At FarmED we understand the value of diversity, the different benefits brought by different species of plants. Here, Dr Chris Maughan, Assistant Professor of Agroecological Knowledge and Innovation Systems at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University, addresses how weeds can be used to help us understand more about our farming and food systems, and how you can get involved in this project.
What are weeds? What are they for? What can they tell us?
Well, it’s simple isn’t it?: ‘Weeds are plants in the wrong place’
It’s always what I’d said - as a grower and researcher - when defining weeds, admittedly always with my tongue firmly in cheek. However glib, this definition always felt a little off, and increasingly so as I began to take more seriously the entanglement of nature and food systems. It somehow speaks to the impulse to control, to separate ourselves from the parts of nature that inconvenience us, rather than attempt to work with them, or - even better - learn from them.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the launch of ‘Field Learning’, a participatory field trial project with Welsh ‘peasant bakery’ Torth y Tir. As a mix of farmers, growers, CSA members, and researchers, our initial brief was deliberately broad - to co-design research in a way which democratised decision making on the farm. As our field experience grew, we began to focus ever more on the ecology underlying food production. How could we design simple activities to better understand it and the role it played in a resilient and regenerative farming system? This led us to Gerard Ducerf’s exquisite three volume collection - L'encyclopédie des plantes bio-indicatrices - which head grower at Torth y Tir, Rupert Dunn, had been given by his mentor Nicolas Supiot. The first volume begins by stating:
A plant does not grow by chance; when you meet it in your garden, it has a role to play in that place at that time.
Though the book was inspiring - a lovingly and meticulously assembled compendium of the wild plants from Ducerf’s region and what they tell us about soil and ecological health - it also showed us how difficult our task might be. Not only was the volume only available in French, and based on French agricultural ecosystems, but all equivalent English language handbooks that we could find seemed to come from the ‘other’ perspective - how to most effectively and efficiently kill weeds, not understand what they were telling us.
This brings us to the point of this blog. In collaboration with the Organic Research Centre and The Landworkers’ Alliance, Coventry University is about to launch the Bioindicators Pilot Study, an action-oriented initiative aimed at offering guidance on how to use bioindicators, while also documenting how farmers use them, and assessing how reliable they are. In the spirit of co-creation, this research has and will be shaped by the farmers we work with: at present we have three ‘clusters’ established - in Pembrokeshire (Torth y Tir), Somerset (Gothelney Farm), and Shropshire (Green Acres Farm) - but invisage more joining as the project gathers steam. There are still a few spaces left for each cluster - if you’re interested in knowing more about this please get in touch.
Above all, we are keen to draw on the energy we feel is out there for this view of weeds and nature in general. Seeing these plants as simply ‘in the wrong place’ stops us perceiving something vital: that every plant is there because of particular soil conditions, often caused or exacerbated by our own cultivation practices. In this sense, weeds are plants in the right place; it may be us, not them that need toFor more information about the project or to apply to take part please see the following links:
Dr Chris Maughan is an Assistant Professor of Agroecological Knowledge and Innovation Systems at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience, Coventry University. He is a transdisciplinary researcher whose work draws on years of experience as a community food grower and training in horticultural production. He is currently leading on a British Academy funded project analysing the bottom-up processes of horizontal knowledge exchange in agroecology networks. This work has led to collaborative projects with numerous food and farming organisations from across Europe, especially those seeking to develop innovative approaches to training and knowledge exchange in agroecology.