Come play with us at Hay
Molly Conisbee - 19 April 2012
Soil Association is going to be doing a couple of events at the Hay Festival this year – do come and join us if you happen to be there on 3 or 4 June. We’re going to be discussing how cities can feed themselves (with Andrew Simms from nef and Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City); then President Monty Don will lead us in a discussion called (a bit flowery, but from the EF Schumacher quote) Health, Beauty, Permanence: What is farming for?
Working with the Stakhanovite output of the Hay festival organisers (they juggle, they tweak, they are dreamily helpful) we turned the content ideas around pretty quickly. But it did get me ruminating how little space in the public realm we actually dedicate to thinking about the ‘what farming is for’ issue. Of course, primarily it is to produce food to feed ourselves, but is it right to think of farming as an ‘industry’, subject to fluctuations, speculation and other contingencies? Given farmers’ other key role as stewards of the landscape and environment, how do we manage the balance between food productivity and care of wildlife and the environment? And why are these issues of such limited public debate and interest?
One very culturally-specific challenge for the UK is how divorced we have become from the means of (food) production. I’m not sure what the origin of the study is, but I read that apparently you have to go back several generations in the average British family tree to reach a farming connection, unlike almost anywhere else in the world. We’re not taught, trained or encouraged to think about food production in this country, and for most of us the debate is mediated through discussions about (rising) food costs and supermarket competition.
Although we have experienced something of a food revolution (when my grandfather came to this country as a refugee in the 1930s, he was shocked that yoghurt and proper coffee were rarer than hen’s teeth over here, now farmers' markets and delis flourish almost everywhere) I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe it has travelled very far beyond the economically privileged. So the challenge for organisations like ours has to be to broaden a debate beyond means of production to issues of social inequality. What if we thought of farming as a ‘public good’, or something so fundamentally important to a nation’s health, wellbeing and environment, that farmers were supported as linchpins in all of those spheres? Farms as sites of public interest, concern and support, because their economic and social role was so respected? I can’t predict what the debate will throw up in June – but framing it certainly has got me thinking about our somewhat divided view about this hugely important part of our economy and society, and where we go from here.
Molly is our director of external relations and has worked at the Soil Association since 2008. She joined team Soil from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, where she was director of communications and before that she did time with the new economics foundation, the Association of London Government and the Labour Party among others. When not campaigning and communicating, Molly enjoys cooking, reading and fine wine, and looking after her Jack Russell, Caz.