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Lunch Break at Oxford Real Farming Conference with FarmED

As attendees enjoy the fifth day of this year’s Global ORFC, FarmED’s Edd Colbert offers some reflections on his key highlights and takeaways from the sessions he tuned in to during the first few days:

[Caveat: this year’s ORFC program is huge and we’ve only managed to watch a small portion of all that’s on offer!]

Rotations, Rotations, Rotations!

After an emotive and inspiring plenary introduction from speakers and musicians around the world, Jonty and Ian from FarmED were up first to talk crop rotations with Jeff Tkach and Yichao Rui from the Rodale Institute and Nicola Cannon from the RAU. Key messages from the panel included:

  • If you think rotations are just about crops you’re missing an opportunity. You could try integrating livestock on herbal leys and green manures between crops, set up an apiary to increase pollination and produce honey, or bring people on to the land through education and agritourism events. Perhaps we need another session called Stack, Stack, Stack? To learn more about FarmED’s rotation click here:

  • The Rodale Institute’s results from their long term conventional vs. Organic trials clearly demonstrated the importance of increasing soil organic matter to boost soil fertility. Our own trial is much younger than Rodale’s but we’re already seeing similar results!

  • To plough or not to plough? It seems that may be the wrong question as the answer depends on the individual context and goals of each farm, not to mention the soil type! Here at FarmED we use a shallow plough to terminate crops and reduce weeds without causing too much soil disturbance – as always we’re open to learning what other options we might be able to demonstrate!

Future-proofing farms against climate change - the role of trees

Can you rotate trees? Probably not but don’t worry, there’s plenty more you can do with them! In this session our highlights were:

  • Agroforestry requires careful planning but the benefits are worth it, particular when trees are integrated with both crops and livestock.

  • Planting trees on land can increase rain infiltration by 60-70%, helping increase the resilience of farms to extreme weather patterns.

  • Livestock can benefit tremendously from agroforestry, whether it’s through shelter from sun and wind or through the anti-worming properties and nutrient supplementation. Species such as willow can provide them.

  • Challenges abound: managing tree-crop competition, funding, sustainability of tree guards, and sadly theft and vandalism to new plantings!

  • Agroforestry is on the rise but there’s still a lack of training and knowledge available for farmers. Thankfully organisations like Agricology, Soil Association, and the Woodland Trust are beginning to fill this gap and here at FarmED we plan on branching out into agroforestry later this year.

Farming for Change: mapping a route to 2030

It’s clear there so much to do, but with so many great ideas already emerging from the conference we’re optimistic! In this session something that really resonated with us was how Herefordshire-based Organic mixed farmer, Ben Andrews,highlighted the need for:

‘More training rather than handing out cash in making the shift to #agroecology; more collaboration e.g. between an arable farm and nearby livestock farm on nutrient exchange.’

We couldn’t agree more with Ben, and at FarmED we’re on a mission to fill at least part of that training gap and to form more connections, not just between farmers, but between all actors in our food system! Take a look at our events page to see what training is on the horizon.

Life in the soil under pasture

This session was the closest thing we might get at this conference to going on a soil safari! Dr. Andy Neal and Dr. Felicity Crotty invited us into the world of microbiology to take a closer look at how some of the smallest life forms on earth use organic matter as fuel to drive the whole farming system. Key takeaways:

  • Andy Neal highlighted how farm yard manure stimulates microbial activity in agricultural soils leading to: a greater number of interconnected pores, which increases water holding capacity and aeration, which further creates better habitats for microbes to thrive in, leading to better crops! Reliance on inorganic fertilizers made feed plant, but they don’t feed the soil!

  • Felicity Crotty reminded us that soil health leads to greater farm resilience to extreme weather patterns - yet another reason we need to move beyond yield comparisons of conventional vs. agroecological, given future risks of drought and flooding.

Moving money into agroecology

Where’s the cash? This session highlighted some emerging funding platforms which are challenging traditional philanthropy and channelling money into Agroecological food system development. We’re particularly interested in Farming the Future who’ve got their eye on the UK. You can check out this platform at

Key takeaway from this session: whether it's from government subsidies, private philanthropists, foundations, or crowd-funding we need to get more money flowing into agroecological action!

Reaching Net Zero with Nature Friendly Solutions

Whether we’re talking organic, biodynamic, regenerative or agroecological, each of these approaches draws on lessons learnt from observing natural ecosystems and the relationships within them. In this session we heard from farmers in transition to more ‘nature-friendly’ ways of farming in an attempt to become net-zero in terms of carbon emissions. Key points from the panel:

  • While net-zero is an easy enough target to imagine, we really ought to be aiming for sub-zero targets to ensure agriculture plays a role in drawing carbon down from the atmosphere.

  • “We’re a mixed farm but we have no animals” – Craig Livingstone highlighted the role of arable and livestock farmer collaboration to gain the benefits of animal health, soil health, input reduction, carbon sequestration, and better yields!

  • And perhaps my favourite quote of the conference so far from Martin Lines: ‘Fertilizer is better out of the bum than out of the bag!’

However, we need to remember that CO2 emissions reductions aren’t the only thing we need to aiming for – indeed, doing so may cause undesirable trade-offs to be encountered. As those who watch Horizon’s ‘Feast To Save The Planet’ last week may remember, intensive poultry farming can have a lower CO2 footprint than free-range farming.

Agroecological, Regenerative and Organic: Complementary or Competing Approaches to Food System Transformation?

Buzz-words abound! Each of these words describes an approach to farming, rather than simply a list of practices. Indeed what may be deemed an organic farming practice, may also be regenerative or agroecological, depending on the way in which its implemented.This session helped highlight some important similarities and distinctions between these different approaches to food system development:

  • Organic farming is known the world over thanks to international certification standards which help consumers identify foods that have been grown according to organic principles. These principles enable farmers to sustain their farming systems rather than degrade them by replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives and practices which build soil health.

  • Regenerative Agriculture is less well defined than organic farming but those who farm in this way aim to move beyond sustaining food and farm systems instead moving toward soil, farm and rural community regeneration. In some cases RA builds on organic principles as regenerative farmers move toward minimizing soil disturbance, ensuring year-round ground cover and living roots, integrated livestock and crops, and maximising diversity on their farms. However, aside from the Rodale Institute Regenerative Organic Certification, there currently exists no other set standards for this movement meaning farmers are able to use synthetic inputs if they desire.

  • Agroecology describes a range of farming practices (including those that may be seen as regenerative and organic) that are used to foster soil, plant, animal and human health. However, recognising that changes made at the farm level must be reflected at the market and policy levels, Agroecology differs from organic and regenerative agriculture by setting out to transform the entire food systems. This change in part is being driven by a range of social movements working to resist neo-colonial control of the food system and oppression of land-based communities, while building more resilient food systems that connect citizens with the producers of their food. Agroecology is also the transdisciplinary scientific study of the food system, from soil particles to social-political systems. This science builds on traditional agricultural wisdom and is now being used to inspire farmers and influence policy makers around the world.

Ultimately all three approaches are working toward very similar goals. However, there is risk of each of these words being co-opted by Big Ag for corporate green-washing. There is therefore a need for each of these approaches to work together to protect the grassroots origins from which these movements were born.

Importantly we need to remember that many of the issues we face in the current food system stem from the fact this system incentivises uniformity and standardisation. Each of these approaches puts diversity at the heart of the food or farming systems they promote. Perhaps it’s time we embrace the possibility of multiple approaches which offer contextualised alternatives to the current food system, depending on the local needs of people and their landscapes.

The Soil Bugs that Sustain Us

Another great session that opened the audience’s eyes to the world beneath our feet. In some ways this session built upon Thursday’s panel with Andy Neal and Felicity Crotty (see above), offering the audience further insights into the role soil microorganisms (‘life’) play in enabling crops to thrive. Joel Williams, a soil health educator, explained how soil microbes, plants, and livestock all feed each other in rich feedback loops, and asked the audience to ponder on how humans could do more to give back to these systems by asking the question “What can you do for nature?”.

Hedgerows: An international perspective

I was only able to drop into this session briefly, but was amazed to hear that the UK contains 500,000 kilometres of hedgerows! These incredible landscape features are symbolic of the British countryside and many of our European neighbours appear to be rather envious of them. Nonetheless, these important ecosystem corridors are in decline due to removal and sub-optimal management.

From what if to what next: why we need to cultivate imagination alongside agriculture produce

In this session, founder of the Transition Town Movement, Rob Hopkins, shared inspiring stories from around the world of how communities have come together to build the food and farming systems they desire. Central to the success of all of these stories was the fact that the communities started their journey by using their imaginations, a much underused tool we all have at our disposal! Rob repeated throughout his talk the following simple message

‘We cannot build what we cannot imagine.’

Through creative and participatory processes, each of these communities asked the vital question ‘What if...?’... What if we had a community owned brewery?… What if each of the bus stations on our bus route had edible gardens?… What if our towns had civic imagination centres?

The session, and the proceeding workshop with Rob, left me with many what if questions, two of which I’ll share here:

  • What if FarmED (the centre for food and farm education) was a centre for food and farm imagination? What role could we play in bringing communities together to imagine and build new growing projects, food distribution networks, or theatre productions that tell the story of local farmers?

  • What if there was a platform that enabled citizens to invest their money in planting trees within agroforestry systems to help farmers diversify their farms? What if this platform gave better returns than banks and traditional financial institutions? What if individuals could give directly to farmers to offset their household CO2 emissions?

When the medicine feeds the problem: how nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides enhance the nutritional quality of crops for their pests and pathogens

Another tremendously eye-opening session in which researchers Daisy Martinez and Ulrich Loening shared their findings from a literature review on the effects of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides on pest damage in crops. These two researchers were inspired by Francis Chaboussou’s neglected Trophobiosis theory that suggested the use of agrichemicals actually creates favourable conditions for pests to prevail in agricultural fields. While this may seem counterintuitive, the evidence from the literature appears to suggest that this idea may hold truth. While the research is awaiting publication, Daisy shared some of the key findings from their work:

  • Crops are able to uptake excessive nitrogen from the soil (which they convert into amino acids) quicker than they can synthesize proteins from amino acids. This leads to a build up on amino acids in plants cells, which happen to be exactly the thing many pests are attractive to!

  • Many conventional pesticides, which are designed to kill pests, also trigger low-level stress responses in crops. One of these responses is to break down proteins in their cells into amino acids, again contributing to an abundance of precisely the food that pests are after in the first place. Although these chemicals may wipe out pests in the moment they are sprayed, later populations of insects, fungi or viruses are able to enter damaged plants and benefit from the surplus of amino acids.

No doubt I’ve oversimplified the message here, so keep an eye out for Daisy and Ulrich’s research being published in the hopefully not too distant future!


Clearly I’ve left a lot out and my personal bias towards the more agronomy-focus sessions means I’ve not highlighted the many sessions focused on the more social issues of food justice, democracy, land-rights and policy held at ORFC this year - topics that are central to agroecological change. Why not reach out and share your learnings with us via @RealFarmED or @eddcolbert on twitter?


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