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Growing the middle ground and dissolving barriers in food and farming spaces.

This year I am representing the National Farmers Union (NFU) as a ‘Young Farming Ambassador’ for the South West, as a 25 year-old new entrant farmer in Somerset with a thriving veg box enterprise and 16 acre regenerative farm. I’m so glad to have the opportunity to champion the small-scale, regenerative and collaborative paradigms of farming, which are being led by young people full of wide-eyed hope but grounded in action. I attended the 2023 NFU conference this week and met with ministers, MPs and decision-makers in the UK’s food and farming systems with other young farming representatives. This was my first NFU conference, but I am told that it was a unique one and reflects some interesting shifts which are important to share and bridge to the alternative/ organic /agroecological / regenerative farming worlds which I am generally more acquainted with! These shifts and insights into the NFU inspired me to build bridges and begin weaving together the threads of different food and farming spaces. The conference design took the courage to initiate some of this bridge building through raising some of the difficult issues and elephants in the room which may not be assumed popular to conventional farming audiences. Bringing issues of the climate & nature crisis, the scientific suggestion to eat less meat, to use land differently, to farm ecologically, reduce/eliminate fertilisers & sprays, questioning the supermarket-led food systems, shifting to regenerative agriculture and prioritising mental health for farmers. Previous conference notes and summaries suggest that these topics have emerged exponentially over recent years but this conference appears to be a mast year for it (in ecological terms this is the year when trees spontaneously decide to fruit/nut abundantly!). This welcome surprise for me as a new attendee from a different background was really insightful and inspiring, and has led me to write this piece to explore the bridge building between conventional and alternative farming spaces.

Image 1: The NFU conference 2023 speaking with the Mark Spencer Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, largely advocating for a globalised trade and supermarket-based food system shifting even more power and autonomy away from the farmers in the room

Our food and land systems are perhaps the greatest threat to the natural and human life, accounting for up to 30% emissions and the majority of biodiversity loss. It’s easy for academics and activists like George Monbiot to critique the farming industry (emphasising livestock) for these catastrophic outcomes of our food systems, but the story is much more nuanced. The critiques are understandable reactions to the problems of agriculture, but these are also challenges that people within the NFU and their members are actually on the front lines of battling and solving. This problem solving and ‘paradigm shifting’ is especially difficult for those who have been driven to the paradigm of industrial production not from their own choice but economics, supermarket pressures and survival. Similarly, within the alternative farming movement, there can too often be an ‘othering’ and dismissal of conventional producers, and yet these are the very people we need to be supporting to transition, all the while bringing a lot more diverse people into this movement. The blanket dismissal of any approach is often the limiting factor for collaboration and cross-pollination in food and farming spaces, which is so urgently needed now. I’ve been in plenty of alternative farming conferences where everyone is working on their view of the solutions and agreeing with the choir of what needs to be done and how wrong the system is. Equally I’ve been in conventional farming spaces where everyone broadly agrees with each other and then goes back to their farm to try and survive and get by producing food within this economic and political system that doesn’t value them (or the land they steward as best they can).

The alternative/emerging farming movement needs to engage a lot more with the status quo, with the current food system, with the lived struggles, injustices and solutions of those that so often get blamed.

Equally, the people in the room from the NFU conference need to be engaging in the regenerative approaches and visiting alternative farms and conferences where some great solutions and work is being pioneered from different perspectives.

As someone who traverses between both spaces and has good friends, teachers and role models in each ‘camp,’ I find that this is also an exercise in reconciling my inner tensions and finding harmony in connecting them more deeply. This is a key part of the inner work needed if we are to dissolve outer barriers and grow through boundaries beyond our comfort zones. We can’t grow the middle ground simply by throwing diverse people together in a room, without the necessary inner work to cultivate openness, understanding, tolerance and respect both ways. Shadows and tensions need acknowledging, facing and integrating if they are to be transformed into synergies. The transformations needed in our time will not occur from antagonism, or further separation. Only through union and integration and healthy dialogue can meaningful change happen at the collaborative scale needed. This does not mean homogenisation, or becoming uniform in some socialist dystopia of conformity and perfect equality/sameness. Instead, a celebration of unity in diversity, one of ecology’s great lessons. In this social-ecological paradigm, our uniqueness and authenticity is valued and everyone’s gifts are lifted up, celebrated as the leaders we all are and can be. This goes beyond expert agronomist culture, it goes beyond age-bias, beyond masculine dominated knowledge, beyond top-down control. Fundamentally, a shift of power, from supermarkets, chemical corporations and governments, and instead towards land, its stewards and communities. Regardless of farming space, alternative, conventional or the multiplicity of spaces in between, there is a common understanding that the current food system is not working for everyone, and has a great reckoning over the coming decades. Equally, the domination of supermarkets and global corporations in something as fundamental and life-sustaining as the food we eat is being challenged – by almost everyone except its small number of wealthy beneficiaries (who are unfortunately tied up with huge political power as the NFU conference evidenced so well).

image 3: Landworkers Alliance (LWA) local gathering with grassroots organisers discussing how we shift the food system towards agroecological and regenerative for people and planet

Given that the both the NFU and the various alternative farming bodies in the UK (e.g. LWA, ORFC, OGA) are member led, and the current global (and supermarket) food system is not serving these members or society (or earth), there is great potential for common ground to work on the shifts needed across boundaries. For this to manifest, its important to transform the perceived tensions into synergies and realise we’re all in this together. The NFU is the lead agricultural body in the UK, representing over 46,000 farming and growing businesses. It is only just beginning to diversify internally, with its first female leader (after over 110 years!) and the conference was perhaps the whitest, most male-dominated and oldest room I have been in since visiting parliament. The stance it takes and the narratives it adopts have a huge impact on farming policy and industry. Many growers in the ’alternative’ farming world take issue with its main messages, lack of diversity and the general approach of the NFU to lean towards business as usual, industrial agriculture, commodity foods, fertiliser and chemical-based farming, technology optimism and a productivity/growth focus - all of which have contributed to the climate, nature, soil and food crises that my generation faces. On the other side of the coin, conventional farmers critique the alternative farming systems as unproductive, utopian, inefficient, non-economic, middle-class and largely irrelevant in the mission to feed the world. These polarities are caricatured and generalised to make a point, but the reality is more grey and there are of course counter shifts and edge cultures within each paradigm, and these are the most interesting spaces for me, as someone who doesn’t believe in a black & white world.

From both sides, the reactive critiques to ‘different’ ideologies are certainly understandable and valid challenges, but not directed accurately or helpfully in my view, and we’d be better to channel energy into bridge-building, understanding and collaborative solutions. And often, the very critiques are actually not blind spots but active challenges that the solutionists in both movements are actively transforming. For example, many inspiring leaders in the conventional farming space are embracing regenerative approaches, employing a thriving team and adopting nature-friendly farming. Another interesting edge space in this movement is the Next Generation and Young farming ambassadors (see image 2), a space which feels not only more hopeful but actively engaged in the urgent issue and exciting task of our time: regeneration. Many of the ‘regenerative techniques’ are also age-old traditional land practices which the older generation of farmers recognise and these teachers harbour an abundance of this knowledge to transfer, if we can open an ear to listen. In both conventional and alternative farming spaces, there is much talk and literature on indigenous practices, often without true appreciation of our indigeneity in this place and how our ancestors might have lived with the land.

image 2: NFU conference with the Student and Young Farmers 2023 speaking to ministers. A very different, more hopeful conversation to the main hall and rooms of power!

The most interesting ‘edges’ in alternative farming spaces are the powerful models of appropriate scale regenerative farming that are showing that the ecological and economic come together. These farms are recognising the need to bridge ‘where we are now’ and ‘where we need to be’, and increasingly looking at productivity and resilience through diversity, and measuring this in more robust ways than anecdote. This not only answers many of the conventional farming concerns with alternative & regenerative, but also provides a tangible way to have a wider impact on food systems in the near future, not being bounded by dogmatism or idealism but pragmatically navigating a middle ground for prefigurative transformation. They are also countering the myth that more productive means less ethical or less ecological, instead these farms define ‘holistic productivity’ as the ability to grow abundant food whilst also regenerating the land and people without exploitation. Productivity and growth has negative connotations in alternative spaces in general, as a valid reaction to the woes of society’s financialised focus on these life-forces. But these forces can operate so much wider than the financial sphere. There is a new lens of productivity, that to me is called regenerative life flow – akin to the craft and total immersion in a piece of work/art/passion/land. When we tap into this in our collaborative farming model, work flows with ease, motivation is not needed from top-down, drive is inherent in shared goals, and people actualise their potential in the day-to-day as creative beings.

This is what we and other farms have tasted and trialled (imperfectly!) of the potential in appropriate scale regenerative farming, that so happens to be productive, economically viable and carbon sequestering, almost as by-products. Because the energy, passion and drive is infectious, it gathers and generates more momentum within our communities of practice and service. These sort of places don’t experience a labour shortage, which was one of the main issues emphasised at the NFU conference. We have over 20 people applying for 3 trainee places, dozens of applications for a single job role, an abundance of volunteer offers. There is a real buzz and excitement, especially in young people, around reconnecting to a land-based livelihood and regenerative growing. This is totally counter to the narrative I heard again and again at the NFU conference and in other farming spaces. It’s generally the opposite to what our larger farm neighbours think, and yet as these discussions deepen, this bridging of perspectives brings great hope and learning for all parties. This is just part of the potential of growing the middle ground in food and farming spaces. If the reactions and othering between separated spaces can be transformed into a focus on the growing overlap, the lessons and the growth can be harvested by all in a more coherent food and farming movement to shift power back to the farmers and communities that inhabit and steward these lands. Growing the middle ground must be a primary mission in this movement towards a fair and regenerative food system, and I plan to make this the focus of my work within both the NFU and in the Landworkers Alliance, ORFC and on the ground in our Avon bioregion. This begins from listening, and a renewed openness to each other across boundaries and thresholds of what we might think is possible. The possibility of a unified and coherent farming movement may seem like a dream, until you step into all its diversity and realise a commonality – the drive and desire for a fair and resilient food system for us and for future beings.

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