billion still go hungry although everyone could easily be well fed, if only we did things properly. A billion displaced farmers and their families now live in urban slums, and the world population of diabetics is twice that of Russia. But what the hell! It’s profitable! It’s the bottom line!  It makes us ‘competitive’! That’s progress! That’s ‘realistic’!

And with a little creative accountancy and judiciously chosen graphs it is possible to show at least to those who want to be convinced that the status quo is ticking along nicely, or would be if only people at large weren’t so ignorant, and bolshie, and didn’t breed so much.

Why we need the Oxford Real Farming Conference

‘Real Farming’ is short for ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ and its point is to ensure that everyone who is ever likely to be born on to this Earth can be well fed, and to do this without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world.

All this is eminently achievable with modest technologies that already exist and with an economy which, though not neoliberal, need not frighten the horses.

Observation, simple science and common sense tell us that the farms we really need are the complete opposite of the Neoliberal-Industrial kind that are now imposed upon us: mixed, low-input (organic is the default position), therefore skills-intensive (plenty of farmers) and therefore (since there is no advantage in scale-up) small to medium-sized.

Marketing should be as local as is reasonable, complemented by fair trade – and not designed expressly to provide commodities for the global market, as now. Enlightened Agriculture must be matched by true food culture. Wall-to-wall burgers won’t do. Believe it or not, if things were done properly, food produced in such ways and to such standards could be more affordable than now (see http://collegeforrealfarming.org/)

Agenda setting in a changed world

All this cannot be achieved by ad hoc fiddling with the status quo. It needs a new mindset. We need to re-define what we really care about in life: good food, good health, a beautiful and flourishing countryside, or massive profits for a few large (and growing) corporates?

We need to re-think the kind of economy we need to support enlightened farming (some variation on a theme of social democracy would do the trick); and what kind of governance we need to ensure that good things are done (people in positions of influence who know something and give a damn would be a great step forward!). Alongside this an understanding of what kind of science could deliver what’s needed and who should control it, for science has become the handmaiden of big business.

Then we need to dig deeper still, and explore the moral and indeed the metaphysical bases and implications of all our ideas.

The ORFC cannot explore all these issues in depth but it can and does set the agenda. It defines the kind of things we really need to think about, and why, and to some extent how.

By contrast, the discussions at the ‘conventional’, original, Oxford Farming Conference – how to sell more pigs to China; how to sell more biotech to the world at large – are an exercise in rearranging deckchairs, as the entire world, with us and our fellow creatures, sinks beneath the waves and perhaps, as global warming bites, almost literally.


Colin Tudge, January 4 2017

For Britain’s and the world’s agriculture, Brexit is much bigger than Brexit

In the spirit of John McEnroe, Colin Tudge urges our leaders to “Be serious!”

The discussions that have followed Brexit – “Ooh Crikey! What shall we do now?” – are, if anything, even less edifying than those that led us to the present fiasco.

In this, as in all things, agriculture is in the firing line, and here the general level of conversation (as alas is true of farming in general) has perhaps been worst of all – not least because the implications are so serious.

Thus, newcomers might be forgiven for thinking that all that’s at stake is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies.

Will they continue? Will the British government substitute something similar? If it does, will it continue to ensure that the lion’s share goes to the biggest landowners, more or less irrespective of merit, or the lack of it? Or will it simply be assumed, in Mrs May’s promised meritocracy, that the rich are the most meritorious, for otherwise they wouldn’t be rich?


Subsidies are not the end of the discussion

The much bigger question, though, which successive governments of all parties have never apparently realized was a question at all, is the extent to which governments should – must – involve themselves in agriculture.

Or – an even bigger issue – to what extent they should seek to control the economy as a whole, and for whose benefit; or whether they can safely leave farming, and hence the nation’s food supply, and the general state of the biosphere, to the market, as is becoming the norm in all things.

In particular, since the ‘free’ market in truth is dominated by the biggest players, governments – and indeed all of us – should be asking whether it is really safe to leave our and the world’s affairs to corporates and banks.

About 200 years ago the USA was founded on the idea that commerce should be as free as possible, but the early US governments nonetheless took it to be obvious that the market on its own could not be relied on to deliver justice. So they took it to be obvious that a prime task for government must be to control the market and the economy as a whole, insofar as this was necessary to ensure the wellbeing of the people.

This philosophy persisted until the neoliberals declared in the 1960s the market would serve the people much better if it was unrestrained – and this somewhat wild piece of speculation has increasingly become the global norm ever since Margaret Thatcher and then Ronald Reagan released it on the world circa 1980.

Suddenly farming became “a business like any other” and business itself was stripped of its moral content. It was no longer to be seen as the essential prop of a free and democratic society, but simply as a machine for maximizing wealth, by whatever means, for whatever purposes.

Businesses were reconceived as in-house rottweilers, focused on making their shareholders rich.

In general, this has proved disastrous – it’s the main reason for the growing gap between rich and poor, which in turn is at the root of all the world’s injustices and unrest.

And for agriculture it is particularly damaging. Governments are wont these days to use words like ‘sustainable’ with a great air of gravitas but it they were really serious about the future they would see that agriculture must be conceived along agroecological lines; each farm designed as an ecosystem, and farming as a whole treated as a positive contributor to the biosphere.

The ultra-high-input monocultures favoured by neolib agribusiness are the precise antithesis of what’s required – if, that is, we really take grand words like ‘sustainable’ seriously, and are really serious about the future.


Protecting our interests

Farmers and farming are particularly in need of government protection even in a non-neolib world for a whole list of reasons of which the most obvious is the weather. It varies. Even the tropics are thrown off course by El Nino. So output swings between troughs and peaks – from zero, to can’t-give-the-stuff-away.

Crop failure and gluts can both be disastrous for farmers, and so, eventually, for the people who rely on them, which is all of us.

Therefore, governments who take their responsibilities seriously must try to see that agriculture does not collapse when the sun decides not to shine or – in this modern age – is able to cope with increasingly volatile oil prices in this turbulent world market.

In short, they should keep control of the economy in general for social and ecological reasons – and above all should regulate the economy of farming.

In the years after World War II until the 1970s, British governments of both major parties took pains to do just that.

There were subsidies, grants, intervention buying, quotas, guaranteed prices, tariffs – whatever was needed to ensure that the ship stayed afloat come what may, and that food remained affordable (and was of high quality), and that farmers could make a fair living.

But the neolib business-like-any-other mentality of the 1980s onwards put paid to all that.

Governments, both Tory and ‘New Labour’ were content to let big business rip, fired by cheap loans and the white heat of technology. Even they, however, were forced to admit the obvious: that it simply is not safe to leave the nation’s or the world’s food supply entirely to big business and bankers.

So as a compromise, the EU introduced its subsidies which evolved in the interests of bureaucratic simplification into the single farm payments – massive hand-outs which Britain, in the true tradition of banking, are paid mainly to those who are already rich.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the soils collapse and the wildlife disappears and a million people rely on food banks and farmers go broke by the bus-load, and of course the gap continues to grow between rich and poor. But nothing dents the neoliberals’ confidence in their economic dogma.


Taking control of our economy and ecology

The EU to some extent has managed to maintain social and ecological standards even in the face of neoliberalism, which is one reason why the Brexiteers wanted to leave.

But it has itself become more neoliberal with the passing years. Brexit is probably a disaster but it has given Britain the chance, if it chooses to take it, to take some control of its own economy in general, and in particular to make the economic adjustments needed to ensure that British farming can thrive again, and also can provide us all with good food without wrecking the rest of the biosphere.

That at least is the opportunity.

But the government and the NFU and the corporates will probably, instead, continue to focus on the perceived ‘need’ of British farming to compete for wealth in the world market, and on the role (or not) of subsidies in helping this to happen.

The idea that farming in general and British farming in particular ought to be about producing good food, and looking after the biosphere, and creating convivial rural economies, and that elected governments ought to use their power and our money to intervene in the economy where necessary to bring all this about, will continue to be labelled ‘unrealistic’.

When the College for Real Farming and Food Culture gets fully into its stride, these issues will be discussed in proper depth.

In the meantime, we expect these issues to be raised at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on January 4-5 2017.

Importantly, they will be raised by a fascinating mix of farmers and food producers that represent real sustainability and innovation.

These are the voices that face being left out of the discussion as Britain veers wildly off into its new, post-Europe future, and crucially, could be some of the most vital voices to listen to if we are to grab this agricultural opportunity with both hands.


Colin Tudge, December 18 2016. 

The NFU, Glyphosate and statistics

In its December edition of British Farmer and Grower the National Farmers Union (NFU) is urging its readers to lobby their MPs and MEPs to ensure the long-term future of glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up.

In June 2016 the EU extended the license to market glyphosate for another 18 months, which means it’s up for review by the end of 2017, when – theoretically – the European Chemical Agency by could ban it.

But, says the NFU’s senior health plant health adviser Emma Hamer, glyphosate is “a vital tool for weed control” which allows “a number of conservation tillage techniques such as min-till.” The anti-glyphosate lobby argues among other things that glyphosate is carcinogenic but such “scare stories promoted by NGOs have no factual basis.”

Many farmers and growers have indeed found Round-Up to be useful in all kinds of situations, although it always dangerous to argue as Ms Hamer does that there is “no factual basis” for alarm. Such claims have been made in medicine as well as agriculture and all too often have proved hubristic.

More to the point, the statistics that the NFU offers in support of glyphosate are deeply suspect. And if these are the best it can do, then we must at least declare their case “not proven”.

So they tell us that min or zero tillage, made possible with glyphosate, increases the earthworm population by 53 per cent. To control weeds by cultivation rather than with herbicide would require 49 per cent more labour. Its use “allows 15 per cent more rapeseed and 17per cent more wheat to be produced”.

Losing glyphosate would mean we would need 546,000 ha more land to produce the same amount of food – which is 3.4 times bigger than London.

If weeds were controlled mechanically then greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of arable crops would increase by 25 per cent. This would include 12 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year – the equivalent of 2.5 million cars.  QED, the busy reader might conclude.

But what’s lacking in all such polemics is context. Increase in earthworms and reduction in CO2 – compared with what?

No-one over the age of 40 or so can doubt that there were far more earthworms in the past, well before glyphosate came on the scene. It surely isn’t a lack of glyphosate that’s killed them off but the rise and rise of industrial agriculture in general – including the over-use of fertilizers and the decline of rotations which has (demonstrably) reduced the soil organic content and so robbed worms of their food supply. What, in short, is the baseline, from which the hypothetical 53 per cent increase is judged?

Twenty-five per cent less GHGs with glyphosate – but again, compared to what? Glyphosate may well improve on the hyper-industrialized status quo which depends on machines and agrochemicals which all depend on oil, which eventually, by one route or another, is reduced to GHGs.

But well-managed low-input farming, exemplified by organic farming, already produces far less GHG than the industrial kind. Does industrial-plus-glyphosate farming improve on that? More broadly, to what extent do modern high technologies of all kinds – including glyphosate – serve primarily to make good the damage done by earlier technologies that in their day were introduced with similar hype and razzmatazz?

Increase in labour of 49 per cent – but is that necessarily a bad thing? More and more evidence shows that small mixed farms which perforce are skills-intensive can be far more productive per hectare than the vast monocultures of industrial farming, which in the interests of centralizing profit veer towards zero-labour (with ultra-cheap immigrant labour in the interim).

Even more to the point, as more and more people in all areas worldwide are displaced by high tech, unemployment and all the misery and discontent that go with it have become prime concerns for all humankind.

Farming worldwide is still the biggest employer so far, offering billons of real jobs (as opposed to car-cleaning and call-centres). Even if – and it’s a big “if” — the industrial kind is “efficient” in financial terms, it is also, beyond all doubt, a social disaster.

To make a sensible judgment on glyphosate, or on agrichemicals in general, or on any aspect of agriculture, requires broad and integrated, holistic thinking, taking everything into account; with a proper sense of history and indeed of science, and an educated feel for what “evidence” really means.

That is not what we get from the NFU or, in general, from Defra. With luck we will get it from the European Chemical Agency.

However, you will certainly find such thinking at next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference to be held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th and throughout the year on the website of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture (CRFFC).

For the antidote to the shoot-from-the-hip stereotyped polemic that rains down on us from high, the ORFC and the CRFFC are the best places to be.

Colin Tudge, December 4, 2016

A taste of ORFC17

We’re on a real countdown now until the 2017 ORFC, putting all the final preparations in place in the run up to the festive break. It’s looking like it will be a great conference this year – building on previous years – and we can’t wait to share it with you!

We’ve been number crunching and discovered that 80 per cent of delegates purchase their tickets before the 20 December, so make sure you get your ticket before it’s too late.

If you haven’t bought your ticket, then you can get them from our Eventbrite page and if you’d like to see what fascinating sessions we have on offer for you, then check out our programme info here.

Don’t forget to get your ticket to the Good Food Oxford evening reception at the same time, it’s going to be a great night – good food, and interesting people!

Will Pouget, chef and owner of Vaults and Garden, Oxford, is responsible for our menu this year. It is a real testament to the spirit and values of everything the ORFC community stands for – food that celebrates the best of what our rich and varied food and farming industry has to offer, that champions the available crops within each season.

You can expect local produce: pasture-fed beef from Hornton Grounds, organic lamb from Sheepdrove, local organic vegetables from Sandy Lane Farm, delicious vegi and vegan options, accompanied by a glass of English wine.

Learn more about the ethos behind the menu from Will in our video below.

If you enjoy a meal as much as we do, then you know half the fun is the anticipation. So here’s the menu in full!

Grilled Pigeon Breast with Quince Jelly
Fresh Goats’ Curd and Beetroot Pesto on Sourdough
Grass-fed Grilled Beef Skewers marinated in Tamarind, Soy & Honey
Cotswold Chorizo with Fennel & English Aged Cheese


Roasted Chestnut Mushroom with Thyme & Balsamic Vinegar
Roasted Queensland Blue Pumpkin with Za’atar

Bowl Food
Slow Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Aromatic Spices
Roast Potatoes and Winter Roots
Braised Black Cabbage and Kale


Braised Puy Lentils
Barley Freekah Pilaf
Local Ewes’ Milk Beignet
Braised Black Cabbage and Kale

Slow Roasted Apples, Pears & Blackberries
Granola Oat Crumble
Vanilla Custard

What’s in store for the ORFC 2017?

Trying to decide the ORFC 2017 programme content felt like no mean feat these past few months. Since July, I have received three times more session proposals than what the conference programme can accommodate.

Whilst I found the process of rejecting sessions an unpleasant experience, the sheer volume highlighted just how much brilliant work people are doing in UK food and farming and maybe the solution is to make the 2018 conference a week-long!

It also made me question: how do we use the ORFC platform as a space for really galvanising action and bringing people together not just for the conference, but for the whole year round? Thoughts most welcome.

The 2017 conference will follow the usual three strands of Farm Practice, New Entrants, New Ideas and The Big Ideas, with no doubt many themes overlapping and feeding into the other.

The first involves a number of practical farming sessions which span the board from Nurturing nature within farming, to Low stress handling of animals to companion cropping to Livestock in the arable rotation, to Is organic really healthier to Improving livestock health using a homeopathic approach and everything else in between.

New Entrants, New Ideas involves sessions relating to reshaping agriculture and for those wishing to enter or remain (and thrive) in the sector, such as The case for microdairies, A community farm for every community, Real farm trials: low cost, practical research to help your farming business to Using social and eco-logical systems theory to build resilient local food networks. These sessions are designed around creating pioneering solutions for the next generation of farmers.

Mutterings around what Brexit might mean for UK farming seem to be on hot on people’s lips at the moment. Coupled with Trump’s latest victory, 2016 has been – in my mind – a somewhat crazy year for shaking the political ground beneath our feet.

Thus I feel The Big Ideas sessions are certainly going to stir up some interesting debate this year. Whilst I do not want it to become a Brexit conference, it cannot be ignored and I believe the ORFC can be a powerful space for discussing and determining the type of agricultural policies we – as civil society at large – should be calling for.

Friends of the Earth are leading the session Livestock post Brexit whilst the Land Worker’s Alliance lead A place at the table: democratic food governance and grassroots policy making, delving into what a people’s food policy might look like and what the barriers and opportunities are for realising it. Public money for public good: valuing farm subsidies from different perspectives led by Sustain will examine where the public subsidy should be spent for our health, nature and economy whilst Farming outside the CAP – perspectives on British farming after Brexit explores the threats and opportunities that Brexit holds for small-scale and family farms in the UK.

There are so many more fascinating sessions I’d like to speak about and include here, but much better if you come and along in January and experience them for yourselves!

Video: Get an early insight into the ORFC17 programme

To view the provisional programme, visit here.

See you then,


Nessie Reid, ORFC Manager, 25 November 2016 (email: nessie@orfc.org.uk)

What could a Trump administration mean for global agriculture?

Like everyone else in the world, here at the ORFC we’ve been watching the American elections with a growing sense of bafflement and personally for this author, some serious dismay.

It’s no secret that Mr. Trump’s 100-day plan will mean bad news for the environment, with the current climate negotiations in Morocco dominated by conversations around his threat to withdraw the US from the global United Nations climate change process and promote domestic fossil fuels, thus destroying the leadership the US had shown along with China under Obama.

But what’s been written so far about the potential impacts of a Trump administration on domestic and global agriculture?

Given his protectionist rhetoric on production of all kinds and his retrograde understanding of science and environmental issues, we are unlikely to see anything other than a renewed support of big ag and intensive farming, regardless of the damage it will cause to livelihoods, communities and the natural world.

Certainly his plan to renew coal production and enhance reliance on domestic fossil fuels will play to the strengths of the mega-farms (or CAFOs) which are well used to functioning in an over-reliant state on all farm inputs (water, fuel etc) and could benefit from the likely further drop this will force on global oil prices.

But it does also make these same farms more vulnerable. As the rest of the world plans to move towards a lower carbon future, these wheezing dinosaurs of agriculture will slowly become less and less competitive than those competing using self-reliant agroecological principles, controlling their costs in part through renewable energy.

However – and I say this very reluctantly – his plan to remove the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal might have inadvertent positive impacts on the environment.

Hear me out: the deal contained a clause with language that allows corporation to sue foreign governments if they feel their domestic environmental and public health regulations could hurt their profits. This has been one of the core issues that has had European campaigners concerned over TTIP and CETA.

Why does this matter? It’s potentially one less way that big agriculture can cause harm and further trample alternative food and farming industries, such as those championed by the ORFC community.

Trump’s intention to renegotiate NAFTA will definitely impact agricultural exports for all countries involved (Canada, Mexico and the US). Interestingly a 2000 study from the Center for Environmental Cooperation found that most NAFTA-related goods were trucked across the three countries, significantly boosting emissions, but as a more protectionist agricultural production policy is untested in a modern America, we have no idea whether any emissions gains will be lost in sub-national redistribution of produce.

We – as a group – are collectively for a food and farming system that is truly sustainable and holistic, delivering for the needs of our present without compromising the needs of future generations.

But in the actions of Mr. Trump’s conduct throughout the election process, it seems a highly distant possibility that Mr. Trump shares these long term, genuinely smart economic and ecological investment values. I can’t see the US (and therefore its’ destructive exported farming approaches) shifting more wholesale into a more enlightened time of agriculture any time soon.

In the meantime, here’s a roundup of some of the most useful articles I found since news of the election results broke on Wednesday morning…

Katharine Mansell, ORFC Marketing and Communications Coordinator, 12 November 2016

ORFC16 vounteer retrospective: Manifesto shows way forward for our countryside

This blog is part of our 2016 volunteer retrospective, showcasing the editorial contribution our wonderful volunteers made to last year’s ORFC. 

Written by Francis Barton, dated 7 January 2016, this blog is a write up of the launch of Equality in the Countryside.

Manifesto shows way forward for truly living and sustainable countryside

Kerry McCarthy MP welcomed the launch of a rural manifesto produced by the Landworkers Alliance and The Land magazine, saying that Labour Party policy must be “rural-proofed” to ensure that rural areas get as much attention as urban areas. “Housing, transport and employment are rural issues too,” McCarthy announced.

The manifesto, titled Equality in the Countryside, lays out 46 policy proposals for greater access for rural people to land, property and employment in the countryside, and was launched at the seventh annual Oxford Real Farming Conference.

The manifesto authors said that its proposals represent achievable ‘nudges’ to policy rather than revolutionary changes. Most people who live in the countryside do not work there. The high price of rural housing coupled with the low price of food is the key issue underlying rural poverty and inequality. The price of housing is now rising to nearly 50 per cent of earnings, compared to only 10 per cent 70 years ago.

Asked whether promoting a sustainable environment means rising food prices, the authors responded, amidst cries of support from the audience, that food prices do need to be higher to keep farming sustainable, but that the price of housing and access to land needed to be brought down instead.

The manifesto’s proposals cover eight areas from access to land, to housing, energy, transport and employment, and makes policy proposals for a comprehensive open access land registry, genuinely affordable housing including self-build, community ownership of renewable energy production and, according to Fairlie, nothing less than “the reinvigoration of the entire rural economy”.

Rebecca Laughton of the Landworkers Alliance, spoke of the need to “create opportunities” for an influx of young farmers to revive an ageing and declining UK farming population. Calling for a minimum price guarantee, particularly in the dairy sector, to “protect rural livelihoods for future generations.”

Laughton also spoke of the importance of the UK remaining in EU in order to protect the environment, workers rights and animal welfare standards.

Agroforestry: our insurance against an uncertain future?

Agroforestry probably offers the best single answer to flood control – and a great deal else besides. It must become a priority.

If there was a one-word answer to all the world’s problems, it surely would be trees.

Trees are the climax vegetation: what grows if it’s not too dry (though many grow well in semi-desert) or too wet (though many live happily through flood and some live almost permanently with their roots submerged) or too cold (though the boreal forests of Canada and Siberia are bigger than Europe).

A Nordic myth says that trees hold the earth and the sky together, and so in a way they do: miraculously drawing the carbon that is their principal component from the air, and their water both from the ground and the air. For example, the giant Coastal Redwoods of northern California get about a third of their water from the fogs off the Pacific they get most of their nutrients from the soil (helped by their mycorrhizal companions), but also from the air, including the various nitrogenous pollutants known as collectively as NOx.

The official British attitude to trees these past centuries has been a mixture of aesthetics of an aristocratic kind and hard-headed utilitarianism.

The former took the form of Capability Brown-style landscapes, inspired in large part by Baroque and Romantic landscape painting (for nature followed art). The utilitarian approach has been inspired by our military, commercial, and imperial aspirations.

Our ancestors felled entire forests of oaks but also planted them to build timber-framed houses and the navy. Later, more trees were grown and felled to fuel the navy’s new steam ships, and when coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice, fast-growing conifers were raised on a heroic scale for pit-props. In the colonies, eucalypts and teak in particular fulfilled the same purpose.

It’s not all bad, Britain does have some fine trees and woods, but it’s high time for a change – not least of attitude.

We need to move beyond mere anthropocentricity: the idea that human beings are the only creature that really matter, and the rest is ‘natural resource’, towards a ‘biocentric’ or ‘gaiacentric’ morality and metaphysic, in which we see ourselves as part of the ecosystem, with all living creatures important in their own right.

On the utilitarian front we need in particular to rethink the relationship between trees and farming. The two have generally been seen to be at odds – pioneer farmers begin by clearing the forest. Yet as many have shown, trees and farming can operate to their mutual advantage.

Hedges, windbreaks, alleys, copses, woods, or even isolated trees provide shelter and fodder for livestock which for the most part are browsers as much as grazers, adding micronutrients that may be lacking in grass, especially in monocultural grass.

Trees provide microclimates for both animals and crops, even cereals, which may be heat-stressed in large open fields. The diverse ecosystem, replete with predators, helps to contain pests.

As a bonus, trees on farms have commercial value for on-the-spot fuel and fencing, fruits and nuts, dyes, perfumes and finally for timber, both for structure and for high-value veneers. ‘Land equivalent ratio’ is the essential measure. Trees plus crops should be worth more per unit area than either would be worth if grown as monocultures.

But perhaps the greatest practical reason for taking trees seriously is climate change.

Trees sequester carbon and are also the most powerful antidote to flood, which will become worse as the world warms up. It is better to stem the flow of surplus rain from the uplands than to ‘manage’ floods that could have been prevented, with heroic civil engineering.

A new report from well-informed local people on the Somerset Levels, Reimagining the Levels, Making the Connections, proposes that tree cover in the whole catchment should at least be doubled.

This will be challenging logistically and economically. Though trees at present cover only 6 per cent of the catchment, a doubling would take us only to the national average of 12 per cent.

But Britain as a whole is seriously denuded. Tree cover in France and Germany is around 30 per cent. As a matter of urgency Britain needs at least to double its tree cover over the whole country, with more in flood-prone areas. This must be planned by true experts, not by bureaucrats and accountants as has become the norm. We must not repeat the disastrous mistake of a few years ago when commercial conifers threatened to ruin the wondrous wetlands of Sutherland’s Flow Country.

There’s a lot to do on all fronts – conservation, ‘amenity’ – but the priority, right now, must surely be to encourage agroforestry.

Some countries have been practicing agroforestry for centuries, in many forms. Many more are now waking up to it. Defra isn’t because there is no short-term profit in it so it is not considered ‘realistic’. However next January’s Oxford Real Farming Conference aims to challenge those perceptions with a session on the benefits of agroforestry, as well as discussions on how to overcome the barriers to its successful practice.


Colin Tudge October 20 2016