Travels in the Food Zones – The ORFC

As part of the Travels Round the Food Zones Blog, Julie Brown reports back from the Oxford Real Farming Conference, held in January 2016.

I always enjoy the ORFC -seems to me to be an amazingly productive mixture of top-down and bottom-up organisation – and I’ve found it an inspiring way to start the year.

This year I was looking forward to it even more as along with co-presenting a session on retail first thing Wednesday morning, there was a rich and tempting line-up of other sessions to attend, alongside which I had arranged a number of additional side meetings to explore some new project ideas. Plus, I was hoping to track down and interview some significant people in my quest to find out more about the role of animals within a sustainable food system (an issue I’m planning to explore more in a future post) and I had rashly agreed to do a short presentation in the final plenary of my impressions of the conference as a whole.

So, I had to approach the event a bit like a military campaign, poring over the programme and planning my every move….

First off: co-presenting a session on retail with Phil Haughton from the Better Food Company. Here’s my presentation. 

The community-led box schemes that GC have helped to set up over the last few years are now collectively known as the Better Food Traders and I was keen to find out if there were other alternative retailers up for getting involved in some way and also to find out more from the farmers there about which retail outlets and ways of selling they found most useful.  The session went well but I felt we didn’t really get a proper chance to drill down into the issues I had hoped to discuss. No worries – I made lots of great connections over the next couple of days that I’m in the process of following up. We also asked participants to add any thoughts and suggestions to our wall of ‘post-its’.   These are written up here – plenty to think about so thanks to all of you who contributed.  And if any of you are reading this and would like to be kept in the loop as we move ahead with the Better Food Traders, please do get in touch or leave a comment below.

What next?  Off to to True Cost Accounting in Food and Farming session.  Favorite quote from the session: “how can we do for food what we’ve done for energy in Germany?”(which has increased from 5 to 30% of electricity production in the last 5 years or so). In other words it is possible for a decentralised, smaller scale, diverse system to deliver the goods.  This last year or so I’ve been increasingly struck by the many parallels that exist between the food and energy systems.  It feels like there are insights to be gained by comparing the two and I will continue to reflect on that over the coming months.

I asked a question at the end of the session – something along the lines of “At Growing Communities we do pay our farmers the true cost of the food they produce but as a  consequence, we effectively have to subsidise that by paying ourselves as retailers pretty modest salaries and by charging our customers more than they would pay for conventional produce.  What economic levers would you recommend – eg CAP, tax, tariffs, an ‘alternative CAP’ – that might lead to the food we sell at GC being less expensive and/or the food sold in the supermarkets more expensive? ”

Sadly, the project is not yet ready to suggest anything specific, but I’m totally behind the concept of True Cost Accounting and am  looking forward to seeing what practical and policy recommendations they will be coming up with as the work develops. It would be so great to have some clear economic targets that the food movement could get behind.

It was a complete joy though to go along to the Landworkers Alliance launch of their Rural Manifesto. A great document full of policy suggestions based on real and practical experience. Favorite quote:  “we need to take the money from the developers and give it to the people who do the work.” Not sure how easy that will be to do in practice but I certainly agree with the sentiment.

I think that a number of the issues around wages and housing costs raised in the rural manifesto are very relevant to urban food workers too.  ‘Alternative retail’ and urban food production are low or ‘no salary’ pursuits at the moment while housing costs in urban areas (particularly here in London) continue to rise.  This poses a real challenge to those of us working in these areas. How can we create decently paid work, here in the city, that has some hope of being able to cover housing costs – while continuing to pay farmers a fair price for producing sustainable food and and keeping our prices in line with what is ‘affordable’?  I refer back to the True Cost Accounting session above….  Hmm.   Yet another thing to reflect on.

Anyway – I love the LWA. I think they have injected a real energy into the food movement and into the ORFC.

Next up was Our grass-fed future: A rescue plan for the countryside.  Lots more to say about this but I’ll be contemplating the issue of how animals might best fit within a sustainable farming system in an up and coming post, so watch this space.

I had an early evening meeting with Tom Curtis from 3Keel to talk about the possibility of collaborating on a project to Model The Food Zones.   We worked together a few years ago on a project looking at How To Feed A City  and we’re both excited about the idea of working together again in the future.   Then off to meet up with Chris Smaje of Small Farm Future   and take the opportunity to put a face to a blog I have long admired and learnt a lot from over the last few years.

On to Thursday – started off with a great session on micro and nano nurseries. Another quote that stuck in my mind:  “there is nothing inherently inefficient or unproductive about small scale production.”

Followed by a session on how to scale up and replicate a successful enterprise. As someone who’s has been actively working in this area for over 5 years, it was fascinating to hear more about the replication plans of HiSbe in Brighton and the Ecological Land Cooperative.   More great connections made and will definitely be following up with Ruth Anslow from HiSbe – be good to share experiences and see if there might be scope for working together in future in relation to Better Food Traders or something similar.

And so to my final session – I’m afraid the debate on Sustainable intensification vs mixed farming finished me off and I could take no more! Presenting were Guy Smith (NFU), Richard Young (Sustainable Food Trust) and Tim May (Kingsclere Estates). The chair, Patrick Holden, closed the session with “Thank you for that extremely intellectually stimulating and challenging discussion.” And challenging it was indeed. Guy Smith appealed to both sides to be less ideologically driven and referred pretty much every question back to the god of the ‘market’ in a way that left me with a pounding heart as I tried to articulate my thoughts.

There were very different worldviews on display in that session. I’m going to be reflecting a lot more on worldviews in later posts… But it’s very very hard to argue intellectually against a different worldview. Or at least I find it very hard – and even harder to get to a place where you can even begin to discuss solutions (hmm – probably should have thought a bit more about that before starting a blog…!)

So, while it’s great to spend time at ORFC thinking, listening and contributing to the intellectual debates, it’s even more inspiring to hear about people who are demonstrating through concrete actions that a better way of doing things is possible, desirable and viable – and to have a role in that. So, as I said in my summing up at the end of the conference “I’m going to go back to Hackney now – exhausted – but fired up – to continue doing exactly that.”

Travels in the Food Zones – But where are we going?

The second in a series of explorations of the Food Zones – written by Julie Brown, founder of Growing Communities…

So, the Food Zones is our vision for a better food system in diagrammatic form.  The concept also lends itself to a ‘call to action’: a kind of manifesto. Also, by modelling the Food Zones we can see it as a research project (with its sleeves rolled up).  And through mapping and measuring the Food Zones we could see it as a vision in action.

So, plenty to explore.  And I’ll be looking at all those areas in future posts.

But it occurred to me that what we don’t really have yet is a vision in story form. Something that describes in words what the future might be like if  we traveled in the direction the Food Zones is heading.

So I thought I’d have a go at doing that now.  It’s more short story than novel and while it may lack plot and narrative drive I hope it will hold your attention for a while.  And I’d love it if you could tell me what you would add or change.  Here we go…..

…… it’s 2035 – 20 years from now.

A network of farms in and around urban areas provides at least 60% of the food needs of those towns and cities. 20% comes from other parts of the UK and a further 20% comes from Europe and further afield.

Our society is made up of at least 20% who are involved in farming in and around the areas in which they live and most people have a portfolio of work which includes some food-related work – paid and unpaid – that enables them to live.

Farming continues to be about raising food for a living but this increasingly includes different approaches such as part-time patchwork urban farming and city people involved in running orchards and farms which supply food to their communities.

All farmers and producers, wherever they are, are paid a fair price for their food.

Many people are also involved in growing some of their own food but more significantly they are connected to the people and the farms (be they urban or rural) that produce the majority of the food they eat. They regularly volunteer at their local urban market gardens or they contribute some or all of their garden towards a Patchwork Farm or they have an allotment on which they grow a proportion of their own food.

They understand where the rest of their food comes from and how and by whom it is produced. They value and respect those people – after all they know what skill it takes to grow food all year round, particularly as the weather is still so unpredictable.

They buy their fresh food from community-led box schemes, markets, community shops, CSA schemes and online schemes and they know how to cook and enjoy that food. Fish schemes like Soleshare abound, as do artisan bakeries like E5 Bakehouse and Better Health alongside local distillers and brewers.

Supermarkets still exist but they control a much smaller share of the food market and specialise in consumables and processed foods, leaving most of the fresh food to those traders better able to distribute that produce in a way that meets the needs of the farmers. The food they sell continues to come from the remaining larger more industrialised farms for whom this method of distribution still makes some sense, and they are able to provide some of the more basic products – such as bread, butter and cheese.

Many of the supermarkets have returned to being what they were originally – i.e. a one-stop shop under one roof – but where the produce is sourced along the same lines as the community-led systems.

Organic certification is no longer necessary as all food production is pretty much organic (although emergency use of certain pesticides and temporary use of artificial fertiliser is practised, but this is the exception rather than the rule).

Farmers sell through a combination of routes.  Supply chain cooperation – through regional networks of traders – means their journeys are minimised and loads are optimised. The network of Better Food Traders grew out of the Growing Communities start-up programme back in 2016 and many thousands of other box schemes, markets, shops and online retailers like Food Assembly have since joined the network.  Supply chain cooperation – using  a very nifty bit of tech developed in 2019 – ensures the distribution systems work as well as possible. Regional depots or hubs provide central drop-off points for producers along with other services.

Farmers also cooperate with each other a lot more too – sharing knowledge as well as larger bits of equipment and processing facilities. The Land Workers Alliance has grown and now represents and campaigns on behalf of thousands of farmers and growers.

Urban areas have reduced their populations somewhat as people have moved to the surrounding countryside to produce food. That in turn has resulted in a re-invigoration of rural towns and villages, while also freeing up more urban land on which to grow more food, so that urban areas themselves are able to make a more significant contribution to providing food for their own populations. The reduced need for car parks and roads has freed up even more land for urban food production….

People eat out a lot – communal one-pot type affairs as it makes sense to pool resources and it’s nice to eat with your community. Not all the time though! Sometimes people splash out on more bespoke places where they can get away from their neighbours!

There are far fewer takeaways and convenience foods around – it’s just too energy intensive – and also people are happier to eat at home as they know how to cook and often are less rushed for time as working patterns have shifted.

People eat a lot less meat. Any protein gap is filled by beans and pulses – from traders like Hodmedod’s – and from urban aquaponic and insect-based systems. Urban chickens and goats abound – although to be honest these are used mainly for their eggs and milk and rarely end up in the pot until they are getting on a bit.

Everyone knows what is their fair allocation of food according to calories, optimum nutrition and environmental impact. A clever app and coding system enables everyone to shop as they please while still easily keeping a tally on their budget. People can trade on any spare allocation or save up for a blow-out on a luxury item. A similar system for transport was introduced back in 2025 so that if you cycle, walk or take public transport for most of the time, you can save up for say a flight at a later date. You can also trade across sectors, which means that in practice vegans generally get to be taking many of the flights available!

In terms of the Growing Communities veg scheme – an app is able to check produce before it is delivered for packing so nothing is ever sent back or requires extra sorting time.  And nifty sensors in the packing area count the bag numbers and ensure numbers on the delivery vehicles and at the collection points tally with the packing lists.

And what about me? Well I’m a sprightly 72 year old. I finally learned how to grow pears (easier now that people are more accepting of the need to grow food with the minimum of chemicals) and in my spare time I’ve taken to making knitted vegetables and teeny-tiny origami animals.

OK – so that’s it for now. I also have another scenario that sees me being eaten by my children in the ‘great reckoning of 2030’ but that’s for another post..…

But what about you? What would you add or change?

Travels in the Food Zones – Starting Out

The first in a series of explorations of the Food Zones – written by Julie Brown, founder of Growing Communities…

Hello. Welcome to my blog. I’m Julie Brown, founder and director of Growing Communities. We’re based in Hackney, London and we’re working to create a better, fairer and more sustainable food system by supporting small-scale local organic farmers with fair prices.

Our vision for a better food and farming system can be illustrated by a diagram we call the Food Zones. This vision informs everything we do here at Growing Communities and it is being put in place right now by all the people around the country involved in the alternative food movement.

foodzonesdec8th2015I recently spoke to Rob Hopkins for a piece for his Transition blog, where he described our work as “a research project with its sleeves rolled up”. I love that description as it captures both the theoretical and the practical sides of what we do. I now want to see how we might model and map the alternative food system being created: bring it into the light, prove its impact and show how it’s growing.

It’s a grand ambition in its very early stages. I’ll be looking for lots of help to illustrate my journey online and to fine tune the research methodology.

I’d like to see if we can promote useful dialogue and debate along the way via blogging and tweeting. And as well as doing that virtually, I’m hoping to get out and actually visit some people and farms!

This blog is my vehicle for exploring all of that.  I look forward to you joining me on my travels….

Julie Brown, Director, Growing Communities

8th December 2015

Growing Communities

A short film made for Growing Communities showing the work they do and how to get involved.