Real Farming and Seed Exchange: Making Connections and Sowing Change

Photos © Ingrid Pullen


Though we are less than three months into 2015, already the year has seen some momentous occasions in the sphere of changing attitudes towards food and agriculture. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (1) has designated this year the ‘Year of Soils’ (2): a positive sign, perhaps, that soil is becoming recognised by international organisations, although the time designation does seem to beg the question of whether or not they plan to continue caring for soils next year as well.

New ways becoming more popular?

The ‘Year of Soils’ at least shows that soil-care is permeating into ‘mainstream’ thinking; even governments and corporations are recognising that when we care for our natural systems, it’s better for everyone. Some current examples of people coming together to do this are the International Conference on Natural Resource Management for Food and Rural Livelihoods (3), which is being held in New Delhi, India, this week and is sponsored by the Indian government; and next month’s International Ecological Forum (4) in Marbella, Spain which will bring together “entrepreneurs, government officials, top managers of banks, state corporations [and] international investors” to:

“examine the components of creating the sustainable agriculture, to demonstrate the experience of the sustainable development and its advantages …to discuss resource-saving technologies and prospects of cooperation between national economies, etc” – International Ecological Forum (Intereco), 2015 (4).

Along with such official conferences are exciting more local events, two of which I have been involved in over the past month in the UK which are a key part of many British growers’ calendars: the Oxford Real Farming Conference (5) in Oxford, held on January 6th and 7th, and the UK’s largest seed swap Seedy Sunday (6) (7), held on 1st February in Brighton. Below I shall discuss the highlights of these events, and why they are important in our global society.

Why Real?

Every January for the past six years, the historical university town of Oxford has been host to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (5) or ORFC, a two-day event bringing together small and large-scale producers, community growers, researchers, campaigners and more: basically, anyone interested or involved in working on the land in a holistic and considerate way. The idea of “real” farming is simply farming which actually produces real results: where the energy put in does not exceed what comes out, and where the products are actual foodstuffs or other live things, rather than those which are chemical-filled or processed. The name ‘Real Farming’ has been defined by the co-founder of the conference and of the Campaign for Real Farming (8) Colin Tudge as:

“Farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone everywhere with food of the highest quality, forever, without wrecking the rest of the world.” – Tudge, C, 2015 (8)

The Campaign for Real Farming’s method is stated as ‘agro-ecology’ (8), yet the Conference recognises that this can include many other named systems of regenerative or holistic agriculture which share these aims. That interest in such things is growing is shown by the fact that this year was the largest ORFC yet, with more than 550 delegates, including representation from growing using the following methods:

  • Organic e.g. Rachel Harries and Ben Raskin from the Soil Association (9)
  • Biodynamic e.g. Peter Brown from the Biodynamic Association (10) and the Biodynamic Plant Breeders’ Seed Co-operative (11)
  • Permaculture e.g. Andy Goldring, director of the Permaculture Association UK (12)
  • Agro-ecology e.g. tutors and scholars from the Centre for Agro-ecology, Water and Resilience (13)
  • the Soil Food Web e.g. Dr Elaine Ingham from Soil Food Web Inc (14)
  • Open-pollination and seed saving e.g. Kate McEvoy from Real Seeds (15)

The above list is not exhaustive and it seemed from the many discussions which I attended that the number of farming methods used are the same as the number of people there; the only limit appearing to be one’s imagination.

Alternative or just new way?

Part of the reason the Conference is held in Oxford is that for the past sixty years or so the city has been the headquarters of the Oxford Farming Conference (16), two of whose main patrons (17) this year were BASF Chemicals (18) and Bayer CropScience (19), both large chemical corporations, BASF being the largest producer of chemicals in the world (18). Colin Tudge, along with co-founders Graham Harvey and Ruth West, developed the ORFC partly to present an alternative to the kind of farming which relies so heavily on chemical corporations. However, they make it clear that the ORFC’s aim is

“not not to attack the status quo but to look ahead ― to ask what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done” – ORFC, 2015 (5)

Indeed, the Conference has grown so large that this year the venue chosen was the Oxford Town Hall; suggesting that far from them fighting the status quo, the status quo itself (or at least part of it) is shifting towards acceptance of such ideas and movements.

Why is farming important anyway?

The conference was divided into four ‘strands’: ‘Digging Deep’, ‘Farming Outside the Box’, ‘New generation, New Ideas’ and ‘Nuts and Bolts’.

‘Digging Deep’ (20) is a recognition of our need to look at farming not just in relation to farmers, but in relation to everything which it affects and which is affected by it: consumers, health, wildlife, ecosystems and community structures. Since this encompasses most of human existence there were many speakers urging the need to create links and connections; such as the Conference itself is doing, and well-researched evidence for a need for change to more sustainable food, wildlife conservation and health systems such as those presented by the authors of the Square Meal l Report (21).

Both the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ and ‘Farming Outside the Box’ strands focussed on practical steps to making your project more sustainable, with workshops such as a how-to on analysing soil samples, and working examples of farming in a different way without losing out financially such as the Pasture Power advocated by, among others, author of ‘Farmageddon’ and head of Compassion in World Farming (22) Philip Lymbery.

One of the most interesting strands for me in terms of finding really innovative ways to relate to growing was the ‘New Generation, New Ideas’ (23), most of which was hosted in the Landworkers’ Alliance (24) room. Amongst the lively talks were a discussion on seed saving, why it is important and how laws and regulations in Europe can inhibit the preservation of stable and adaptable plant varieties. Such things should not get in the way of creating resilient networks of people who have the skills and capacity to save and exchange seeds, of which there are a number in the UK, such as the Biodynamic Plant Breeder’s and Seed saver’s Co-operative (11) and the newly set up South West Seed Saver’s Co-operative (25). Links to other groups are important too, such as European equivalents Semence Paysanne (26) in France and Red Andaluza de Semmilas (27) in Southern Spain. Though it is probably impractical to exchange seeds across such distances, and with such differing climates, communication between such groups remains key as we can share knowledge, skills and resources.

Many delegates recognised the need for land working to become more popular once more and indeed the willingness of people to get back on the land; for example, the Soil Association, who do apprenticeships in organic growing, currently have upwards of 700 applicants for the various schemes of which a handful are currently being accommodated (28). In Britain, the proportion of farmers who are under the age of 35 is just 5% (29); while 1% of the population own 70% of the land (30). Yet there are people out there eager to begin growing, and it is recognition of the lack of resources available to first-time farmers that the Landworkers’ Alliance have set up the Groundspring Network (29), aimed at bridging the gap between enthusiasm and desire for a more sustainable lifestyle with knowledge and access to land.

Such networks are key to aiding each other and enabling ourselves to create more energy efficient systems and solutions as,with regular communication, we can share techniques, ideas and skills and thus learn faster. The ORFC is a great facilitator in such networks; as is Seedy Sunday.

Sharing and growing

Seedy Sunday is in many ways very different to the ORFC; while much of the day is devoted to talks and discussions, the main event of the day is the seed swap itself, and this year’s 54 or so stall holders kept the attendees busy with products, campaigns, advice, projects and activities.

Though Seedy Sunday has links with groups such as the South West Seed Saver’s Co-operative the key difference between them and seed exchange events is that Seedy Sunday is aimed at amateur growers; whereas seed saver’s co-operatives necessarily have to involve larger-scale seed saving as they are aimed at helping commercial growers to save their own seeds.

The idea of the timing of Seedy Sunday is for growers to collect all their seeds in time for the beginning of the planting season. for this reason it is always held on the first Sunday of February; a time also known in old English tradition as Imbolc – pronounced “ee-molk” . This is when the balance of light begins gradually growing, as the midpoint between the shortest day of the year – Winter Solstice or Yule – and the Spring Equinox or Oestara, when the hours of day and night are equal (31). This time is seen by many across the whole Northern hemisphere as the beginning of spring, a period when things are just beginning to awaken and the ground starts to warm up.

The English sky was still very wintery-looking, remaining thick-clouded and silver-grey, yet the mood within the large hall of Seedy Sunday seemed to reflect this idea of awakening. The lively atmosphere was certainly infectious, and the friendly aspect of being able to come and personally choose from hundreds of seed packets which have all been individually saved adds to this.

Coming Together

A key issue in creating more sustainable and resilient farming systems which came up at both events was a social one: because we need people to be on board with whatever new ideas we are coming up with, and working with people can be seen as an art form in itself. Some methods which I felt were really fundamentally addressing this were the inclusion of what could be seen as ‘mere’ entertainment at both events. Seedy Sunday hosted an a capella choir who gave us many songs about plants and growing called the A Cabellas, the presence of whom really brought together the already festive atmosphere. The Landworkers’ Alliance organised a ceilidh at the ORFC as well as a folk singer, Robin Grey, who encouraged us to sing along with his songs. The participatory aspect of both these activities (it’s very difficult, in my experience at least, to be present at a ceilidh without dancing) was powerful, and indeed between the first and second day of the conference there appeared to be a noticeable change in how close and friendly people felt with one another; something which probably stemmed at least in part from having spent the night singing and dancing together.

This is not to say that singing and dancing is all we need to do; but it does seem to be important to remember that when there are groups of people coming together, allowing a means of communication and interrelation which goes beyond talking can be very effective in keeping momentum and linking ideas and groups of people. This is something which is perhaps missed in the more ‘official’ gatherings such as the Oxford Farming Conference and the Intereco Forum.

Creating new networks

Seedy Sunday and the Oxford Real Farming Conference are UK-based events, though the ideas behind them are relevant to the rest of the world. In the Southern Hemisphere, the light-balance in the days is just turning towards shortening daytime hours rather than lengthening, and the beginning of February marks the equivalent the celebration of Lammas, the midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, traditionally the start of harvest time (31). So if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, now is the perfect time to begin thinking about saving your own seeds, or if you are not currently growing anything, to find out who knows how to save seeds in your area. You could even discover which wild plants grow in your area that it might be useful to save seeds from and go out foraging; in this way you can collect many localised varieties of things such as beneficial wildflowers and edible salads. For those in the Northern hemisphere, now is the time to begin planting your seeds.

Either way, it is key to remember that networks of help exist all around us, which appear to be growing stronger every day. Both the ORFC and Seedy Sunday this year were the largest yet; and more networks are spreading all the time. One key example is Farmhack (32), an open-source skill and tool-sharing forum for farmers and growers, currently going strong in the USA and Canada and which will be officially launched in April in the UK (33). The Farmhack UK launch will be a two-day event of workshops, demonstrations, and – perhaps crucially – a ceilidh, as well as a fire dancing show (34). In such ways we can bring together our love for sustainable farming and strengthen our abilities to work together happily and cohesively. There are many more examples of such networks around the world; it may be beneficial for you to find your nearest one, or if you do not have one in your area, maybe you can be part of its creation.


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Charlotte Ashwanden

Charlotte Ashwanden (nee Haworth). Born in London, I am very interested in peace and community and have a degree in Peace Studies. I got my Permaculture Design Certificate in 2011, from Treeyo at Permaship in Bulgaria, and my Permaculture Teaching Certificate in 2018 at Aranya in India. For me, permaculture is about so much more than garden design; I am mainly interested in applying ‘human permaculture’ as a complement to peace practices. In particular, I like to look at how human permaculture can be applied through psychology, communication and education techniques. In 2015 I got married in a pagan ceremony in a field to David Ashwanden and changed my surname to Ashwanden. With my husband, I’ve travelled a lot in Europe and Asia and encountered many permaculture and community projects. I have lived in various situations, from squatted land to intentional communities, as well as more ‘normal’ places, in the UK, Spain, Italy, Thailand and Vietnam. A professional dancer, I do fire and hula dance and sometimes run dance meditation workshops. Currently, I live in the Andalucian mountains.

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