Helen Browning - 11 October 2013
The last two days has brought into sharp relief the challenges, tensions and opportunities we face as a movement, and as an organisation. We saw so clearly, on the first day, the huge benefits of our 'good food for all' work that embraces a wider public, that starts with us listening and seeking to understand, and helping with the baby steps. Of working in partnership, of occasionally having to bite our tongue, of having our eyes opened to some realities that don’t fit with our relatively privileged experience or view of how the world should work.
But my overwhelming emotions were firstly of pride, to be involved with an organisation which is now clearly seen by so many as the key solution provider in food and health, and secondly, of the tremendous responsibility we have, to continue to innovate, evaluate and deliver with real professionalism the programmes and tools that are changing people's lives for the better, such as our Food For Life Partnership.
Our 'good food for all' day was also remarkable for the diversity of the delegates, many, probably most, of which had never been to a Soil Association conference before. And for the lack of 'baggage'; these were people unencumbered by prior involvement in our struggles to find the right balance between our desire to fundamentally transform our food system, and indeed our world, and the need to start where people actually are today.
But Cal Shaw, a head teacher from a school in one of the most deprived wards in the country really brought home for me how incredibly worthwhile this struggle to find the right balance has been, when she casually mentioned in her very moving talk that the children at her school were now eating 40% organic food, every lunchtime. Could we have dared to imagine that such a thing was possible 10 years ago when the Food For Life Partnership was little more than a few sheets of A4 paper?
On day two, when we explored the potential for grassroots innovation in farming and land use, the tensions were in starker contrast, understandably so. While the first session of the day, on social innovation and what we can learn from other sectors, was eye and mind opening, (with an especially brilliant intro to the subject from Mathew Taylor, CEO of the RSA) once we got near to the specifics of what constitutes 'good' innovation, in the ‘What can organic and non-organic farmers learn from each other’ session, the eyebrows and more started to rise.
For me, this was sparked by Heather Wildman, whose tale of endeavour had as the 'hero' a guy for whom success was setting up countless 800 cow dairy herds across South America, and who casually commended Nocton as an exemplar. Ed Goff challenged from the floor, both to Heather and Adam Quinney from the NFU, but would have remained frustrated by the response, or lack of it.
Tom MacMillan’s line on this felt along the right lines to me. That in some areas, such as grassland farming, we have a great deal of cross fertilisation potential, with loads of non-organic farmers doing brilliant stuff. But when we get into more industrial areas, like poultry or indoor dairy, the opportunities to find common ground or mutual benefit are pretty minimal. There remains a real challenge over how we can work collaboratively and share knowledge with all interested farmers, and at the same time remain appropriately critical of the kind of developments that are completely at odds with our values. Not easy, but essential.
Most inspirational of all for me, was Stephen Briggs on agro-forestry, 'cropping the extra dimension' and the innovation awards themselves. 12 great presentations, almost all of them worthy winners, and while the two minute presentation requirement, elegantly enforced by our fantastic host for the day, Farming Today’s Charlotte Smith, brought drama and humour to proceedings, I wanted to hear more and have a chance to quiz them, Dragons Den style!
It was in the end a close run thing, with a tie breaker panel required, but maybe appropriate, given that all the farmers there were going home to plant more trees, that the winner was the bio-degradable tree guard. Finding much favour in the room too, were all innovations that supported better communication, either between farmers (agri-chat) or with consumers (the ‘where does it come from’ app; the FarmDrop scheme). Given that the key message from the day for me was that the key more often lies in relationships and knowledge than it does in technological advances, this felt more than right.
Finally, those who were at the AGM had the most spine tingling moment of the two days, from our President and great host for day one, Monty Don. He reconciled it all for me; the need to reaffirm our core mission with the organic principles at our heart, to protect and unearth the potential of our soils worldwide, as the most important action we can take; and his affirmation, alongside this, of our responsibility to engage and work with all the communities that we can reach, as we are doing through Food for Life and our work with empathetic non-organic farmers. We can and must do both, though it will never be easy!
Listen to Monty's speech...
Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.