I gave a talk at the FARMA annual conference a few weeks ago when I was asked to talk from a ‘millennial perspective’ to farmers and managers of farm shops & farmers markets [I’m not a big fan of the word millennial but have used it anyway!]. Here is roughly what I said.
I was born and bred in Cheshire. My Californian parents set up shop at the edge of the Pennines and fed me healthy organic food from day one. Every morning I woke up and looked out over fields of sheep and cows. I wasn’t interested in them at all. It didn’t seem like the farmer did much, just left cows and sheep in the fields all day. I certainly didn’t think farming impacted my life in any way.
I could not have been more wrong.
Here is a bit of my story, why I do what I do and how that relates to my generation as a whole.
About 10 years ago my family moved to Chile where we planted 8000 olive trees and have 2 hectares of old vines. We set up a smaller-scale organic farm, vidacycle, where we produce natural wine, verjus (made of pre-ripe grapes used like lemon juice) and olive oil which my sister and I sell here in the UK. As I spent more time on the farm, and sharing our produce with people, I became filled with awe by the beauty and nourishment that came from the land.
But… I also felt more and more overwhelmed by despair at the many risks and unknowns.
For example each year after the frost a few hundred olive trees would die back. It was hard to know if it was the same trees each year or not… and because we didn’t really know, we felt paralysed to help them.
After a few years of this I realised I could help my mom and dad out — I have a background in physics and tech — so I came up with a simple app, called Sectormentor, that the workers can use out in the field to record the condition of the trees, frost damage, pruning, anything of importance…the key was that it was easy, any worker can add information about that tree with a few clicks. We now have two years of data and it’s exciting that we are starting to treat trees differently based on their history.
Our neighbours saw an app like this could make a difference for their farm too, so together with a blueberry farmer we developed Workmentor which allows them to keep track of how much each worker harvested as well as timesheets for workers. Again the key was that all the workers trusted the app, and everyone wins because of the transparency it brings.
Soon we got a call from Davenport vineyards in the UK saying they had been looking for a system like ours. Last year they were able to get a good prediction of yield 5 months ahead of harvest, as well as make realtime decisions about whether they should add more compost, or do a second pruning. This is not a replacement for going out and looking yourself, but a supportive tool.
We have been selling both apps to fellow farmers since November and now have multiple farmers using it here in the UK, Chile and in California. It’s very customisable, you can choose what you record…so we have people recording info about seaberries, olives, vines, blueberries, agroforestry projects, onions and more. I feel honoured and excited every time I hear from a fellow farmer telling me how our systems have helped them.
If anyone is interested to find out more you can go to our website tech.vidacycle.com.
With vidacycle tech we are creating tools for farmers like us that will help us all build more resilient businesses, a mixture of careful observation, supported by small amounts of good quality data to allow us to draw out patterns and insights about the farm in the short term and long term. For me this is part of what Joel Salatin calls new-fashioned farming: combining more traditional farming methods with new technologies to allows farms to thrive — to be good for people, planet and be profitable. We are one small part of a wider movement of farmers refocusing their attention on regenerating soils and fostering the whole ecosystem on the farm, not just the ‘cash crop’.
As I spent more time on our farm I realised how important farming is to our future. That each decision we made had a much wider impact on the land and people around. In fact it dawned on me that farmers are basically in charge of our earth’s future. Farmers will decide in many ways how sustainable the earth is.
The variety of crop a farmer chooses to plant affects biodiversity; grazing animals differently can increase carbon stored in the soils; planting covers crops and trees can prevent flood damage in nearby towns. Farmers are the caretakers of the land and farmer’s choices affect us more than I could have imagined. This is why I care. This is why many people my age will care — but most of us haven’t made this connection yet.
Just yesterday a climate fanatic told me that agriculture is only responsible for 3% of global carbon emissions. Turns out that doesn’t include biofuels or forestry — and the real number is more like 20%. I say real because who do you think plants the maize for anaerobic digesters? or who plants the trees for timber? It’s the farmers, the landowners, and they have decided to plant those other ‘crops’ often for economics reasons. And so it all comes back to farmer’s decisions.
Millennial perspective: If people realise that the decisions farmers make are central to the health of people and the earth they will be drawn to work with the farming ecosystem. Making this connection is why people who can afford it will buy more expensive, quality food.
We need to tell the stories of how every decision we make has a wider impact on world issues. We need to talk about issues like water and waste. Tell personal stories of what you are doing, like maybe you planted a chicory cover crop because the flowers will help the bees and the roots will help regenerate the soils for future generations.
We can all share these stories, small bundles of info on instagram, or on a chalkboard at the market (something someone can capture easily and share with their friends), or maybe share your story in a talk at festival.
The Third Plate
As I was learning more about farming I read a book called The Third Plate by chef, Dan Barber. When he started talking about his rotation risotto the pieces of the puzzle just seemed to fall into place. The risotto includes rye, millet, buckwheat and he uses cowpea shoots and mustard greens to ensure the risotto has a creaminess. The beauty of it is that these cowpea shoots and mustard greens are the cover crops from the grain fields, planted to increase biodiversity and reduce erosion. It was suddenly so clear, we can craft food that reflects good farming. We can support good farming practices by eating crops that reflect the rotation, that increase biodiversity. We can help farmers financially and help pay for their more sustainable farming practices. What we eat can have a direct impact on the future of the earth.
I am not alone in this feeling about what we eat. There is a growing group of sustainable chefs who aren’t just sourcing from farmer’s markets, they are actively pushing deeper and asking more questions— What are your crop rotations or companion crops? How do you feed your animals? What are your waste products? Could they use one of these ‘waste products’ in one of their dishes? There has recently been a pop-up called WastED at Selfridges, led by Dan Barber, inviting UK-based chefs to craft dishes using ‘waste’ products…Refettorio Felix is another waste food pop up featuring top chefs— these are all signs that sustainable cooking is already becoming mainstream.
Millennial perspective: More and more chefs want to work with you, learn from you and be creative, they want to know details and gain new insights. They want to be able to tell their customers a story about how their new dish is supporting you and the soils!
And then Farmerama
Early on in my vidacycle journey I was invited along to a Farmhack event over in Stroud — it was an amazing mix of curious farmers sharing their experiments from making your own biochar to big bubbling compost tea tanks. We were so inspired a few of us decided to start Farmerama Radio a monthly podcast that was committed to sharing the voices of smaller-scale farmers. We share experiments and ideas: from triple suckling cows to new business models like the Open Food Network.
It is lots of fun and a great success — we have been going almost two years and thousands of people tune in to each episode. See Farmerama.co and iTunes or soundcloud to listen for yourself, or subscribe to get it in your inbox each month here. As we reach the 2 year mark we are getting supporters on board, so please get in touch if you too want to support the smaller-scale farming community.
We are committed to making Farmerama because we believe by sharing knowledge, farmers will learn and thrive together, all building towards a more sustainable earth. We are proud to be promoting farmer-led innovation which is again part of the new era for agriculture.
Millennial perspective: This is important to us, to be part of a wider movement supporting a positive future for all.
Turns out not everyone listening is farmers, we get the public tuning in to better understand the nuances of farming — they are excited to hear why farmers are mob-grazing, or not ploughing their soils or why they are planting lentils with their wheat because that will build better soil structure, prevent flooding, reduce the chemicals needed…
Of course it’s also really fun, I love going round meeting farmers — in my experience farmers are often good people, very humble and with a lot of integrity, plus they know so much about their local landscape it’s a joy to wander round the land with them. So many of my friends ask to come on farm visits with me, they want to meet farmers, or date farmers…they are intrigued about who you are and why you are doing what you do — they want to support the farmers!
Plus Podcasts are great because you can listen to them whilst planting, on the tractor, walking around, driving…the ultimate for learning on the go.
Millennial perspective: we really like to learn all the time and we like to be productive or efficient, so will do things that fit into our lifestyles easily. Convenience is always part of the decision.
We want our work to be part of our life, to support our lifestyle, in line with our wider commitment to the world and along the way we want to always be learning and to have fun!
One of the projects we featured on Farmerama episode 11 was Climavore — a project run by two artists where each dish is based on foods that support the current landscape. Landscape-based eating. One course was soil-friendly food, a dish made up of nitrogen fixing plants. Another course was a flood-friendly dish, all crops harvested from a flood plain and tolerant of flooded landscapes.
It was fun, and felt good and delicious to be eating food that I knew was helping build better soils and helping farmers to be resilient in the face of changing climates. This is another form of a sustainable diet. The rise in veganism can also be attributed to sustainable diets as people are literally choosing their diet based on how earth-friendly it is. For me the Climavore project was particularly exciting because it was an inventive experience, an enjoyable way of embracing what the future and landscape holds.
A Field of Wheat and OurField
Early last year I was reporting for Farmerama and attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference. What an amazing conference, they have singing and communal silence embedded in the experience along with science and technology. I attended a lunch time talk all about ‘A Field of Wheat’ — two artists, Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene were working with a farmer, Peter Lundgren, and had got together a collective of 42 people to co-invest in his field of wheat in Lincolnshire. I signed up then and there and invested £200 — my first ever investment. I had no idea what it would be like but I realised I knew very little about what was involved in growing a field of wheat. I wanted to learn and share the journey of the farmer and also help figure out how we could farm organically.
It was one of the best projects I’ve ever been part of — all decision making was done online, and it was full of highs and lows. The first decision about how much nitrogen to apply, if any, had many of us feeling overwhelmed. I was adamantly organic my whole life and couldn’t imagine adding nitrogen fertiliser, yet I learned the wheat would probably die if we didn’t add nitrogen and then I would be risking the farmers livelihood (he had a bigger stake in the field than us).
In the end we voted to add 1/5th of the nitrogen he would normally apply based on recommendations from a wheat expert. We also decided how we would sell the wheat — no local mills or bakers wanted our wheat because it wasn’t organic and wasn’t the right heritage wheat. So we ended up selling to OpenField co-operative and the wheat was good quality so we each made made a profit of £10.99.
Inspired by my experience, I got together with a few other girls involved in food and farming and we created OurField. We have already got another 42 co-investors for a field of grain on John Cherry’s farm in Hertfordshire and we are currently deciding together what grain to grow. We are documenting everything as we go so by the end of the year we will have a handbook so that others can do their own OurFields around the country.
Our aims are: to help farmers have the opportunity to transition to practices that protect and build soil for future generations, and grow delicious and nutritious food; We want to share the risk and reward, the highs and lows of nurturing the soil and growing food; We want to help increase respect for farmers, by empowering them to share their journey with many others. We have journalists and food-waste bloggers as co-investors…these are people who will share their journey far and wide.
For me this experiencing the full story is vital — we want to know your story, a personal story of the challenges and joys of farming — we want to share in your highs and lows. For example, if you had to spray weedkiller because there was no frost to kill the cover crop and otherwise your wheat wouldn’t survive then tell us, and explain how you are thinking of doing things differently next time. It’s not an apology, just a human, personal account of why you made that decision and how you feel. Feelings are important.
A good example of telling this story is that I have been getting a Riverford veg box each week for years and I feel like I know Guy Watson, each week he tells us a personal story with the good bits and the bad bits…I definitely don’t agree with everything he says but that’s ok because I like his wider vision and what Riverford as a business are committed to. I feel like they have integrity.
That’s an important word — integrity.
Millennial perspective: we want to know your full story and share in your emotional journey. We want to feel the integrity of what you do and what you stand for.
That’s where my story ends for now: from technology and farmer-led innovation; the realisation that farmers are central to the future of our earth; helping craft a future of food that regenerates our soils and brings health to people; to taking us along for the ride, letting us know who you are, how you feel and the decisions you are having to make — your story.
My feeling is that we are all in this together, we want to be part of a holistic ecological future and the farmers markets, farm shops and farmers out there will be our guides.