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Agroecology: from Soil Health to Financing and Food Democracy

by Stephanie Phelan
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Day 1 of OFRC 2021 – The Oxford Real Farming Conference has developed over the last eleven years to become the unofficial gathering of the real food and farming movement in the UK. Working with partners, the conference brings together farmers, growers, activists, policy-makers, researchers and all those who support agroecology, including organic and regenerative agriculture and indigenous systems.

ORFC 2021

Due to the pandemic, ORFC is hosting a virtual event with speakers and delegates from six continents.  There are 500 speakers and over 150 hours of content from January 7th – 13th. For agroecology enthusiasts, the programme and discussion line up makes it difficult to decide which talks to attend. The thought-provoking material is desperately needed, and there is so much to learn from this conference.

We encourage you to explore the material in the 2021 ORFC programme, and all talks will be made available on the ORFC YouTube. In the meantime, you can follow the TexasRealFood journey through some talks, workshops and presentations as our staff explores the conference.

Here are the highlights from the talks we attended on Thursday, January 7th:


Discussion: Rotation, Rotation, Rotation: using diverse crops to build soil health. (8AM – 9AM EST)

The discussion started by displaying images of the medieval manor & traditional methods of crop rotation that the Romans used. Autumn crops such as wheat and rye were planted next to spring crops, and there were designated common pasture areas for animals to graze. 

The start of regenerative farming 

This idea of crop rotation and agroecology carried into the 18th century when the book “Horfe-Hoeing Husbandry” was published by Jethro Tull in 1731. He later invented the Jethro Tull wheat drill, a revolutionary invention. Turnip Townshend further expanded on this idea to develop the “Norfolk four course rotation”. All of these concepts and inventions contributed greatly to the agricultural revolutions of our past. These Agricultural Revolutions  and influences to the farming industry were identified as:

  • 10,000 BC (1st) – Neolithic revolution
  • 43-110 AD – Romans in Britain – medieval
  • 1700 AD (2nd) – rotation & drilling 
  • 1960s (3rd) – Green Revolution
  • The future (4th)

FarmED and The Rodale Institute were the hosts of this discussion. Rodale is considered the pioneer of organic farming & food. The Rodale family themselves are the ones who started using the terms “organic” and “regenerative farming” the way they are used today. Rodale’s Hallmark Study – Farming Systems Trial  is the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional grain cropping systems in North America.

Conclusion: Decades of research shows that organic farming systems are competitive with conventional yields, produce more produce during drought, earn more profits, use less energy, and are better for the environment. And it all starts with the soil. Healthier soils hold more water, giving plants a leg up during periods of drought. Healthy soil also binds together better, preventing soil erosion and runoff into waterways. Because organic systems don’t use chemical inputs, toxins stay out of the environment and fewer fossil fuels are used.

For a similar resource on the importance of our soil, check out our review of the documentary Kiss the Ground.


Workshop: Financing Agroecology: From Tweaking to Transformation…!  (1PM-2:30PM EST)

This workshop answered the versatile question “What is agroecology?” There is a science still being developed around it. But it can mean a set of practices, a social movement, and the science of sustainable food practices. Some have described it as the opposite of monoculture cropping – because agroecology mimics the environment in a way that allows more crop variation. This is an example of the definition for agroecology practices in comparison to the science behind it or the social movement.  Framework for measuring agroecology on a farm was mentioned:

  • Level 0 – no sustainable practices used
  • Level 1 – Some basic sustainable practices are used
  • Level 2 – Alternative energy practices are used on the farm
  • Level 3 – Transformation begins to happen in society to allow agroecology
  • Level 4 – Reconnecting farming and food systems for civil society
  • Level 5 – Fundamental changes and a paradigm shift occurs in culture around food

As far a financing agroecology projects, grassroots efforts are the basic movement. Donors are now shifting attention towards this due to public advocacy. Most financing comes from farmers themselves, and the money financed is minimal compared to materials and labor.

Breakout sessions – an opportunity to connect

Out of the 200 attendees of this workshop, I met with Rachel, Kate and Caroline from Paris and the UK during the breakout session. Rachel Joyce-Gibbons has worked in the finance industry for years specializing in agroecology in Central America. She spent time in Peru mainly, and has been working with the same co-operatives for years in order to get funding for farming projects. Even the most significant projects are difficult to get the appropriate funding for, and she got emotional when we talked about the idea of securing food practices for future generations. 

Conclusion: This workshop was eye opening in terms of how difficult it is to get the appropriate funding for agroecology projects and sustainable farms. Many of the best regenerative farms are financed solely by farmers, workers and community. Government funding is put towards industrialized agriculture instead. And traditional methods shown through the history of farming clarify the fact that it wasn’t intended to end up this way. 

You can watch the full workshop here on YouTube!

Discussion: Food and Democracy (3PM – 4PM EST)

This discussion focused on Frances Moore Lappe’s bestselling book, Diet for a Small Planet that was published in 1971. This book taught America the social and personal significance of a new way of eating. Today, it remains just as relevant, exploring such critical themes as the connection between food and democracy.

Frances explain the journey that brought her towards advocating for food democracy. She explains that there are 3 conditions proven to bring out the worst in society:

  1. Concentrated Power
  2. Lack of Transparency ie. secrecy
  3. Blaming “the other”

In 2021, we are experiencing all three of these conditions. For humans, believing is seeing and has unfortunately caused us to have ‘Scarcity Mind”. This is fear driven and fear stoking. And it’s causing separateness, status and scarcity. The private power that drives public decision making is driving us into a spiral of powerlessness. There are 3 essential human needs that are denied in Scarcity Mind:

  1. Power
  2. Meaning
  3. Connection

Conclusion: Even the root meaning of “companion” means “with bread”. Food has always been linked to community & culture! Luckily, humans have neuroplasticity – which allows new thoughts to create new minds. Through advocacy, research and devotion we can all work together to create a sustainable future.

Join TexasRealFood during the upcoming days as we continue to navigate our journey through the 2021 Oxford Real Food Conference. The abundant material allows us to dig deeper into the questions we have about regenerative farming, sustainable food practices and the future of our agriculture industries!

To learn more, please visit: https://orfc.org.uk/ 


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