5FF leaflet 1 1
5FF leaflet 2

Complicated Words and the Simple Life

This Sunday there is a very interesting event taking place at Glastonbury Town Hall: ‘Let’s talk about local food, farming and growing’. It is at once a People’s Assembly discussion about how best to provide our community with sustainable and resilient food supplies, a chance to hear speakers – mostly local but including Graham Harvey who has written several books that decry the destruction of traditional farming, and the launch of the next phase of the Five Mile Food and Farming project (Avalon 5FF) which has consisted of five local farmers who have been trialing Agroecology methods for the past five months.

I say ‘Agroecology’, which is the description that the organisers have chosen to use, though what its ‘methods’ are have not been made very clear. Maybe this doesn’t matter though – the event has been booked right up since several weeks ago. All the same I’ve been a bit disappointed with the publicity. It has mostly used rather vague terms such as ‘nature friendly farming’, which sounds nice but is open to all manner of interpretation and misinterpretation. The term ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ has mostly been avoided, though the impression given is that it is synonimous with ‘Agroecology’.

A leaflet prepared for distribution at the event itself says that ‘ecological principles ensure that we address climate change and biodiversity’. This is true, and important; but what has not been mentioned at all is that this is based on regeneration of the soil, after several generations of devastation through the increasing use of chemicals on farmland. This new leaflet is interesting, particularly since it tells us that such initiatives are being encouraged by the UN Food and Agriculture Organsation, and that local Councils have a clear role to play in ‘supporting farmer engagement in agroecological transition’.

Agroecology is the term used by the UN, and it is described largely in terms of its impact at a social level. All the ’10 elements of Agroecology’ very much need attention. They are listed on the leaflet as ‘land tenure, productivity, income, added value, exposure to pesticides, dietary diversity, women’s empowerment, youth employment, biodiversity and soul health’. (I imagine the last of these is supposed to be ‘soil health’, but if so it’s an interesting typo).

Unfortunately the link to the FAO’s website that’s printed on the leaflet doesn’t work, at least it didn’t for me, but I googled ‘fao agroecology’ and came up with this: https://fao.org/agroecology/overview/overview10elements/en/ The ten elements that I found there are a bit different, and more related to farming and the soil: diversity, to ensure food security and nutrition, particularly during agroecological transition; building synergies, enhancing key functions across food systems; efficiency – agroecological practices prduce more using less external resources; enhanced resilience – key to sustainable food and agricultural systems; nevertheless they are much the same in principle. They are measurable outcomes that can be used to determine how successful the transition to agroecology has been so far, in any particular region or place. This is great, but it doesn’t tell us what to do if we want to be hands-on growers. The best advice given on the leaflet is to consult your local council and conservation bodies.

In my understanding, ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ is not quite the same as Agroecology. It is more a science than a social science, and the outcomes that it is looking for are mainly changes in soil make-up: has the carbon content increased? Is there more available nitrogen? Is there more organic matter and humus, and is moisture retention improved? Is there plenty of healthy microbial life? If the answer to these questions is yes, then addressing climate change and biodiversity loss will naturally follow. The Soil Food Web School in the United States not only teaches about such things, it includes making its students proficient with a microscope, so that progress with improving these indicators of soil health can be tested. We’re not all going to be doing that, yet perhaps a local community-friendly soil-testing business would find a niche here if regenerative growing increases.

But if, like me, you only have access to a back garden vegetable plot or a small allotment, then what you need are ways to judge progress by rule-of-thumb methods. This means, essentially, are your vegetables doing better? That, and are you in touch with friends who can share information as to how and why their vegetables are doing better? I shall be reporting on progress in this sense in the blog – and I would like to invite readers to add their own experiences and tips in the comments box. Regenerative principles are applicable on any scale, and for information on how it works on a small scale I could recommend a book by Jeff Lowenfels, ‘Teaming with Microbes’.

One thing it’s taught me is that if you want to grow vegetables and annual plants, it’s important to have plenty of green matter on your compost heap. If you’re more interested in trees, fruit bushes and other perennials, then you need plenty of leaves, saw dust and other ‘browns’ on your compost heap. This is because green matter encourages bacterial growth, and brown matter encourages fungi in the soil. Both are always needed, but in what proportion depends on what you want to grow. Students coming out of the Soil Food Web School can work this out scientifically, but I shall do my best by trial and error, and using what mterials are available.

I can remember back in the 1980s talking to an old countryman in Dorset. He had seen chemical fertilisers coming in during the war, and to him the results were almost magical – and they certainly helped to feed the nation when food was in such short supply. However, it was an emergency, war-time measure, but when the war ended the ‘miracle’ continued – because there was so much money in it. The old guy in Dorset didn’t mention the diminishing returns that followed, nor the milk lakes and butter mountains that resulted from persistent government support for such methods. It’s worth remembering what he said though; it helped me to better understand how we came to be in today’s precarious situation.

What is really needed now is old-timers who do understand what’s happened, and also how to get back to healthy land, healthy food and healthy lives generally, so that we can listen to them and follow their advice. But I believe what we need to take on board is that we are those old-timers, and what’s arriving is our chance to learn and understand enough that it will be worth passing it on to up-coming generations. Realistically, it will take several further generations before we have re-learnt the whole food-growing system. It may well be a difficult time ahead. But this Town Hall event, and the Avalon 5FF project, are looking like they could be the start of something really new and exciting.

Note that this post has been substantially updated by Avalon Agricultural Area, 5 mile Food and Farming, and Beyond