Helping farmers put real health on our plates

A Whole Health Farmer’s Experience of ORFC23

A Whole Health Farmer’s Experience of ORFC23

Author: Nicola Westlake

Nicola’s family farm Westy & Wurzel produces and sells organic, 100% grass-fed beef and lamb on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. The farm adopts a wholistic approach to livestock health, focusing on keeping the entire farm in optimum health.

Find out more about Nicola’s grassfed beef & lamb. (Local delivery is within a 15-mile radius of Branscombe, East Devon for orders over £125.)

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Personal experience of The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2023

For me, farming with a ‘whole health’ philosophy sometimes feels quite lonely.  Despite being a member of a couple of local farm facilitation groups, I don’t know anyone else locally who farms with a similar wholistic approach.  Our local groups focus on funding and regulations or practical techniques – things that are really important, but don’t really help you connect with your land and livestock in the same way.   Having been involved with Whole Health Ag. for a while, I loved the progress I had made, both in farm health and my own personal development, from talking to one of their Complementary Health Advisors, attending on-line sessions as a Pro member, and communicating through the Pro forum.  

Taking a whole health approach has made such a difference to the farm and to my enjoyment of working with it that I want to tell others about my experience, to inspire them to consider the benefits of adopting the same approach.  Having attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) for the first time online in 2022, I loved the feel of the event and the fact that many of the sessions looked at things a little bit differently from all the conventional training and support available to farmers.  So, what better place to share my whole health philosophy than at a conference that promotes my ideals? 

So I offered my services as a volunteer to WHAg as a way for me to get to ORFC, experience it in person, hopefully attend some sessions, and spread the word about the benefits of a whole health approach.  As WHAg’s plans progressed, they invited me to join their vet surgeon Chris Aukland and farmer Pammy Riggs to deliver a workshop for farmers and as we got closer to the event, we met on Zoom a few times to share ideas and rehearse.

“Taking a whole health approach has made such a difference to the farm and to my enjoyment of working with it....."

Starting the New year With a Bang

With a stand in the main hall, we had a great spot to listen to the opening plenary and to gather energy from the Shumei Taiko Ensemble, Japanese farmer-musicians playing enormous drums who caused a real stir; the noise and vibrations were off the scale and really invoked the spirit of the conference.  I knew that ORFC would offer a range of talks and workshops, but I was still surprised by the expanse of topics covered, from farming policy to spirituality and mental health, from alternative forms of ownership to support for new entrants, from beetle ID to struggles for land justice and of course our WHAg session “Can we make health infectious? Exploring the effects of subtle energy systems on overall farm health.”

On our stand we told visitors of the benefits of WHAg membership, introduced them to the courses and webinars we offer and encouraged them to attend our session, as well as sharing our general philosophy and experiences.  I was able to tell people about some of the differences we have made; reducing antibiotic use, reducing use of wormers and fly and tick treatments, treating cases of Orf and New Forest Eye to name a few.  I also explained how our whole health philosophy now permeates through everything we do on the farm, including how it has influenced our approach to our secure dog field business, where we have not just set up a new enterprise, but are educating our customers on our ethos, and why our focus is on increasing biodiversity in the field despite its commercial use.  

Where Were All the Livestock Farmers?

It was lovely to engage with such a diverse group of people, but I was surprised that there didn’t seem to be as many livestock farmers as I had expected.  I wonder, now that the conference is online as well as in person, if it is just easier for them to attend online. As farmers, if you are on the farm when the unexpected happens, such as the cows getting out – and we all know that they do escape at the least convenient moment – life is much easier all round. And of course, the cost is significantly less in terms of travel, accommodation, etc. 

I do wonder though, whether ORFC does any analysis of who attends in person and who online, as it would be interesting to see whether this is the case. I also noticed that some of the more mainstream livestock sessions were run concurrently.  For example there was a beef cattle session at the same time as a sheep session.  There are many livestock farmers who have both cattle and sheep and they would have had to choose between the two.

Can We Make Health Infectious?

It seems we can! Our session went well, it was really well supported, the room was full and many people were turned away.  I guess WHAg needs to try to get a bigger room for next year!  Our session was chaired by farmer Pammy Riggs, who had lost her voice, but who through a heroic effort made people really listen.  And then there was myself and WHAg’s Head of Livestock Health Programmes, vet surgeon Chris Aukland.  Pammy kicked off the session by handing round all manner of fascinating stuff to introduce the concept of subtle energy, including powerful magnets (impossible to connect) and dowsing rods (some people sent these spinning wildly!). Chris talked about how subtle energy systems might fit within farm management and husbandry and then we all gave some examples from our personal experience. 

As it was a workshop, we wanted to encourage audience participation and were pleasantly surprised how quickly people opened up and shared their own experiences.  It quickly became a really secure and comfortable space for people to explore together. Such a shame it lasted only 45 minutes – I think we could all have chatted for hours!

Afterwards so many people came up to us to continue the discussion, including a scientific researcher who expressed how powerful they had found the session and wanting to stay in touch. Overall, a busy, hectic and tiring couple of days, but a great start to 2023.

About the author: The WHAg team love to showcase farmers and supporters who epitomise the ethos of ‘Whole Health’. We live and breathe this approach, which flows through us in farming, work, and family.

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