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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.”

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