Meet the inspiring women who are transforming food and farming for good

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Meet the inspiring women who are transforming food and farming for good

 

A collaborative piece written by Abby Rose - Farmerama, Robert Reed - A Team Foundation, and twelve inspiring women.


The A Team Foundation are celebrating International Women’s Day in collaboration with Farmerama Radio who share the voices of the regenerative agriculture movement. Today, Friday the 8th March, is a day to celebrate all the women in our lives; those that are close to us and also, those who are working to shift paradigms not only in food and farming but in the wider world.

Abby: Farmerama is truly grassroots radio. We have always been focused on sharing the voices of the people on the front line of food and farming, those getting stuck into the nitty gritty of what it really means to be a food producer and how that relates to the wider world. We also have a strong focus on featuring under-represented voices as we will only build a regenerative food and farming system if we work with diversity being a fundamental ideal.

As co-host of Farmerama, I was at a women farmers conference in California, and one grazier told us about her experiences with holistic grazing cows across vast areas in order to rebuild ecosystems and regenerate soils. As a female rancher, she was in the minority amongst graziers and she shared how her way of handling animals was different to those of her male counterparts and teachers. When she decided to embrace her approach as equally valid, it started a journey of exploration. What does a ‘feminine land ethic’ look like? Ever since hearing that, I too have been asking that same question. And what about a feminine food system?  

Part of this exploration is enacted through Farmerama, sharing the voices and experiences of the amazing women out there defining this daily – the women on the front lines nurturing, campaigning, activating and not just believing in a better future but enacting it. So on International Women’s Day 2019 we are here to celebrate the brilliant work of all the women out there, and in particular to share a glimpse into the lives of these 12 awesome women all lighting the way and being a powerful force for change.

(You can also tune into Farmerama Radio to hear many more stories like this - find us at farmerama.co or on any podcasting platform).

Rob: Everywhere I turn within our Movement, there are always powerful and inspiring women leading the foray to transform our broken food system. I am honoured to work with many visionaries who are striving to give our society and the Earth, the peace, safety and sustainability that it so urgently needs.  

You have to be a certain type of person to work within the food sector and you have to be prepared to work hard. Nourishing a seed (be it literal or metaphorical) requires giving it the protection and care it requires to grow. And meanwhile, all of which, is done knowing that the efforts may not guarantee a harvest, but regardless and with love, the risk is worth it anyway. For me, this is a fundamental and inspiring trait of womanliness.

The inspiring ladies below epitomise this sentiment. Each work in their own field across the food and farming spectrum and each endeavour to nourish others in one form or another.   


 
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Alexandra Cruz Welch
Founder, Harvester City

📷: @harvester_city

I believe in a world where we create the story behind our food. I am on a mission to transform the way we produce and consume, by sharing the stories of unconventional thinkers and doers transforming food and agriculture around the globe.

Harvester City is a publication for passionate foodies, plant pioneers and sustainability champions. A place for individuals and businesses to connect & collaborate through the sharing of ideas, experiences, knowledge, and resources from different functions within the supply chain.

What are you committed to in the world?

I am committed to enabling others to achieve greatness. I believe we live in a world filled with way too much negativity and stress. It is easy for people to feel hopeless. I think that the key to a fulfilling life starts with your health. So many of us are prisoners to our body due to illness and disease. I want to educate people about food from all sides of the story. There are a vast amount of people dedicating their time to creating initiatives that promote sustainability, innovation, education, and health within the food space. I see these fantastic individuals as harvesters of knowledge and innovation. This is why I have created Harvester City, a place both offline and online for people to connect & collaborate through the sharing of ideas, experience, knowledge, and resources.

What do you do day-to-day to this end?

The majority of my time is split between traveling, reading, writing and talking to amazing people. Most of my work for Harvester involves me researching and gathering knowledge on the food and healthcare scene around the world. The best way I have found to do this is by actually going to these places to meet these people and hear about their innovations in person. That means most months I am traveling between 3-4 different cities.

Who or what inspires you?

I take all my inspiration from the food & agriculture community. I feel so privileged to be able to connect with some many amazing people. The majority of people working in food genuinely care about what they do and how they do it. Caring and being value driven is something scarce nowadays in the world of business. Every new story I hear inspires me to do what I do. I never for a minute question the importance of showcasing these individuals; without them, we would have no food on our plate and no future to look forward to when it comes to the health and wellbeing of our planet.


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Anastasia Emmanuel
Chief Growth Officer, Foodchain

🖥: https://www.joinfoodchain.com/
📷: @foodchain__

I have been in the startup world for a good decade and am obsessed with how technology and community can drive change and solve real world problems.  The problem I am consumed by now is the industrialised food system and how broken it is for people's health, the global economy and our environment. Together with a bunch of incredible people, we are trying to build a better system: one that is open, collaborative, transparent, and where everyone benefits from its growth. A food system that is economically and environmentally sustainable. For everyone.

What are you celebrating right now?

I am celebrating the achievements of women around the world, women far away and women right in front of me; my peers, women in my industry and in my team. I surround myself with smart, powerful, insightful women who know better than me, who can teach me and help me grow. I think it's really important to have mentors, women who are just in front of you and also miles in front of you. Who can help you navigate the short term challenges as well as inspire you to chase your big vision.

Today I am celebrating my peers who breastfeed in the boardroom and, normalise what it looks like to be a mother whilst building a business, the non-glamorous, bare naked truth of trying to balance family and a career. Companies have a choice if they want to retain great talent and build great companies and it may not be the easiest choice short term but it will serve companies better in the future.

I am celebrating not only women on International Women’s Day, but the men who support women, who fight for gender equality and women's rights. This can't be achieved with 50% of the population. We need men and women to work together effect real change globally and you can start in our own immediate sphere.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have done a huge amount for raising awareness and stopping men in their tracks when it comes to sexual harassment, abuse and inappropriate behaviour in and out of the workplace. One thing I feel uneasy about is whether this is just a moment in history, or whether the learnings we have painfully gleaned over the past couple of years, exposing this type of systemic behaviour is going to genuinely change for the better long-term or once the focus eases, whether the impact won't be long-lasting. One of the reasons for my concern is that the power dynamic is not changing quick enough. The leaders, the decisions makers, the people deciding what gets funded and what doesn't are still overwhelmingly white men. Diversity as well as gender inequality is just as large an issue.

What's amusing is that there is myriad research to prove that having women on your board, in your team and across the company increases your profitability. The bottom line is that women make your company better, not that there needs to be a reason to enforce gender equality in companies, but it's fiscally irresponsible of you not to. And shocker...having a team that represents the world and society enables you to make better products, better decisions and serve your customers best. I want an equal number of women in our company not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it makes business sense.

What gives you solace?

It gives me solace speaking to the great women in the food and tech industry. The restaurant owners like Laura Harper Hinton who are actively trying to effect change in the boardroom and at the exec level. The amazing head chefs that we work with;  Chantelle Nicholson, Sally Abe, Rose Ashby, Jane Alty to name just a few! Women who are trying to showcase other women and lift them up like Ravneet Gill who created Countertalk to give women chefs a platform, Ladies Of Restaurants who are promoting women in all areas of hospitality and of course my team.


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Anna Van Der Hurd
Director, A Team Foundation

🖥: https://www.ateamfoundation.org/
📷: @ateamfoundation

I am a Soul currently living a human experience. I am a mother. I love and live on this planet Earth we all call our home. I care deeply and perhaps obsessively about food, it’s production and consumption, how it nourishes or not. I am in awe of Life.

What are you celebrating right now?

A hot shower, the spring blooms, a meal shared with family and friends, laughter. The incredible diversity being grown and the radical farmers near me. I’ve recently moved to Durham, North Carolina and I am blown away each Saturday by what I see and taste at my local market and the deep sense of community the market brings to the town.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

The next generation of genetic modification. Call them what you will - Gene drives, CRISPR - these new technologies are no safer than their predecessors and likely far less so. The first generation of genetic modification has been a tremendous failure, causing massive increases in the use of toxic herbicides. We continue to risk altering genes other than the ones originally targeted with untold consequences and then setting these altered species loose into the environment. Once out of the lab and into the fields, water, and air, it is an unstoppable experiment, which frankly I wish would be put to bed. 

What are you committed to in the world?

I am committed to living a life of gratitude, harmlessness and love for all Life.

What do you do day-to-day to this end?  

Well hopefully some things as a commitment without action is a bit sad. It hurts me to harm. I am reminded of this if ever I lose my patience with anyone, especially a little person. I feel the ripples of every decision I make when it comes to consumption. What am I supporting behind the product when buying, eating, reading, watching? Does it bring love or harm? These are the questions I ask myself. I don’t always get it right and sometimes I want the convenience, or the superfluous, but when astray I am brought back to centre by a deeply felt interconnectivity to all and a wish for us to live with equality and harmony on this planet.  

Who or what inspires you?

There is so much in this world to be inspired by. Life itself and the myriad forms that it takes. A smile from a passing stranger. The agroecological, organic, biodynamic farmers that feed us and nourish the earth with their regenerative practice. The bravery of many in all disciplines that dedicate their life in service for a better future for all.


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Calixta Killander
Farmer, Flourish Produce

🖥: https://www.flourishproduce.co.uk/
📷: @flourishproduce

After spending some time studying and farming in the USA I moved back to the UK to start Flourish Produce, a small farm in South Cambridgeshire. We grow a large array of specialty produce, with a focus on unusual varieties. We work with heavy horses rather than tractors and are committed to this way of farming due to its reduced impact on the soil, our most precious growing medium. The horses are integrated into our fertility cycle and along with other practices, we strive to produce all of our own fertility on the farm whilst growing delicious nutrient dense produce for our customers.

What are you celebrating right now?

Spring is here and it’s always such a thrilling time on the farm. The winter lull is over and we are rushing to prepare the land and plant our crops. We are seeding a huge array of plants in the greenhouse, each year I am always amazed to watch such beautiful plants grow from something as tiny as a seed.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

As a grower so dependent on many variables, I always worry about what challenges we will face in terms of pests, disease and weather in the year ahead. I hope that we are creating a resilient farm system through our land management practices but of course there are always struggles and we make mistakes. As a grower with tight margins, crop loss can be really devastating.

What gives you solace?

The understanding that we are doing our very best here at Flourish and that each challenge is an opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes. I look to the mentors I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work for, who have been growing and farming for decades, and cherish the fact that their thriving businesses are a testament to doing things the right way rather than cutting corners.

What are you committed to in the world?

I am committed to growing the best  food that I possibly can whilst enhancing the ecology both above and below ground on the farm. I want to build a good business that can provide a decent livelihood to those who are involved in it and one that can illustrate the benefits of regenerative/sustainable farming techniques and the use of working horses in a commercially viable farm.


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Fidelity Weston
Farmer, Romshed Farm & Vice-Chair, Pasture for Life

🖥: http://www.romshedfarm.co.uk/
🖥: https://www.pastureforlife.org/
📷: @pastureforlife

I farm near Sevenoaks in Kent, UK.  We rear beef and lamb on our wildflower rich pastures. Moving them regularly to rest the fields, allows the wildflowers to set seed and give the stock fresh grass on a regular basis.  We sell our meat directly to the public who come to the farm to pick up their orders. We have open days and I love talking to our customers about food and meat, exchanging recipes and building each others knowledge on farming and cooking.  I am also Vice Chairman of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, a membership organisation of around 400 farmers who are all trying new ways of farming to ensure wildlife is respected, soils are rejuvenated and the animals are healthy and happy.  They are an inspirational group of people and through each other we have learned an enormous amount.

What are you feeling uneasy about?  

A change in the weather as we approach lambing, but we will manage.  Last year was horrendous with snow, sleet and no grass, so whatever we get this year, it will be better.  On the bigger picture, I feel uneasy about the future of the environment for our children. They have not seen the loss that I have seen in my generation and so each generation has lower and lower expectations; we somehow need to turn the tide.

What gives you solace?  

I love walking out in the morning, hearing the birds and feeling the fields move from cold to cool to warm.  Ending the day in the same way on a beautiful day gives just as much solace.

What are you committed to in the world?  

Regenerative agriculture could do so much to bring back natural life on the earth.  It seems to me, it would provide the answer and if we can get that going on a large-scale that would be wonderful.  I am committed to achieving this in the UK.

What do you do day-to-day to this end?

I farm regeneratively but spend far more time working away for the PFLA as a volunteer Director.  That is how I feel I am influencing Government policy and helping to engender change. I spend too much time in front of my computer but feel it is all worthwhile when I am working alongside others trying to achieve the same ends.


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Janie Bickersteth
Chair, Incredible Edible Lambeth

🖥: https://www.incredibleediblelambeth.org/
📷: @incredibleediblelambeth

From a young age, I have realised the importance of growing food, having helped my dad in the veg patch in my first decade of life. He taught me to appreciate how hard it is to grow food but how much tastier it is once  you've grown something yourself, harvested and eaten it on the same day. Today, I am Chair of Incredible Edible Lambeth - I first came across Incredible Edible in 2012 and set one up in a large school in Singapore - from there, one of my students has set up an Incredible Edible in Goa and has planted thousands of moringa trees! I am very proud of her achievements.

What are you celebrating right now?
I'm celebrating the growing global awareness that both our planet and our people need nurturing; the dawning realisation that our soils need protecting and that eating processed food is never going to be good for you. In short - I feel that there is a groundswell of people taking control of their own situations and not having the expectation that someone else will 'fix it'

What are you feeling uneasy about?
I'm concerned that our Governments are not recognising how urgently we need to change direction - that unfettered 'Growth'  is the primary driver, despite the knowledge that our globe cannot sustain it.

What do you do day-to-day?
I work to raise awareness of the difficult issues of our time - both in my work with Incredible Edible Lambeth, in the street I live in (I'm a street champion) and my work in my church on all areas of sustainability and faith. With IEL I work to encourage food growing (in community gardens, on balconies, in public spaces, in schools), food businesses, food knowledge (in education) and food campaigning (presently we have a pesticide-free Lambeth campaign). In church, we have achieved the A Rocha EcoChurch Gold status - the only urban city in the UK. Right now, I am spending time prepping for Earth Hour (30th March) when I am working with my church (St James' Piccadilly) and WWF to get all the lights turned off around Piccadilly Circus - we will be standing vigil for an hour that night to remind the world that we are running out of time to bring down our CO2 levels and to save so much of our world from extinction. I also campaign with Extinction Rebellion, with Greenpeace and have been engaged with Friends of the Earth in the past. Financially, I support children in Vietnam, people being reskilled to get back into work (in the Northeast of UK), Christian Aid, Oxfam, MSF...


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Jenny Costa
Founder, Rubies in the Rubble

🖥: https://rubiesintherubble.com/  
📷: @rubiesintherubble


I am the founder of Rubies in the Rubble, a sustainable condiments company. Having been brought up on an organic farm before working in the city, I am passionate about making positive change through business.

What are you celebrating right now?

Our new ketchup!! We just won a Gold Award for it and are super proud. It tastes banging but is BETTER for you and the planet - being 100% natural and surplus pears replacing half the added sugar.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

I have a mixture of terror and excitement for some of our targets and growth that we have this year and next. It is so exciting to see the interest and demand and now just down to us to make sure we deliver! We are running a crowdfunding campaign in April and are excited to include people in our journey.

What gives you solace?

Our Rubies Team! We have such an amazing team which feels more like a family than a company. Everyone is incredibly supportive of each other and focused on creating more impact.

What are you committed to in the world?

I am committed to creating a more sustainable food supply chain. Food has a huge carbon footprint and we need to value it better. We have the food to feed our growing demand and population, we just need to better manage it.

What do you do day-to-day to this end?

Run Rubies in the Rubble! We make delicious condiments from fruit and veg that would otherwise be discarded as a way of raising awareness about the need to value our food supply chain.


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Jyoti Fernandes
Farmer, Campaigner & Activist, Landworkers’ Alliance

🖥: https://landworkersalliance.org.uk/
📷: @landworkersalliance


I am a farmer in Dorset. I am running a mixed agroecological farm with my husband and four daughters. We have vegetables and orchards with Jacob sheep under the apples, pears and plums and chickens to eat the scraps which lay rich yellow yolked eggs. My favourite are my four cows. My father was from India and I think I have a real love for cows that runs through my blood. I sell raw milk and cheese, jams, apple juice, cider and herbal remedies.

I started farming because I wanted to raise my children in a job where they could help, have plenty of fresh air and good food while they were to learn about nature. Now two of them have left home. One is a scientist studying how to reduce climate change with better farming systems and another is a doctor studying how good food improves our well-being. I feel strongly that all the time they helped me plant seeds, feed baby lambs and pull up GM crops was worthwhile because I see them contributing back to our world and it makes me proud. I think my proudest personal achievement is having washed four kids worth of nappies by hand!

I also campaign for a better fairer food system that can feed the world without destroying it. I have always been a campaigner alongside farming, working to help smallholders get access to land and working with the Landworkers' Alliance a union for small farms which is a part of La Via Campesina an international movement of peasant farmers. The majority of farmers in the world are women of colour, providing nearly 70% of the worlds food. We campaign to support their livelihoods and make sure that everyone has access to health affordable food that is produced in a way that regenerates our earth.  

What are you celebrating right now?

Our movement -of people working for a sustainable and just world- is growing stronger and gaining a voice. La Via Campesina, our peasant farmers movement, represents over 200 million small scale farmers. All the people I work with are powerful, strong, dedicated people who are creating and alternative to the destructive path we are on. For a long time our political voice has been marginalised, but I witness daily how we have influenced how the people in power view agriculture. Last year we persuaded the UN to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, which is groundbreaking.

Recently, the campaign that I have been working on to shift agriculture in this country towards Agroecology has gained a lot of momentum and I get to meet with loads of politicians and civil servants who are interested in change. It is exciting and gives me a sense of purpose in my daily work as a farmer. Lots of people are realising that intensive, corporate agriculture hasn’t solved hunger. So now we have an opportunity to present a very real way forward.

What do you do day-to-day?

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I milk my cows on the days that I am not heading to Westminster to talk to politicians (on those days my neighbour comes to milk for me). I cook food for my family from what we have grown and try to get them to put down their phones so we can eat together and chat about the state of the world. Next week they are going to strike for the climate so I have been preparing a leaflet for them to pass out about how agroecology can combat climate change and why people should try not to eat food, especially meat, from industrial farms. I juggle planting and cheese making with writing policy briefings and meetings with men in suits. Last year I got to talk to our secretary of State, Michael Gove, about farming and I noticed a big clump of mud on my shoe so I stuck it under the table. He didn’t seem to notice….

Who or what inspires you?

My mom. She was an activist working for the rights of disabled people and juggled raising 5 children with her campaigning work. I saw her over her lifetime build up a movement from scratch to over 20,000 blind people who fought for equal opportunities. I remember running around at the back of endless meetings while she was organising. I somehow absorbed all of my campaigning skills from her. And my optimism. Raising your voice while raising your kids works.  


 
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Kimberley Bell
Baker & Founder, Small Food Bakery

🖥: http://www.smallfoodbakery.com/  
📷:@smallfoodbakery

What are you celebrating right now?

Pancake day of course! More specifically, I’m delighted by the wheat, eggs, milk and lemons that I currently have in front of me, because they all represent much bigger narratives – special people and places that nourish me and I’m so grateful to be connected to.

What are you committed to in the world?

Advocating for change in the way we grow, produce, trade, cook, eat, think about food.  

What do you do day-to-day to this end?

Feed people in the best way I can.

Who or what inspires you?

Something/ someone different everyday. Today I’ve been reading and learning about a book called ‘Letters to Nature’ by artist John Newling. I’m inspired by how concisely the book expresses some huge ideas, and how crafting something with such intent – a letter, a book, an artwork can help organise overwhelming thoughts/ be an expression of truth. I like to imagine a loaf of bread could be as beautiful/ truthful.


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Lynne Davis
CEO, Open Food Network UK

🖥: https://openfoodnetwork.org.uk/
📷: @openfoodnetworkUK

I’ve spent the last decade working on transformative projects in food and agriculture.

What are you celebrating right now?

I’m trying really hard to celebrate what feels like a new wave of environmental activism. Extinction Rebellion and the School Strikes are giving a new generation a feeling of the power of collective action. The Blue Planet effect (on single-use plastics), increasing popularity of Slow Fashion and veganism are engaging people in behaviour change. There is definitely a rising tide of willingness to take action.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

I fear that we don’t really have a point of reference for a sustainable future. The global economy is a living, complex beast - out of control and the beast-tamers all declared ‘laissez faire’ long ago. For those that can envisage a sustainable future, their vision is not shared and is often fiercely debated. Divisive debate is more entertaining than constructive discourse and being right is more celebrated than being accommodating and inclusive. For the rest of our lives it is unlikely that the big, societal, collective decisions we need to make will be easy or obvious - driven by climate meltdown, economic degrowth, mass migration and social upheaval. It will not be easy for our current governing structures to navigate these decisions. I fear that representative democracy is ill-equipped and I fear that while disagreement is rewarded populism will trump alternate, more deliberative forms of democracy.

What gives you solace?

I find solace in stories of ‘cosmo-visions’ that are entirely different to mine. I love that people of different cultures, contexts and landscapes hold vastly different views on what the universe is, what humans are, how we should interact with each other and our lands. These spiritual perspectives are all equally valid and all offer different gifts of perspective. It reminds me that my own ideas are just one way of looking at things - that there is a limit to objective truth and that I shouldn’t be too invested in my own version of reality. I find a huge amount of solace in this as it reminds me that I’m probably wrong about so many things and thus my own ideas aren’t that important. It reminds me to stay present and open.

What do you do day-to-day?

Day to day I try to build alternative models of food production and distribution that invite people to connect more deeply with food. Central to these alternative models is diversity - in produce, in communities and in business models. Day to day I work with food producers and food enterprises across the country driven by social and ecological values. I’m interested in how these enterprises can play a role in building resilient, healthy communities fed by sustainable producers in an economically viable way. It’s a difficult problem but there are hundreds of super motivated people around the country working in their local areas trying to do just this. I’m interested in how we can co-learn and collaborate to achieve our shared goal.


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Rowan Phillimore
Deputy Director, The Gaia Foundation

🖥:  https://www.gaiafoundation.org/
📷: @thegaiafoundation

I work with The Gaia Foundation, a small NGO with over thirty year’s experience supporting communities around the world to regain control of their traditional food systems. That means reviving indigenous seed varieties, rebuilding the diversity in our fields and on our plates, and adopting agro-ecological farming practices which work with the land rather than against her.

Much of our work has been with an inspiring network of grassroots partners across Africa, but in 2017 we started a programme right here in the UK and Ireland to support small-scale seed producers and increase the amount of organic seed being grown on home soil.

What gives you solace?

Local food! There’s a thriving local food sector in the UK and there seems to be a growing consciousness to want to support that. In my hometown (Frome, Somerset) there is a weekly Food Hub that brings together all the local farmers and from which you can order online in advance, so producers only supply to the exact demand, no waste. Frome is trying to do things a little bit differently, with its independent, community-focused town council and its thriving small businesses. I’m constantly inspired by the creativity here and being surrounded by that helps me stay optimistic as we navigate uncertain times globally.

What do you do day-to-day?

Much of Gaia’s work is about re-valorising roles that have been devalued and undermined by the western model of development, which favours cash crops and young male farmers. For example, Africa’s rural women, who have saved, selected and stored seed for millenia, are the true custodians of the continents genetic wealth and yet their voice has been barely recorded in the history books or given credibility even today. Alongside colleagues based in various African settings we set about capturing their stories and brought them together for the first time in “Celebrating African Rural Women – Custodians of Seed, Food and Life’.

Similarly, it is the elders of rural communities whose knowledge and eco-literacy holds the key to so many of the challenges we now face. Capturing their stories, buried deep in the communities of Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda or Zimbabwe, is a critical contribution to raising awareness of the great wealth of genetic diversity on the brink of being lost across Africa and beyond.  We’ve captured many of their voices in our Seeds of Freedom film trilogy, and are currently working on two new films to be released later this year.   

Who or what inspires you?

Last October The Gaia Foundation held a huge photography exhibition on the Southbank in London. Over five floors we displayed over 300 images celebrating 50 small-holder farming communities who were producing food in an environmentally sane way, against the odds. We Feed the World was an absolute inspiration to all who visited, and I for one was bowled over by some of the farmers featured as we researched and curated their stories. Two favourites for me were the community of Cajamarca in Colombia, who turned their back on a mega gold and instead began cultivating the indigenous arracacha, a nutrient-rich root vegetable once dismissed as peasant food. The other is Dr Debal Deb, a lone farmer and scientist who is single handedly preserving over 1000 varieties of rice in India, and protecting the genetic diversity of one of the world’s most important crops.


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Steph Wetherell
Writer, The Locavore & Co-ordinator, Bristol Food Producers

🖥: http://www.thelocavore.co.uk/
🖥: https://bristolfoodproducers.uk/
📷: @steph_wetherell

After spending a few years farming in Canada, living on an organic farm where we grew or raised much of our food, I returned to the UK and to city life. I knew I didn't want to farm myself, but I wanted to know where my food came from, so I set out to meet and tell the stories of the people whose food I was eating, and the more I learned about our food system, the more interested I became. Around the same time I began working for a local organisation, Bristol Food Producers, that supports small scale and agroecological producers in and around the city, and realised this was my passion - helping farmers to build and sustain livelihoods.

What are you celebrating right now?

I'm really inspired to see networks such as the Landworkers' Alliance growing so quickly. I think working on the land can be such an isolating job for many people, and these networks are vitally important both in being able to provide a louder voice to influence things like policy, but also in being able to create supportive connections between producers and farmers.

What are you feeling uneasy about?

The challenges facing new entrant farmers - with seemingly ever-rising land prices, high capital costs and a lack of appropriate training available, it's so difficult for people to start a career in farming, or to set up their own farm. But with the average age of farmers in this country over 60, we need a new generation of people to be able to get their hands in the soil and start producing food.

What do you do day-to-day?

Through my work with Bristol Food Producers, I support people to access land, find the relevant training they need, help them find the right routes to market, and make connections both between producers and up the food chain.

I also write for a variety of magazines and websites, and my writing is all about trying to create a connection between the consumer and the producer - supermarkets have disconnected us from where our food comes from and the variety and rhythm that comes from seasonal eating. I passionately believe that if you can make these connections, help people to understand how their food is produced and why it costs a certain amount, this is a key part of changing our food system for a better and more sustainable one.

Who or what inspires you?

The farmers who get up every day, rain or shine, and work incredibly hard to produce the food we eat - and all for little financial return and not enough gratitude. They are my heroes. And I'm especially inspired by the number of new entrant farmers who are women - around half of the people I work with are female, and it's amazing to see what was traditionally a male dominated field becoming a place where women can really make their mark.




 

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Small Farm Profits

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Small Farm Profits

by the Ecological Land Cooperative

The Ecological Land Cooperative’s short publication, ‘Small Farm Profits’, demonstrates that small farms are successful.

‘Small Farm Profits’, a short booklet made up of small farm case studies, demonstrates that small-scale, ecological farms in the UK can, and do, make a profit.

 In light of the proposed Agriculture Bill which recommends supporting public goods and improving agricultural activity, it is essential that new policies support small farms which produce healthy food. These kinds of farms are exactly what this booklet showcases.

 Small Farm Profits provides proof that small-scale doesn’t mean uncompetitive and that ecological agriculture can create economically viable, highly productive and sustainable enterprises on small acreages.

 The proposed Agriculture Bill, which will enforce UK policy post-Brexit, does not refer to small-scale, ecological farming or local food. This needs to change.

Vegboxes of the CSA, Cae Tan, at the ELC’s site in Wales .

Vegboxes of the CSA, Cae Tan, at the ELC’s site in Wales .

Oli Rodker, Executive Director of ELC, says: “Our booklet shows what can be done on small acreages even in today’s challenging economic climate. The new Agriculture Bill is a chance to put policy behind Michael Gove’s words and provide the financial and technical support to ensure we see thousands more of these types of businesses in the coming years.”

 Agroecological Small Farms should be supported because:

·       They produce fresh, local & healthy food free from pesticides and other chemicals

·       They have high employment figures per land area

·       More farmers means more innovation

·       Of their environmental stewardship: small farms promote biodiversity, good soil care and low carbon emissions.

·       They can adapt more easily to local conditions.

·       Of their positive Social Impact: focused on local economies and local people, small farms provide opportunities for community engagement

Busy harvest for workers and helpers at the CSA Cae Tan on the ELC’s site in Gower, Wales.

Busy harvest for workers and helpers at the CSA Cae Tan on the ELC’s site in Gower, Wales.

·       They make profitable businesses!

 The Ecological Land Cooperative works to create new opportunities for small ecological farms. For small farms to remain competitive and viable in today’s markets they need to be long-lasting and sustainable — financially as well as ecologically. Small Farm Profits illustrates that such farms are financially sound and that ecological and economic objectives can sit side by side productively.

 The Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) is a social enterprise, co-operative in structure, established to address the lack of affordable sites for ecological land-based livelihoods in England and Wales. Set up in 2009, the ELC purchases land, obtains planning permission, and installs the infrastructure to create clusters of three or more affordable smallholdings for future farmers. The ELC’s first project, Greenham Reach, in mid-Devon, was granted permanent planning permission in 2018 after five years temporary permission. Home to three thriving smallholdings, each operating as independent businesses but working co-operatively to manage the whole site. Greenham Reach is a living example of ecologically managed land providing truly sustainable land-based livelihoods. The ELC’s second site in Arlington, East Sussex has secured temporary planning permission and is the process of recruiting tenants to join the cooperative and start farming.

The ELC has also purchased land on the Gower in Wales and in Sparkford, South Somerset, both have planning applications in process.

The Booklet can be read here: https://ecologicalland.coop/small-farm-profits and for more info about the ELC please visit: http://ecologicalland.coop

 

Read More: CREATING CHANGE WITH THE ECOLOGICAL LAND COOPERATIVE

 



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The Cause of Kidney Stones: Modern Life

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The Cause of Kidney Stones: Modern Life

Written by Robert Reed, The A Team Foundation


Growing evidence reveals that the incidence of kidney stones is increasing steadily throughout the developed world. We all know someone who has suffered this painful infliction, it’s not nice.  

A recently launched scientific paper by Jeff Leach of the Human Food Project and his collective of international colleagues, indicates that the loss of a specific bacteria strain from our internal micro-biome is behind this recent rise. It is also highly suggestive that the prevalence of kidney stones can be attributed to our sterilised, modern lifestyle and the use of medicines such as antibiotics.

The bacteria Oxalobacter formigenes lives in our colon and it is externally acquired through diet and our environment between the ages of 1 and 2. It is naturally incorporated into our body at a very young age from the outside world through what we eat, what we touch, and what we smell.


Oxalobacter formigenes

The study of the bacteria O. formigenes is a growing area of interest. It is truly unique, it has the natural ability to consume oxalate. In fact, it solely ingests oxalate for energy. Oxalate is a useless and unfortunate by-product of our metabolism. If there are complications in the excretion of this by-product, it clusters and eventually forms calcium-oxalate urinary stones (aka kidney stones).

Scientific understanding is that the presence of O. formigenes in the colon, breaks down the calcium oxalate before they become a problem and therefore, they can be excreted more easily. The current trend is that incidences of kidney stones is rising while simultaneously the prevalence of O. formigenes falling.

Jeff Leach and Co., directs attention to how modern medicine can be viewed as a culprit;

“O. formigenes is known to be susceptible to many commonly prescribed antibiotics. In a previous study, antibiotic treatment resulted in lasting suppression of O. formigenes”.


Amerindians, The Hadza, and America

A 4x4 in Tanzania

In their paper, Comparative prevalence of Oxalobacter formigenes in three human populations [Nature Scientific Reports], the international collective studied the prevalence of O. formigenes between three populations of adults and infants.

Two populations live in remote locations away from westernised civilisation; the Amerindians of the Yanomami-Sanema and Yekwana ethnic groups in Venezuela and the Hadza in Tanzania. They have had only very recent exposure to Western medicine, providing a rare window on the pre-industrial intestinal microbiome of humans. These two groups were compared with a community in the USA.

The results show that, O. formigenes was detected in 60–80% of adult subjects in Venezuela and Tanzania, higher than what has been found in adults from USA in this and all prior studies. Among the US participants, only 38% detected O. formigenes.


O. formigenes in Infants

To our knowledge, the study by Jeff Leach & Co. is the first in 20 years to examine O. formigenes during its colonisation within the formative years of the microbiome of children. It is also the only study that has examined a cohort of mothers and children longitudinally from birth through the first years of life.

A comparison of O. formigenes colonisation in children from the US with that in tribal populations from Africa and South America showed that the US children had the lowest prevalence (19%) compared with Amerindians (68%) and with Hadza (82%).

What is very interesting, is that colonisation occurs in stages and isn’t necessarily passed down by the mother. In the USA, there was no evidence of colonisation in the children until 12 months of age, but prevalence reached around 90% by age 2.  Whereas O. formigenes was detected in some of the youngest subjects sampled in the Hadza and Amerindian populations: the earliest at 3 months of age and 9 months respectively. Nearly all children appeared to be colonised by age 8.



Environmental Not Maternal

Jeff Leach with a Hadza child, Tanzania.

Jeff Leach with a Hadza child, Tanzania.

Due to these correlations, Jeff & Co.’s leading conclusion is that the acquisition of O. formigenes comes from outside ourselves; our natural exchanges of bacteria with the environment (including our diet). Or alternatively, the child acquires a very small population from birth, for it to only bloom later in the child’s development as the advancement of diet, maturation of the micro-biome, and the acquisition of commensal species required for O. formigenes colonisation occurs.

This simply means that if we sterilise or limit our external environment and the food we eat, we remove good bacteria as well as the bad. Good bacteria that we physically require to thrive and survive. The fact that our bodies require a physical external relationship with something other than ourselves, strengthens the concept that all things are connected. Our actions effect the whole, ‘we are a part of all that we have met’.

As O. formigenes disappears in the context of socioeconomic advances and medical treatments, it continues to potentially contribute to the rise of global incidences of kidney stones. A recent report of the association of kidney stones with prior antibiotic treatments, is also consistent with that hypothesis. O. formigenes is a part of the ancestral human gut microbiota. Changes in our environment, diet or antibiotic use may significantly contribute to the loss of this commensal organism and consequently effect the micro-biome ecosystem beyond what is known by modern science.

The paper can be downloaded with all accompanying references via: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-36670-z


 

READ MORE: A RACE AGAINST TIME FOR PARADIGM SHIFTING SCIENCE

READ MORE: Skipping breakfast may help you lose weight - what hunter gatherers can teach us

 



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The Launch of LEAP: Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme

The Launch of LEAP: Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme

Loan-for-enlightened-agriculture-a-team-foundation

The Real Farming Trust have launched LEAP (Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme). The A Team Foundation are proud investors of this programme, along with the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation, and CIVA. Together, we understand the inherent challenges that agroecological food and farming enterprises face in raising finance.

LEAP is designed to create a way of filling that gap between grant and commercial funding by:

  • working closely with businesses to understand the situation

  • looking at both financial performance and social impact

  • working together through every step of the application process

  • helping organisations to build long-term sustainability.

The Loans for Enlightened Agriculture Programme (LEAP) offers a mix of affordable loans and grants, side by side with a comprehensive mentoring programme and hands on approach.

LEAP is a new model for financing and supporting food and farming enterprises that puts people and the biosphere at the heart of our food system. LEAP will provide a critical next step for community based agroecological enterprises that have relied on grant funding to date and who have had nowhere to go to finance their onward development.

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What does leap offer?

affordable loans:

  • Unsecured loans for a 5-year term

  • For amounts of between £25,000 and £100,000

  • Can be used for capital or revenue costs

LEAP offers one of the lowest interest rates in the social investment marketplace. This is currently set at 5%, and is calculated on a declining balance, equal instalments basis.

To help cover the costs of running the programme, there is a one-off chargeable fee, which will be taken from the loan when drawn down. This is currently set at 2% of the loan amount.

Grants:

Side by side with the loan, recipients will be offered a grant at 18% of the loan amount. So, for a £50,000 loan, the recipient will be awarded a grant of £9,000. By providing a grant with the loan LEAP hopes to alleviate the administrative burden on the individuals and free them up to concentrate on impact delivery and long-term sustainability. The grants have been kindly supplied by The Halleria Trust.

Business advice and support:

A key component of the LEAP is a tailored and structured mentoring package to ensure that they are ready take on a loan. This is termed ‘investment readiness’. The structure and focus of this support will vary from one organisation to another, but could be in areas such as business planning, financial modelling, governance, social impact delivery, community finance or marketing. The business mentorship is kindly funded by Power to Change.

NEXT STEPS

If this sounds like something that could help you and your business, then please head to the website using the link below. On their site, you can find out more about this game-changing programme and how to apply.




Seed Week raises awareness of agro-ecological seed being grown by small-scale producers across the UK & Ireland

Seed Week raises awareness of agro-ecological seed being grown by small-scale producers across the UK & Ireland

Written by Rowan Phillmore, Gaia Foundation and Seed Sovereignty Network

Last week, just as annual seed catalogues were hitting the doormats of eager gardeners, the UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme were celebrating Seed Week, designed to put the spotlight on the small-scale commercial seed producers growing for seed, right here on home soil.

By highlighting one commercial producer each day of the week, the campaign was designed to encourage gardeners and growers to change their purchasing habits and plant seed from local, organic and small-scale producers in 2019.   

 

Fred Groom from Vital Seeds talks about his passion for seed saving, and how it connects us to past and future. | www.seedsovereignty.info

 

Real Seeds in Wales, the Irish Seed Savers Association, Vital seeds in Devon, the Seed Cooperative in Lincolnshire and Brown Envelope Seeds in Ireland were all featured daily in the campaign. Through a series of beautiful short films and interviews, viewers were invited to discover where the producers’ passion from seed started and to get a behind the scenes look at the growers’ gardens and greenhouses.

Further short films captured the voices of seed savers across varying landscapes, from Moy Hill Farm, where surfers are seed saving on the coast of Ireland, to Poyntzfield Nursery, where varieties of herbs are gathered and cultivated from high alpine regions. Seed Week gave a unique glimpse into the lives of committed seed savers from the coast to the mountains. All of the films can be viewed online here: https://www.seedsovereignty.info/videos/

 

Moy Hill csa farm occupies nearly 70 diverse acres, with local access to the famed surf of Lahinch, Co Clare. | www.seedsovereignty.info

 

Regional Programme Coordinators Maria Scholten in Scotland and Ellen Rignell in Western England also shared their thoughts on why agro-ecological seed is so critical:

 “There’s so many reasons to buy local, agroecological seed. Buying this kind of seed is of course a more environmentally sustainable option, but I think the main reason to buy is because you’ll end up with a better vegetable crop. The majority of the seed available in the UK is grown in far-flung climes, much warmer and drier than the UK. This seed is often not well adapted to UK growing conditions. By buying local seed, you’ll end up with plants that are better adapted to your growing situation.” Said Ellen Rignell, Trill Farm and the UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme.

 

The Seed Co-operative is a community-owned seed company who believe passionately in breeding open pollinated and affordable seeds that everyone can grow for the coming year. | www.seedsovereignty.info

 

Wayne Frankham, Programme Coordinator for Ireland with the Irish Seed Savers, added: “Knowing where your seed is produced provides practical, transparent provenance. It means it has been adapted to successfully grow and reproduce in your environment. Building a relationship with your local grower, whether of vegetable produce or seed, also opens an essential channel for feedback and creates a richer food culture.”

We urge everyone to support and create a richer food culture by buying and planting locally produced, agro-ecological seeds in the year ahead.

Find a list of all suppliers plus links to the films and interviews featured throughout Seed Week here: https://www.seedsovereignty.info/where-to-buy-organic-seed-this-christmas/

 
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USING CREATIVITY TO COMMUNICATE A CRITICAL MESSAGE WITH WE FEED THE WORLD

USING CREATIVITY TO COMMUNICATE A CRITICAL MESSAGE WITH WE FEED THE WORLD

Written by Fran Price, Gaia Foundation.

It’s been just over month since we closed the doors on the We Feed the World exhibition at the Bargehouse Gallery on London’s Southbank and packed away the 350 iconic images of small-scale farmers, that told the extraordinary and very moving stories of 52 incredible communities around the world.

This flagship exhibition was the culmination of three and a half years of work for The Gaia Foundation and many other  groups, organisations and businesses who collaborated with farming communities and 47 celebrated photographers to create a body of work that would tell the global story of an agroecological food system in action. 

The vision was to bring to life the statistics that we seldom read about in the mainstream press – that 70 percent of our food is produced by small scale farmers – and to challenge the myth created by the big food corporations – that we need an industrial food system or quick fix technologies like GM to feed a growing global population.

 The images of the men, women and their families who provide the majority of the worlds were photographed in locations as diverse as the deepest Amazon to the icy fishing waters of Northern Sweden, and told a very different story; of resilience, traditional knowledge, community cohesion and the celebration of diversity in all its many forms. It was a unique opportunity for people everywhere to understand the complexities of the global food system, the many issues it currently faces and their own role in its future.

ZIMBABWE, PIETER HUGO, THE MUONDE TRUSTE

ZIMBABWE, PIETER HUGO, THE MUONDE TRUSTE

INDONESIA, MARTIN WESTLAKE, EAST FLORES

INDONESIA, MARTIN WESTLAKE, EAST FLORES

 We Feed the World was a ground-breaking project which brought together the arts and environmental movements in order to a use a different way of communicating critical messages about our food system. As well as the exhibition in London, 47 simultaneous exhibitions were launched in many of the farming communities we worked with, giving each of them the opportunity to celebrate their successes as well as draw attention to the challenges they face. 

 It was a project that required great faith from all who supported it as nothing had been attempted on this scale before.  There were many challenges along the way but when it was opened in London on October 11th by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva, it was hailed as  the largest simultaneous photographic exhibition ever launched.   In her opening speech Vandana said “Agriculture is the one of the most creative acts that human beings can be engaged in. And the fact that the creativity of the photographers and the creativity of the small farmers has come together in this exhibition makes for a very powerful story.”

This enormous level of enthusiasm continued to reverberate throughout the ten days the exhibition was at the Bargehouse with nearly 7000 visitors flooding in to see the images as well as to participate in the 50 + talks and workshops about everything from agricultural policy to foraging to veganism.  Many of the farmers, photographers, NGO’s, organisations and businesses, who had taken part in the project hosted their own sessions, from Austrian farmer and bread-maker, Roswitha Huber to US activist Anna Lappe who came with a stark warning from the US.  Delivering the key note address she said “We don’t have to guess where the industrial path, if pursued globally, would take us. We don’t have to imagine that future; in the United States where I come from, we’re living it. In the United States, industrial agriculture and processed diets have dominated for the last half a century, we’re experiencing record rates of diet-related illnesses and water and air pollution driven by petrochemicals and synthetic fertiliser.” 

As well as the many visitors the exhibition welcomed at the Bargehouse, the images and stories from We Feed the World reached out to a global audience of nearly ten million people through the phenomenal press coverage it generated. Within the first few days of opening, the exhibition had been featured in articles in the GuardianIndependentTelegraph, National Geographic and the British Journal of Photography.  At the same time, the community exhibitions were welcomed by farming and fishing communities around the world.  We were delighted to get feedback from Slovakia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Kenya and many other countries letting us know how images were being received. In some communities like Shashe in Zimbabwe or Chagford in Devon, the images were shown as part of their annual ceremonies to celebrate the rain or harvest.

The We Feed the World team is now taking stock before it launches into the New Year with plans to take the exhibition on tour and to produce a beautiful photographic book of all the images and their stories, as well as recipes by celebrated chefs which reflect the diet of each community.  As well as communicating a critical message about our food system to a large, global audience, the triumph of We Feed the World has also been to demonstrate how important creativity and collaboration are to navigating our future. Rational thought and competition may have led to some of mankind’s greatest achievements but unless we now embrace a new way of working, we could end up destroying it all. It is worth reflecting on wise words of Albert Einstein when he said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them”. 

SOMERSET, KATE PETERS, GLEBE FARM

SOMERSET, KATE PETERS, GLEBE FARM

ZIMBABWE, PIETER HUGO, THE MUONDE TRUSTE

ZIMBABWE, PIETER HUGO, THE MUONDE TRUSTE

PERU, NIALL O’BRIEN, HUADQUIÑA CO-OPERATIVE

PERU, NIALL O’BRIEN, HUADQUIÑA CO-OPERATIVE

wefeedtheworld-ateamfoundation-7
AUSTRALIA, KATRIN KOENNING, NEW SOUTH WALES


AUSTRALIA, KATRIN KOENNING, NEW SOUTH WALES




A Race Against Time for Paradigm Shifting Science

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A Race Against Time for Paradigm Shifting Science

By Robert Reed, A Team Foundation

It is a race against time as paradigm shifting science resists the encroachment of modern life upon the world’s last nomadic hunter-gatherers.

As a new article from Jeff Leach and his network of microbiologists is released (with evidence making leaps in proving the links between environment, diet and health), the existence of the very tribe who are the study’s focus is under threat.  

The Human Food Project has been working in remotest Tanzania, studying the people who truly align their lives within the flow and cycle of the seasons. Their way of life has been a magnet for researchers for 60 years, and the subject of hundreds of scholarly papers, because they may offer the closest resemblance to our ancient ancestors.  

 A Team Foundation Hadza Jeff Leach

Life in industrialised countries push nature to the fringes, not just in parks and reserves but also in our homes through sterilisation. What are the effects of being devoid of an authentic connection to nature, particularly to our own physical health?

The concept that everything is connected can be perceived not just a purely metaphysical level, it is grounded in physical truth. Humans are able to walk, this gives us an illusion that we are separate from the Earth, which sustains us. If we focus our perception on scales that are significantly smaller than us, unification is obvious. Our blood carries the oxygen from the trees, our guts process the nutrients from the soil.

Our bodies and specifically our guts, are formed of millions of microbiotas. Types of microbiota include bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and viruses. They pass through life’s flow; shaking hands, eating food, going to the loo, chopping wood, drinking water. Some of these microbiotas have creative tasks to do, some have destructive tasks to do, but each have a job that in turn, creates balance.

Jeff’s previous work showcased that the more diversity in your microbiota, the more resilience your body (a fractal of the bigger ecosystems). These small microbes have a role to play in diseases such as obesity, autoimmune disease, heart disease, IBD/IBS, cognitive disorders, atopy and some cancers.

Modern life has had an impact on all ecosystems and this is particularly the case of our microbiome. Pharmaceutical antibiotics and household cleaning products are unspecific to which bacteria they wipe out. Our food offers only the limited microbes that make it through the methods of food hygiene. Even in childbirth, a cesarian baby doesn’t pass through the mother’s birthing canal where their mother’s microbes would have been transferred.  If it was a fight, microbiota would appear to be losing badly. But it is not a fight.

We are reliant on microbes for our holistic wellbeing, they effect our hormones, immune system, and metabolism. Our Homeostasis (the state of internal bodily conditions maintained by living things) is utterly dependent on them. Microorganisms outnumber human cells in our body by as much as 10 to 1. Microbes are natural and so industrialised attitudes falsely push them away as 'non-human', another manifestation from the mentality of separation and an increasing disconnect as our lifestyle spreads across the globe

 A Team Foundation Hadza Jeff Leach

Yet, in one remote corner of Tanzania, there is a tribe who are resisting being absorbed by modernisation. It is here, that the frontier of microbial science is being played out. The Hadza hunt and gather their nutrition direct from the ‘wild’ resources at their disposal. They live in synchronicity with the Earth, they hunt and butcher wild animals, they consume fruits, nuts and tubers, all grown in natural soils.  From being breastfed - until they are four or five years old - they are immersed in the richest of microbiota diversity.

The Hadza are more widely known as the people who speak in their ancient ‘click language’ and dance in tribal robes, but they now regular wear western clothes, speak Swahili and carry mobile phones.

Although change is always immanent, it is a tragic story as hunter gatherers are treated as ‘the bottom of the pile’ and are gradually being displaced by more politically and economically powerful settlers. Researchers are now warning that this tribe face a daunting convergence of threats.

Their territory is being encroached by pastoralists whose cattle drink their water and graze on their grasslands and farmers clear the woodlands to grow crops. Simultaneously, the changing climate dries up the rivers and stunts the grass. These pressures drive away the animals that the Hadza hunt such as Antelopes and Buffalo. Simply put, if the food goes, the Hadza cannot protect their way of life.  

Jeff+Leach+-+Human+Food+Project+-+Hadza+-+A+Team+Foundation.jpg

Ironically, the decades of research have now made the Hadza somewhat well-known and through Government efforts, tourism has increased. Coming with it are the microbes of modern life but more impactful; money. Some of the tribe have played up to tourism expectations and their way of life has become a novelty, putting on hunting shows and dancing in dress. Tourism has its impact on their livelihood, diet, residence, and nomadic patterns.

Researchers who have been studying the tribe for several decades are worried about their future. As each day progresses, the petri-dish becomes more diffused. But more importantly, the researchers have a duty of care at a humanitarian level. The work with the Hadza involves a great appreciation of ethics. Jeff and his team have joined the network of researchers who are vying to ease the pressures on this tribe and they work personally to assist in their needs where it is appropriate.   

If they are unsuccessful, there is potentially an awful lot to lose. In essence, the microbiome of a Hadza tribes-person can be considered as an endangered ecological site of great scientific interest and that needs to be preserved. Without it, we may irreversibly lose many of the microorganisms and never know how they could have helped humanity.

.........

You can read more about the Hadza tribe from the article ‘Hadza on the Brink’ in Science and the article ‘Links between environment, diet, and the hunter-gatherer microbiome’ by Jeff and his network of microbiologists.  




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Creating a Good Food Culture at School

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Creating a Good Food Culture at School

By Stephanie Wood, School Food Matters


Much has been written about the increase in overweight and obese children recently and to be honest, the figures are shocking. With one in three 10 and 11-year-olds being either overweight or obese, and all the potentially life long health issues that come with this, it is a major public health challenge.  

Children spend 190 days a year at school and eat at least one meal in school on each of those days. This gives us an opportunity to influence children’s attitude to food, their eating habits and food choices.

At School Food Matters, we specialise in working closely with schools to support them to make improvements to school food provision and food education.  It isn’t easy working with schools, especially in the current funding environment where teachers are so stretched and money is so tight. However, School Food Matters now has 11 years experience engaging with schools and can provide advice and access to food education programmes to support schools to improve their food culture. 

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At School Food Matters we know that every school is different and every head teacher has competing priorities, so practitioners working in schools need to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. 

Once a school has decided that they need to improve health outcomes for their children, we can give them the impetus and knowhow to make the necessary changes to become a ‘healthy zone’; a place where children’s health and wellbeing is consistently and actively promoted through the policies and actions of the whole school community.

The term ‘healthy zone’ comes from a report published in November 2017, which shines a light on what is currently happening in schools across the country. Food Education Learning Landscape (FELL) surveyed teachers, pupils and parents on their views of the food and food education offered at their schools.  It demonstrates how varied the picture is, with some schools doing a fantastic job at teaching children about where food comes from, modelling good eating habits and encouraging children to make healthy choices. Other schools are sadly much more part of the obesogenic environment seen beyond the school gates. 

We see a common scenario in some secondary schools; healthy lunch dishes are available but often they are the most expensive options, and hidden behind the pizza slices and chips. Some young people reported that it is actually quite difficult to eat healthily at their secondary schools. And instead of modelling good behaviour, overworked teachers are regularly seen eating chocolate bars and devouring fizzy drinks between lessons.

Students are receiving and understanding public health messages such as ‘five a day’ and ‘sugar smart’ during lessons, but what they see in the corridors and in the canteen is contradictory and confusing.

But there is good news too.  Some schools are doing an amazing job in supporting children to keep themselves healthy.  We have found schools where children are involved in designing the school menu, introducing food that is both healthy and enticing; they grow their own fruit and vegetables; they learn to cook healthy meals and through visits to farms can reflect on where food comes from. 

 Pictures shows children from Greycourt School, Ham Nr Richmond Upon Thames.

Many primary schools have made dramatic improvements in the last ten years, but secondary schools need some help. That’s why School Food Matters is joining forces with Sustain; the alliance for better food and farming, to develop a campaign called Healthy High Schools, looking at ways to support secondary schools to become healthy zones.

Big steps have been made legislatively.  Universal Infant Free School Meals is an enormously positive policy that has, at a stroke, increased take-up of school meals across the country and normalised healthy eating, making unhealthy packed lunches the exception rather than the rule. This is important as only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal and for too long head teachers have spent lunchtime policing packed lunches leading to tensions between parents and the school.  

The next step must be to monitor and evaluate school meal provision and the Healthy Rating Scheme, proposed by the Department for Education in the Childhood Obesity Plan, presents an opportunity to do this. School Food Matters, along with campaign partners at Jamie Oliver and Sustain, is pushing government to deliver on its promised rating scheme and to include secondary schools in the scheme.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman recently said “We must recognise that schools cannot provide a silver bullet for all societal ills ... Families, government, industry, and other parts of the public sector all have a role to play in making food and drink healthier, and supporting children to make better choices.” We agree.  Obesity is everyone's problem but, unlike Ofsted, we see schools as a unique environment to positively influence children's choices around food and health and we must seize this opportunity and play a part in tackling what the World Health Organisation describes as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”




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Creating change with the Ecological Land Cooperative

Creating change with the Ecological Land Cooperative

by Phil Moore, Ecological Land Cooperative

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead’s oft-cited quote has a certain mileage in the underpinnings of the Ecological Land Cooperative (ELC) — the only organisation in England and Wales to fight for affordable residential smallholdings for ecological agriculture.

Changing the world has to start somewhere, and so the ELC have focused their energies on land in the U.K. According to Kevin Cahill, author of ‘Who Owns Britain’ (2001), nearly half of the UK’s land is owned by just 40,000 people — 0.06% of the population.

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For many of those wishing to lead a land-based livelihood, such dreams are stymied by two distinct, but not entirely insurmountable, obstacles — the high cost of land and getting planning consent to live as an agriculture worker on your small-scale mixed farm. Between 2000 and 2010 new farm entrants accounted for just 4% of agricultural land purchasers. The average age of the British farmer is now 59.

This is where the ELC come in.

Zoe Wangler, former ELC Executive Director, and who remains a close ally, was inspired to help start the ELC through the example of others:

“I met a lot of people who wanted a land-based livelihood and wanted to contribute to a better world but just couldn’t access land. When I came across this idea for the ELC - using community finance to buy land and then getting planning permission for people to live on the land so more people could do such projects - I thought I’d absolutely love to get behind that.”

The origins of the Ecological Land Cooperative lie in spirited discussions in the spring of 2005 between members of Chapter 7, the ecological planning consultancy, Radical Routes, a co-operative working for social change, Somerset Co-operative Services, a co-op development body, and a smallholdings like Landmatters, Lammas, Highbury Farm and Five Penny Farm.

The desire for many to inhabit a living countryside in which humans flourish alongside the natural world, and centred around small-scale land-based enterprises providing meaningful employment, is vital for creating food and energy sovereignty.

Re-vitalising rural communities, improving ecological literacy and providing decent and honest food are lofty desires demanded by the passionate.

The Ecological Land Cooperative is the midwife to such breathy ideals, giving the doers and dreamers a practical hand in making small-scale agroecological farming a reality.

The ELC model and core business is simple: the creation of small clusters of three or more affordable residential smallholdings. As well as land, we provide smallholders with permission to build their own sustainable home, with utilities and road access. Our model allows us to keep costs as low as possible, both through buying larger sites at a lower price per acre and through distributing the cost of infrastructure, planning applications and subsequent site monitoring across a number of smallholdings.

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The ELC model of new starter farms is protected for farming, for affordability, and for sustainability. Small-scale agriculture presupposes an ethic of care for the land and a desire to feed people good food. This runs counter to the dominant food production system we see in the U.K. and globally.

The ELC has the skills and expertise necessary to show planning authorities why such small-scale farms make sense financially and culturally. As a cooperative, retaining the acquired knowledge around planning and policy is crucial as a way of both replicating the small clusters of farms model and in dealing with planning law to allow future farmers to focus their energies on growing their business.

More recently we’ve been awarded a temporary planning permission by Wealdon District Council for the creation of three smallholdings on our second site in Arlington, East Sussex.

The application process to lease one of our three smallholdings in Arlington opens in mid-September. Please visit our website to apply and to find out more about our work here: www.ecologicalland.coop/arlington

Our first site in mid Devon has been established for five years with three smallholder families running successful farm-based businesses benefiting the local area in a variety of ways, from providing excellent quality fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers, herbs and other organic produce, to creating volunteer and training opportunities and an environment in which the local ecology is thriving. We also have a third site on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales which is being farmed by a well established local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme, and a fourth (and possibly fifth) site in the pipeline in the south west of England.

The ELC is part of a movement recognising the value to local communities and the economic viability of small-scale farming -- as well as responding to the desire of young farmers wishing to get on the land.

The changes we are making are slow, but progress is steady and sure and we have big ambitions. Our approach isn’t flashy or loud, but rooted in a deeper rhythm of change and in a firm conviction that change is not only possible but desirable.

More about the ELC and our work: www.ecologicalland.coop

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Cumbria with the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

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Cumbria with the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

 
 

For me, Cumbria in summer comes with the memory of being with my dad and my two younger brothers huddling from the rain. I can’t remember why or where that was, but it has with it, a feeling of adventure. I had not been back since my childhood holidays, but the RSA offered me the chance to return.  

The mission was to learn the dynamics and values of a complex region, their impact on the landscape, and what does Brexit mean for Cumbrians?  .. and all achieved whilst cycling.

An illustrative map of a very approximate route (although, I caught the train from Penrith to Barrow.... ssh!). 

An illustrative map of a very approximate route (although, I caught the train from Penrith to Barrow.... ssh!). 

Here, - to use a quote from the TV show Game of Thrones - “The North Remembers”. Along the journey, I was told how many folk remember a world where farmers and foresters were inherently valued by the wider society for the services that they give. It was a place where local markets thrived and the food was locally sourced, clean and affordable. Families could live in the villages that they (and the generations before them) grew up in. The youth were the lifeblood of the community and schools were full. The general consensus was that folk cared and the sense of human-connection was prevalent; all consequences from the milk of human kindness.

This was an adventure that had heart and soul.

 

A Tension Between Traditionalism and Development


My journey began with the Lake District and a world washed with cultural nostalgia; tea shops, cottages on biscuit tins, and me cycling across rolling hills - to quote Wordsworth - as lonely as a cloud. 

On Tuesday morning, the interviewer for BBC Cumbria posed me a question before going on air, “In the world of fake news, I gather that you are here to understand the difference between perception and reality, within Cumbria, farming and Brexit?” Truly an existential question, but a seed of curiosity was sown.  

The interview with BBC Cumbria, stood alongside Lois Mansfield of Uni. of Cumbria.

The interview with BBC Cumbria, stood alongside Lois Mansfield of Uni. of Cumbria.

Numerous people cited to me that “Cumbria is like a doughnut, in the middle is the lake district”. Each would agree that what priorities occur on the inside aren’t the same as on the outside.

My trip to Barrow in Furness on the final day informed me that there are many people who live only 15 miles away, who will never step foot inside the park within their lifetime. But on that Monday, as I was still forming my own perspective, I met with Liam McAlesse at the Lake District National Park Authority who first proposed that view. “In Cumbria, there are perceptions from certain people that the Lake District isn’t for them, it has an invisible wall, they see it being for ‘other people’, we are working on trying to bring that wall down”.

The reality, the park attracts 19m people a year that visit an area the size of Birmingham for recreational and aesthetic enjoyment on top of the local 40,000 residents. In 2017, the park became a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cultural Landscape…  and, it is those two words - cultural landscape – that paint a sense of ambiguity, one that connotates the underlying tensions in the region.

The term ‘Cultural Landscape’ is vague and how it is understood depends on the perceiver. Some relate it based on the recognition of how Wordsworth, Coleridge and Beatrix Potter once idolised the landscape with a brush of vivid romanticism or beautiful and charismatic childhood adventures. This is culture and therefore, ephemeral. However, what is in front of us, is physical landscape, specifically a ‘Managed Landscape’ of forests, farms, and watercourses.

Here, at the root of it, we are talking about people’s cultural and conditioned belief systems – how they subjectively look at the landscape and how they place their own values upon it.

The ambition of the Lake District National Park Authority is to turn Cumbria into the ‘Rocky Mountains of the UK’ – a vibrant place to live and work. Farming is a part of the plan but the bigger picture is one of rural development. This frozen nostalgia of how the lakes are perceived is not an economically viable and sustainable model for the future. There needs to be a local economy built on creativity, hubs of entrepreneurs providing social capital through society working together. “Brexit is an opportunity for policy to move beyond a sense of stagnation and into the real rural debate, creating places where people want to stay to live and work”.

Concern for the youth drain was a repeating pattern within many of the conversations that I had. The exodus of youth and what went with it, talent, was apparent on Kendal College’s wall where a sign read “Stay Local, Go Further”. Photographer and writer duo, Rob and Harriet Fraser gave me a wonderful introduction to sheep farming but there was an angle that I found specifically touching. In Harriet’s Poem ‘Michael’, it focuses on a well-respected young local farmer who left for Derbyshire to run his own farm as the opportunity didn’t exist for him in Cumbria. Harriet once publicly recited it and unknowingly, his father stood in the audience, tearful. The Poem ends with the following two stanzas;

 
These walls, land’s bones borrowed and stitched by man,
May stand, unchanged, for a century. But on a farm this size 
There are always gaps, forced by unforgiving rains and snow.
Today two hundred stones are fetched, fitted, back in place, 
                                                Two gaps, three men, one rhythm
 
Now the valley has a gap                         a man gone, a rare breed.
There’s that man, says Anthony, raising four fingers of a weather-worn hand,
That many young ones in Cumbria who could take over a farm.
But now he’s gone. How will you find another like that?

 

 

Alison Park of Low Sizergh Barn highlighted an additional angle – an ageing society. Areas, such as Kendal, has a sincere issue with the cost of housing. Many older folks are spending their retirement there, and rightly so, it is beautiful. But this means housing is being used by people who are not necessarily actively working in the local society. This has had an impact on community life. Young people can no longer afford homes and schools have had to shut due to a lack of children.

When I met Kelsey Thompson of Morecambe Bay Oyster Company, he told me a story of how the French – the largest consumers of oysters in the world - had lost their oyster industry to a disease. It took over ten years for it to return, the consequence is that a generation in France no longer eat oysters as they weren’t an option growing up. If living in rural areas such as the lakes is no longer an option for young people, what does this do to their connection to the place? Will they stay and invest their talents into the National Park Authority’s vision of the future?  

Oysters from Morecambe Bay

Oysters from Morecambe Bay

 

Farming – Go Big or Diversify

 

 After foot and mouth in 2001, Cumbria didn’t go back to the way it was before. On my first day, I followed in the footsteps of Lord Curry, visiting Low Sizergh Barn. The aim of his inquiry was to ensure that foot and mouth never happened again.

Photographer, Rob Fraser enlightened me to the extent of suffering that occurred during that time. He detailed how after the culling, a mindset had changed. He spoke of one farmer he knew, who walked around with a gun and shot each of his prize-winning Herdwick sheep because “it wasn’t right that it should be done by a stranger”.

And that is the crux of it, an upland sheep farmer’s sole existence is one built on love for the sheep – like a parent for the good of their child. As Isaac Benson, a National Trust Tenancy Farmer, said: “For why else would you do it?”. All the farmers that I met along the journey have invested their entire lives into being an upland hill farmer. Isaac continued “you have to in order make anything out it yet you leave yourself vulnerable”.

Rob and Harriet Fraser gave me with a vivid introduction to upland hill farming upon the commons, what it means to be ‘heafed’, and they painted a picture of lambing time; where all the sheep are brought down from the hills, known as ‘the Gathering’.

These sheep have been bred over hundreds of years to be hardy and territorial, safely roaming the commons unfenced and unmanned. Each sheep has their preferred patch that they graze (their ‘heaf’) and this knowledge is passed down through to their lambs. At the Gathering, all the farmers, young and old, their dogs and quadbikes, combe the hills to bring down each one. “Farmers, sheep and dogs walk all over the hills in synchronicity, flowing down the valleys like water”, recited Harriet poetically.   

A cow from one of Low Sizergh Barn's mixed-breed herd. 

A cow from one of Low Sizergh Barn's mixed-breed herd. 

But the future of upland farming looks difficult. The demand for lamb has plummeted, wool is considered a by-product with dwindling demand, cheap imports are killing business, farm tenancies are often questionable, environmental stewardship schemes aren’t being designed well enough, and the major concern; with Brexit, Government support looks set to go. Each farmer that I met, deftly articulated why this is a travesty.

It has become a common theme that in order to survive, farming, in general, has two options – go big or diversify. The farmers that I met all have various additional forms of income, be it a bed and breakfast, delivering meat boxes, or juggling second jobs.

Low Sizergh Barn, on the outskirts of Kendal, have a thriving farm shop that sells a diverse range of local, direct-to-market, goods and products. There is a vending machine outside that sells organic Raw Milk through recyclable glass bottles. It has a tea shop that overlooks the cows being milked – a massive pull for young families and tourists who want to see a working farm. John, the supposedly retired father of the family farm, says that they still receive calls asking “Do you milk the cows on weekends?” .. “That’s the level we’re up against” he added.

The alternative to diversification is expansion into ranch-style farms to spread the cost of overheads and infrastructure over a larger production. The consequences mean that the backbone of UK farming, the smaller, family farms find it more difficult to compete, along with the claims of negative animal welfare and environmental degradation. Richard from Low Sizergh Barn stated how “others are expanding to spread to the cost over more and more milk. Spreading the costs per litre is a double-edged sword; prices go up and down even if you milk more cows. If you have huge numbers of litres and the cost per price is below the price of production you lose even more money”.

 

Monbiot vs No Change

 

Towards the Forestry Commission by Bassenthwaite Lake

Towards the Forestry Commission by Bassenthwaite Lake

John Gorst of the Ennerdale Project and United Utilities said plainly, “The hills are knackered”. Ecologically speaking, there is a lot of work to be done. In the Lake District’s own UNESCO application, on page 535 it states that 75% of the park’s sites of environmental interest are in an unfavourable (but recovering or worse) condition – and realistically, everyone I met admits that the park ought to be in a better ecological state.

 The term “sheepwrecked hills” was coined by George Monbiot in his writings that depict his views of the “biodiversity desert” that is the upland hills. Throughout my journey his name occurred prolifically and the feelings attributed to him came with either esteemed praise or a spit on the floor. He cuts a divisive figure.

John Rowland, a sheep farmer from Low Beckside Farm in  Mungrisdale, recalled how it began, “Monbiot truly hurt a lot of people. We witnessed a case of dramatic flooding in 2015, it was a record amount of water. People lost a lot and they were hurting, Monbiot found the situation to his advantage and pressed his agenda without any sensitivity...  Journalists just want to sell”.

In short, Monbiot and the re-wilding group wish for sheep to be taken off the landscape and to allow the hills to return to a 'natural state’. There is merit in the idea at a conceptual level, but pragmatically this involves dealing with people who don’t want that to happen, and their resistance has its dignity. 

I met with Dr Lois Mansfield of the University of Cumbria along with Kate Rawles, author, adventurer and campaigner. Lois gave a vivid picture; “There is a vociferous aura around re-wilding. There are some within the movement who understand the complexities, yet the ones who speak the loudest are extremists who drown out the realists… Farming communities are turning inward, they are feeling under attack by environmentalists”. Kate added, “There was a conversation between the tribes of ecology and sheep before Brexit. Trying to work together, but now, Brexit has changed their focuses”.

The view towards Braithwaite from High Snab Farm

The view towards Braithwaite from High Snab Farm

Tom Lorains, a sheep farmer of High Snab Farm, suggested that those who work at ‘vocalising extremism’ should instead work within the fold. To understand the complexities and make change occur within the institutions and systems that they easily criticise. This provides a constructive means to achieve their outcome without tearing apart society. Each of the sheep farmers I met agreed that biodiversity has a huge role to play in the quality of the uplands.

Kate Rawles, explained that natural processes are vital for life to thrive: “Biodiversity is a necessity. We are currently creating islands although everything needs to be connected. We need wildlife corridors across landscapes”. 

Kate asked me the rhetorical questions that both sides are grappling to understand; “What is sheep farming for if no one is eating the meat? Or using the wool? and What are the subsidies paying for? If they were to go, what else could that land be used for?”

Forestry on a hillside by Thirlmere

Forestry on a hillside by Thirlmere

If the subsidies were to go, what would happen? This is where the two camps differ. Rewilding is leveraging itself to the present opportunity; giving an argument for a transformative change – an economic increase through timber (which the UK has a large growing demand for), watercourse management (creating cleaner water and resilience), and ecotourism. The farmers are open to change through adapting to environmental management schemes. However, if the ‘vociferousness’ continues they will adhere either to no change, or, as many farmers stated, recessive change through restocking, and with it, the loss of previous conservation work.

Gareth Browning of the Wild Ennerdale Project and the Forestry Commission believes that the markets aren’t there anymore for them to do that. “The economics just simply doesn’t add up. For them to exist, they need to be subsidised”. Gareth's work, considers the landscape as a multitude of interconnected parts that work for the whole. Letting nature take its own course is thoroughly beneficial. He sees the future with the farmer integrated into a wider landscape scale plan. The farmer would be without the mindset of sole possession, but with a mindset of being contracted to offer a particular service. Here, there could be an argument of financial support, not from subsidies of production but through a form of ‘income support’; an honest case for basic income that is designed for a liveable salary comparative to the task at hand.

This view is felt by the farming community as a ‘clearing’. Gareth agrees that “the loss of sheep farmers is a socially jarring thing”. However, he goes on to say that “it is no way representative of the coal mines or the shipyards … only 3% of the local community are affected”. Needless to say, the farming community is vehemently opposed.

Is this what we want our society to be about? Two polarised camps at each other? Adam Day of The Farmer Network, says simply; “it has to stop, we are both on the same side”.  

A ravine   near Grasmere

A ravine near Grasmere

Isaac agrees, “The answer is a balanced landscape. We need to combine practical reality with the foundation of a solid environment. If family farms disappear, it will be the end of conservation and we will be in a food crisis. In society, the Farmer is considered a land agent, but one farmer can provide up to 40 services.

Having to renew farms once they are lost, has a cost that the public purse cannot afford. We have to get this one right, otherwise, it’ll be beyond disrepair …There needs to be food as our population is growing – we’re going to need farmers. This 'us vs them' has to stop. Farmers are the best hands to lead us into the future. They are strong enough to carry the burden of many demands. But we need a platform where we are believed in and can continue to do so for the future generations”.

 

Challenging Identity

 

A  combination of top-down approaches and ‘societal suspicion’ from pressure groups has lowered the farmer’s esteem and stock. Isaac gave an honest depiction of his reality that shone a light upon something deeper. Perhaps the root of the issue, and one not being directly spoken about. “I have to comply with the vision of Defra and the National Trust. In order to stay profitable, I have to forfeit my identity”.

He adds, “We have identified that sheep don’t belong here, do we?”.

It is easy for you and me to look at our work with a sense of separation. Even if we love it, we leave it in the evening. And here’s the crux; upland sheep farming isn’t a vocation, it is an identity.

Upland hill farmers have spent all their lives ‘bide to the landscape’. Through repeating tales of their forefathers, spotting a rare bird in the sky on a quiet mundane morning, socialising at busy auctions, drenched wet through pulling out a lamb to save the ewe’s life – there is a deep connection, one built over time and with love. Through a life lived in this way, they have forged their identity, this is their reason for existing, the ‘why’ in their being.

If you say, ‘take the sheep of the hills’, you are inadvertently saying ‘you get off the hills’, and that becomes personal. If you say, ‘Sheep are unwanted’, you are saying that ‘they are unwanted’, and that’s hurtful. If you say ‘Sheep shouldn’t exist’, you are saying that ‘they shouldn’t exist’, and that is de-humanising.

These men and women, throughout their lives, have been free to live amongst the landscape investing every amount of energy, love and soul into a way of life that gives them meaning. Now, I ask, how would this generation of farmers cope with living in a ‘two-up, two-down’ in an urban area, outside the Lakes, commuting in to do contracted work? They will be muscled out of their local communities due to the expensive housing market propped up by retirees and tourism. For me, this has an ethical and humanitarian consequence.

This same sense of identification of self is also true to the wider community whose immediate landscape has shaped their upbringing, and this is the reason for the Lake District being a ‘Cultural Landscape’ in the eyes of world heritage, it lives in the minds of those who live and visit the region.  And it is true of the Pro-Environment Groups that define themselves by their identity; the identity of virtues. They reflect upon themselves ‘as good’ by the deeds that they do and the values that they uphold. Yes, it is important to have virtues and strive for a greater sense of societal enlightenment, but should it come at the expense of tolerance and pragmatism?   

Looking back over The Lakes at Mungrisdale whilst   heading towards Penrith

Looking back over The Lakes at Mungrisdale whilst heading towards Penrith


Stepping Out and Seeing the Big Picture

 

 read more about the RSA's work: the UK's heritage index

On Friday, I headed for the west coast. The last day of my visit took me to the post-industrial town of Barrow-in-Furness, a town with a nuclear submarine that gives the UK access to the highest table of influence in the political world. With more in common to neighbouring Lancashire than Cumbria, Barrow is the counterweight to the Lake District’s public image. Instead of being exhibited, it is overlooked, either by design or by circumstance.

You ask people around the town what do they think of it? And you’ll get, “It’s a bit shit, but we like it like that”, said with a sense of in-genuine pride.


I met with Maddi Nicholson and Stuart Bastik, directors of ArtGene who introduced me to the town; “It started in the 80s when 10,000 people were laid off in the closure of the shipyard all from the labouring class. There are now 3 generations of unemployed, and this has created an underclass”.

There is a sense of unworthiness. Without the ability to move circumstances, people find other methods to escape. Barrow has become one of the UK’s most prolific areas for deaths via drug overdose. The majority of it occurs on a housing estate literally over the road from BAEs Devonshire Dock Hall, built as the tallest monument in Cumbria. Here, there is a dynamic tension between power and pressure.

Art Gene's satire preserve

Art Gene's satire preserve

Maddi described how this town has faced a lot; “The people here have had to deal with the closure of an industry that once gave them a job for life. To keep the job, they adhered to the rules, but then the day came when that industry went and what replaced it no longer valued its place in the community”.

Although Barrow faces a lot of deprivation, it is in the top 1% nationally for landscape and nature (data from the RSA’s Heritage Index). Yes, there are economic differences, yet there are also assets of rich heritage and cultural history, which can be the driver for transformational wellbeing. But the community is completely unconnected to it, well, yet..

Art Gene is working at the frontiers of community engagement through a number of projects, some creative and some connective, to align the community with its true heritage. “Art Gene embraces the positives of the duality in people and place. We are revisioning social, urban, and natural environments. We are engaged in defining futures”.

The word future is very poignant. Barrow in Furness voted to Leave the EU by a large majority. Later in the day, I met with John Woodcock MP who painted a straight picture on this topic; “Constituents have a lack a faith in the ‘establishment’ and the system. They’ve been left behind, things are getting worse. They’ve been told how to do things by ‘experts’, and consequently have lost trust. It is in their greater economic interest to remain, but here, people reject that”.

The disconnect is increasing. It seems the constituents feel they have no agency, no one is listening and all the while they see their world diminishing in value. John takes it further “In the 80’s we went through a period of greed that still echoes; back then, community didn’t matter, kindness didn’t matter”.

Lucas from the bakery Peace and Loaf

Lucas from the bakery Peace and Loaf

That notion sent me back to a conversation that I had with Kate Rawles; “We need to go back to basics. Simply; what do we value? As a society, our values are inadequate, western farming is driven by profit, it is considered an industry – to be industrious. Arguably, it should be primarily nutrition led along with positive impacts on the environment, welfare standards and fair jobs.”  

A sense of disconnect was a reoccurring theme throughout my journey; a disconnect from each other and our environment. Earlier in the week, whilst I was writing this report in the Drayton Hall pub in Penrith (dare I say, supping a beautiful golden ale), I couldn't help but overhear a neighbouring conversation, “values from the future, need to be brought to the present”, I looked over, as a man took a glug from a half-swilled pint glass.

Maddi, Stuart and I went to the beach on the north of Walney Island to soak up some of that week’s heatwave. It was a breath-taking sight of beauty, white sands abundant, contrasted by the dark mountains rolling out into the background, eventually merging into the sky.

Stuart explains that “local people, when empowered, are the drivers of meaningful change. There was a chap who did all the leg work in getting Walney Island recognised as an official nature reserve. He studied all the birds and accounted for them before dawn and after dusk. Once it was under the auspices of the Wildlife Trust they employed a ranger - who had no previous knowledge of the area - to deliver a strategy based on where the money is. The local knowledge was displaced, with it the true value”.

Near Morecambe Bay Oysters, a mass of wind turbines stretching out to beyond the coast of Walney Island. Apparently, it has boosted the local marine life, which has developed into an artificial reef.

Near Morecambe Bay Oysters, a mass of wind turbines stretching out to beyond the coast of Walney Island. Apparently, it has boosted the local marine life, which has developed into an artificial reef.

Maddi continues with a story about an old rickety hut that was once existed along this beach. “A lady sold ice creams out of it, a place that all the locals new and she knew most of them. Then, when the National Trust took over the site, they replaced the hut with an iron clad information box, the lady has gone and the area surrounding it has been landscaped in a way that can be found at all National Trust beaches”. Maddi points to the floor stating how they have used plastic imitations of wooden sleepers to create a footpath.

“Generic interpretations have taken over local distinctiveness”. She sighed.  

In that sentence, I stopped, and I saw.

Earlier in the week, I met Dan Stamper, Senior Lecturer of Newton Rigg College, who has the important task of keeping farming an attractive option for young people. He told me that he teaches his students that “difference is a strength, it adds another form of brilliance to the world”.

In areas of our lives, the rich diversity of everyday life has dulled into uniformity; a ‘one size fits all’ top down approach. As opposed to the bottom up, organic process of life. The interrelationships of complexity, difference and diversity are what makes communities and ecosystems resilient and thriving.

As I continue to write, the bartender at the pub in Penrith pulls me from my flow and from the bar, asks me what is it I am working on. I say to her that I am trying to understand the difference between perception and reality, she says “for what it’s worth, what is real to me – as she softly held a small bunch of fragile roses from yesterday’s wedding - it’s the smell of these, a childhood memory, you know – like, when an apple wholeheartedly tastes like an apple – you see it, touch it, feel it; that’s what’s real”.

In Barrow, I walked into the BBC’s “Best Food and Farming Shop of 2018”. Peace and Loaf’s story is one of optimism. Run by two resolute individuals, they have shown the world that circumstance is merely a matter of perception. The reality for them is creating bread that people love. Due to the inflated rates (the council says ‘competitive’), Peace and Loaf run out of a shop that is only big enough to sell international calling sim-cards. However, here is an organisation selling the UK’s best sourdough loaves in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the UK and from which, they crowdfunded £9,000 from a community with limited resources. The folk here saw two of their own just doing it, giving it a go. With that belief came engagement, support, and pride. Upon walking up to the entrance, I was instantly struck with that familiar, fruity, toasty, almost sweet scent of fresh bread that lingers heavily in the air and at that moment, you stop, you savour, you are present. That was real.

Earlier that week, sheep farmer, Tom Lorains welcomed me into his home. Margins are tight on the edge of a hill, yet here they had open arms for a stranger; Tom and his wife gave me lunch. ­Caroline remembered that I was vegetarian and there I was with a man whose job it is to produce lamb. We respectfully spoke at length and we ate as friends. That was real.

When I met Isaac, upon meeting I offered my hand and like all farmers, a shovel-sized, rough hand worn from years of graft clasped around mine and he looked me deadpan in the eye. We said nothing for a second, and yet I understood. For 20 minutes, he opened up to me about his fears for his livelihood, his community, and his children. Towards the end, I honestly had to turn my head away. I couldn’t face a man with that much strength and that much to lose. In a moment of personal openness, an eye teared up. I felt the frequency of his pain, the heavy load he carries.. That was real.

Before arriving in Cumbria, I thought about my childhood holidays in the Lake District. But now, I truly saw the county a new. As I was leaving Barrow-in-Furness, with my bike ready to go, Stuart shook my hand, he said with reverence “come back again”. I probably will, but it’ll be that old Gypsy reality; you go to a place and when you return, it’ll be different. Whether that’s my perception of it or the reality of today’s world? Who knows, it’s all one and the same. 

The beach to the north of Walney Island, looking over the Duddon Channel. With the old iron works slag heap to the right and towards the National Park in the distance. 

The beach to the north of Walney Island, looking over the Duddon Channel. With the old iron works slag heap to the right and towards the National Park in the distance. 

 

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