#ORFC20 Report

Sketch by Sue Warner

A wake-up call is exactly what was needed this year; farming is experiencing unprecedented challenges: climate change, activism, an uncertain economy post Brexit, but maybe the worst is George Monbiot’s dystopian vision: a future where farmers give up their land to ‘re-wilding’, while the role of feeding an ever-increasing populace is hi-jacked by corporations manufacturing ‘fake foods’ from goodness knows what. Sensationalist and scare-mongering were two of the more polite descriptions of George’s views that we heard, yet surely, as farmers and consumers, we shouldn’t just stick our heads in the sand. If fake foods are a-coming, – and why wouldn’t they be?  Amazon, Google and Facebook are investing heavily to name a few – then the implications are huge, not just environmentally, economically and socially, but also for our health.

If we truly believe, (and at Whole Health Agriculture we do), that our health cannot be separated from the health of any other living organism in the food chain (and where exactly does that start and end?) then the idea that manufactured edible components, synthesised and almost certainly genetically modified, equate to ‘food’ is one that needs forensic scrutiny. We must start joining up our thinking in terms of what is and isn’t health in farming and food. Before it’s too late.

NATURE & NUANCE

Whole Health Agriculture’s focus for 2020 is to research and identify pivotal health management practices in farming, and to show other farmers how to apply them. To this end, our session ‘The Nature and Nuance of Farming for Health’ featured the approaches of four successful farmers who prioritise health and, despite being scheduled at lunchtime off the beaten track and in one of the smaller rooms, there was standing room only to hear them speak. Sadly, there was not enough time to answer all of the questions from attendees so our intention is to feature each speaker in more depth later on. Our thanks to Ian Tolhurst (Tolhurst Organic); Mark Measures (Mark Measures Associates), Agricultural Consultant; Pammy Riggs, award winning poultry farmer turned author, and Dale Walters from Lower Hurst Organic Farm who are all passionate about farming for health and are proof that you can apply whole system thinking and be commercially successful.

DIGGING DEEPER

One of our key projects this year is a survey to find out what alternative and non-conventional health management methods and practices really work to keep livestock healthy. We are in the process of putting this survey into a digital online format, but we had taken along about 30 paper copies of our pilot questionnaire to our stand in the main hall ‘just in case’ there was any interest. Well, there most certainly was! After tentatively asking a few farmers whether they would be interested, we were overwhelmed by the response – people were keen to take part and really understood that there is a need to show the potential, and credibility, of holistic farming methods to reduce antibiotics and toxic interventions in our food chain. Our further aim for the survey, is to look more in depth at best practice to provide practical models for other farmers. Find out more.

THE BIG QUESTION

There was a different atmosphere at the conference this year; ORFC is usually so vital and positive and that it was strange to experience a weightier, more serious energy to the proceedings; hardly surprising under current global circumstances, and possibly exacerbated by the final main session which focused on George Monbiot’s grim predictions. One visitor to our stand asked a question that everyone seemed to be asking, namely precisely how we as a nation can implement the changes needed to address the challenges we face, from climate change to sustainable farming and  – we would add – to our health. We would answer, quite simply, that we, as individuals, need to understand that eating is a political act, and that our choices give us the power to make an impact, and we get to vote with our wallets three times a day:

Choose local. Choose holistic. Choose wisely!

Sketch reproduced by kind permission of Sue Warner

Meg’s Musings – Fiercely on the Farmers’ Side

It’s taken me months to get as far as putting my thoughts on paper about this.

I am a farmer and farmer’s wife. I’m also passionate about conservation, biodiversity, education, food provenance, sustainability (whatever that’s meant to mean) and above all else, animal welfare. A lot of farms and farmers embrace all these concepts as part of their farming lives, although some better than others.

But a lot of us, far more than the media portray, passionately believe and KNOW that what we do out in the countryside has, or has the potential to be, beneficial for all. Both the livestock we care for, the wildlife we farm alongside, and ultimately the planet.

UNDER SIEGE AND MISREPRESENTED

The fundamental principle of farmers who practice holistically is that ‘health, – whether of soil, plant, animal or man, – is one and indivisible’.  However, we farmers are all tarred by the same brush by the media as those massive agribusinesses ripping up the Amazon, those growing thousands of acres of monocrop GM soy, those depleting groundwater sources for avocados and almonds, and those cramming tens of thousands of pigs, chickens and cattle into sheds and feedlots, and – to be honest – I’m sick to the back teeth of it! These examples are a world away from how most small farms in the UK operate, and that’s just for starters.

The livestock debate is so complex and nuanced, yet all we ever seem to hear is ‘cows are bad’ ‘livestock produces more CO2 than all other sources combined’, ‘plant-based living will save the planet’, ‘greedy farmers raping and murdering for profit’.

Just stop.

If I was being kind, I’d say it was well meaning and that these people really want what’s best for the planet and need a little re-education.

But I’m not going to be kind. I’ve had too many run-ins with people who are abusive, threatening, hysterical and, quite simply, wrong.

It affects the farming community in different ways. At first you snort at the ludicrous claims but ignore them, we’re too busy to be concerned and it’ll blow over. Fashions change, it’ll be another industry getting up the noses of the vociferous few next month.

Then you get mad. How dare they? They are accusing you and your way of life of destroying the planet. But they don’t know what they’re talking about, hysterical morons.

Then concern. People you know and people who should know better in positions of influence start saying things like, ‘well we all need to cut out red meat for the planet, don’t we?’

You can’t be serious? Why are they falling for this nonsense?

The fear comes when you read how policies at governmental level are being made to force change when you know deep down that this has all got terribly out of hand and makes no sense at all. Not for farmers, not for conservation, not for animals and certainly not for the planet.

You start to realise that the world has gone completely bloody mad.

Then. . . . Something pops up on your news feed that makes you sit up. Has someone actually bothered to do some investigative journalism and REALLY look into these wild claims about livestock being the root of all evil?

Yes! Suddenly glimmers of light appear in the dark.

Someone in mainstream journalism is talking about regenerative agriculture; a veterinary journal is talking about the importance of carefully and extensively managed livestock for soil health; a paper from Harvard surfaces about the increased rate of topsoil creation with livestock vs without; a comprehensive nutritional study emerges that shows the health benefits of red meat, especially from pasture based systems….

A HIDDEN AGENDA?

And you realise that perhaps the world isn’t mad after all, but is maybe easily led by those least in charge of the facts, with the least on the ground experience, with an axe to grind, in pursuit of the next big thing to be outraged by so they can shout the loudest and virtue-signal on their social media platforms to their heart’s content.

Fanning the flames are those with the greatest vested interests- financial interests- riding the environmental wave of Blue Planet, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion. People like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, James Cameron and lately Lewis Hamilton. The richest people on the planet- arguably with much larger carbon footprints than most of us put together- are now telling us to go ‘plant-based’ to save the world, whilst simultaneously investing millions in lab meat, vegan food chains, grain-based diets, GMO crops… these people aren’t rich by accident. Ironically the rise of veganism is a cash-cow, and they are well placed to milk it.

But despite all this negativity surrounding red meat, those of us who are on the ground, farming, caring for livestock, monitoring wildlife, are quietly pushing for change in farming systems.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS CHEAP FOOD

Farmers are not all rosy-faced sons of the soil. There are farmers out there who are not interested in the environment and have little regard for the land, reducing toxicity or animal welfare. The public have every right to call these farmers out. But people in glass houses should also not throw stones- most modern intensive farming practices have emerged because of decades of governmental policy pushing for increased food production post-war, and the public’s obsession with cheap food.

There is no such thing as cheap food. Something pays the price somewhere down the line, and unfortunately it has been the environment and animal welfare that has suffered in pursuit of maximum ouput.

But there are growing numbers of farmers like us who care, really, really passionately care, about there being a better way.

LEARNING FROM NATURE

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, and more importantly since the ‘green revolution’, organic farmers, – whether properly certified or those who follow organic principles, – have refused to buckle under pressure from the agrochemical industry and government policies to adopt chemicals, intensify farming methods, control wildlife, increase stocking densities and treat livestock prophylactically with antibiotics and vermicides. By resisting, organic farmers protect our soils, make space for wildlife and see it flourish. These farmers have nurtured livestock extensively and produced vigorous, healthy, nutritious animals and plants for human consumption.

In many ways this is how farming had been for generations before the invention of synthetic fertiliser and its ilk. But organic farming is not backwards. Far from it. It purely replicates and harnesses the best aspects of natural systems, and in doing so, creates the most planet friendly way of farming. We’re on a planetary knife-edge, but organic and holistic farmers are holding the cards for the only viable climatically responsible farming solution.

Rearing livestock empathetically, sensitively and in tune with the land and the rhythm of the seasons should be the only way to keep animals. In fact, all farming systems should work like this.

Thanks to science and advances in technology we have a greater understanding of animal behaviour, biodiversity, plant biology and soil ecology than ever before, but instead of techno-fixes invented with lucrative patents by chemical companies to dominate nature, this information is being used by holistic farmers to reverse the clock and mimic nature to help repair the damage done over generations of improper farm use.

Regenerative farming, mob grazing, holistic planned management are all current trendy terms for whole-system livestock management and although each term has a suite of experts and followers, the message is the same as those organic farmers who have been quietly and gently bucking industrial farming trends for years – livestock can be a great tool for soil improvement whilst benefitting the environment and providing us with nutrient dense food.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped being so quiet and accepting of unfounded criticisms and start shouting from the rooftops.

We do care, we do know what we’re doing and we’re making a difference.

Perhaps the accusatory vociferous minority should look closer to home before lashing out at us.

I can guarantee my holistically home- produced beef stew has a smaller carbon footprint and has maintained more diverse habitats than their silken tofu and avocado smoothie any day of the week.