Harmony in Food & Farming

Phil Moore - Permaculture People
Tuesday, 18th July 2017

A review of 'Harmony in Food & Farming' conference this summer. With speakers such as Tony Juniper, Huw Richards, Helen Browning and more.

Harmony in Food & Farming, a two day conference organised by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), explored the theme of Nature’s grammar. Inspired by the book Harmony: A new of way of looking at our world by Charles Windsor with co-authors Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly, the conference explored the ideas around Nature’s grammar - cycles, diversity, beauty - through the lens of farming and food. The philosophy of Harmony stands in contrast to the prevailing ‘modernist’ view - a reductionist perspective that leads to a fragmented, compartmentalised account of the world. (See a review here: www.theecologist.org/reviews/books/638837/harmony_a_new_way_of_looking_at_our_world.html) 

As Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said in his opening plenary of the two days “will be standing in front of questions in a state of inquiry, exploring together the ways in which the laws and principles of Harmony are affecting the processes of Nature, in relation to the production of vital, healthy food.”

And in the spirit of exploration the days were filled with wise words, with panel sessions boasting speakers with rich and varied experiences. Alongside this it was very pleasing to see the care and pride in the food. The meals were delicious. Sourced locally and prepared lovingly, the seasonal ingredients were worthy of their own booklet ‘The Harmony Supper: A short culinary walk through West Wales’ included in the welcome pack.

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© Steph French

Crisis? What crisis?

The book Harmony proposes that many of the current problems we face as a species are due to a crisis of perception; the ‘environmental crisis’ and ‘economic crisis’ are one and the same. Central to the book’s proposition is that if we continue to deny the “profound, ancient, intimate relationship with Nature”, heralded by the age of ‘modernism’, then fragmentation and disharmony will continue. Reminded of a definition of permaculture I had heard as a “re-remembering,” whereby an appreciation of wisdom old and new brought together in a novel synthesis can move us forward, many of the ideas and concepts struck a familiar cord. Notes played by the language of permaculture itself. I recalled an excellent Permaculture Podcast episode with Scott Mann and his wide-roving conversation with David Jacke, teacher and author, along with Eric Toensmeier, of Edible Forest Gardens, a magnum opus of perennial agriculture. [www.edibleforestgardens.com] [www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/2013/dave-jacke/]

Riffing on the need for us all to be more self-reflective, Jacke came to this idea through seeing a pattern in his educational work. Instead of bashing his students over the head at the beginning of a design course with the woes and ills of our times, he would ask “What brought you here?”. Listing the motivations he would sort the ‘effect’ and ‘cause’ of what initially attracted his students to learn about permaculture and repeatedly the words ‘alienation’, ‘disconnection’ and ‘separation’ would appear. A sentiment perhaps more common than readily admitted and a feeling when voiced often denounced as new-age or niche namby-pamby prattle. As Jacke says in the podcast: “Because we believe we are separate from nature - that mind is separate from body - our whole culture and structure of our language is based on the idea of separation. And if we don’t deal with that issue we’re going to recreate the problems which we have.”

Nature’s Grammar

It was with these thoughts that I was keen to see what offerings and insights the conference would throw up. Huw Richards, head boy at Llandovery College, where the conference was held, reminded us in his brief opening to proceedings that food connects us all. Huw also happens to be a prolific Youtube vlogger (www.youtube.com/user/HuwsNursery) uploading thoughts and tips on all things local food and sustainability. His videos and work have been featured in issue 90 of the magazine (www.permaculture.co.uk/back-issues).

The keynote by Charles Windsor emphasised his concerns with the natural world and our disconnection from Nature. His inquiry into Harmony - drawing upon ancient ideas and wisdom - was borne from an increased unease at how the modern world was progressing. Convinced ‘business as usual’ is no longer tenable he spoke of “having to bounce forward by looking at the past, and the world’s sacred traditions. Not separating traditions but combining them,” to help us steer a more sane course. 

Tony Juniper, campaigner, writer, and sustainability advisor, spoke of the “fundamental dependencies” we ignore at our peril. In biz-speak these dependencies are ‘ecosystem services’ (a term I thoroughly dislike and which sullies the enchantment and mystery of the natural world which we all ultimately depend upon). And it was this point that Juniper urged us to remember - everything is interconnected. Providing stories from the front lines of science, Juniper spoke about how data “reveals the hidden values underlying Harmony”. That is, the interconnectedness of things which has been side-lined by the reductionist approach. As a subtitle of one of his books rhetorically remarks, ‘how money really does grow on trees’ - a pithy reminder that we are all subject to the laws of the natural world and that our economies are fundamentally based on our ecosystems. 

Emphasising our collective ‘crisis of perception’ he shared his concerns at the “utter insanity” of soil loss, the invaluable work of pollinators in ecosystems and stories about the preciousness of water. Arguing that we need to start measuring the natural world more fairly, the thrust of Juniper’s brief address is that everything is connected. It’s that simple, and that profound. And so on to the sessions exploring how Harmony principles impact the worlds of food and farming.

Farm as Ecosystem

The ever jubilant, yet hard-nosed, Lawrence Woodward, wonderfully chaired the session exploring the farm and the wider world. Noting that the word ‘ecosystem’ was coined in 1935, Woodward asked where do the principles and dynamics of sustainable, organic approaches fit in with the real world where farmers are under pressure to provide. Faced with conflicts in management short cuts, can, and do happen. 

Helen Browning, Chief Executive of the Soil Association, questioned the idea of a farm and asked if we need to re-frame the farm, rather than subjecting nature to how we want it to be. Noting her increasing interest in Permaculture and Agroforestry, she asked if there are ways we can harvest nature better. Tireless communicator and passionate green manure guru, Ian Wilkinson, walked us through his farm, which he and his wife have set to transform. In 2014 the land was spring barley monoculture which Ian noted, “offers nothing to an ecosystem”. Twelve months of observation, key changes and learnings along the way, the bird species in 2014 was 44 and now, in 2017, is 74.  

Eating is an Agricultural Act

Farming for yield or farming for diversity (and interest), panellist Bronwen Percival, cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy, spoke eloquently of how “we can taste the flavour of good farming through cheese”. Our changing attitudes to microbes (the beneficial ones, that is!) is reaffirming an appreciation for artisanal cheese making. Microbial cultures and farming cultures - trusting in nature’s way. 

Diets and Health

Continuing the theme, Dr. Martin Scurr, GP and medical columnist, moderated a panel looking at the connections between food and heath, quipping that “soil is the micro-biome of agriculture”. Graham Harvey, agricultural advisor to The Archers, decrying the parlous state of agriculture and the catastrophe fallen on the countryside called for us to “‘re-wild’ our agricultural land”. And perhaps most interestingly, were some of the cases and findings reported by Prof. Aruni Bhatnagar whose idea of ‘environmental cardiology’ explored how the spheres of the natural environment and social environment play out in the experience of cardiovascular disease. Research shows that areas with poor air quality and lots of busy streets also have a higher risk of heart disease. Adding more trees, it’s hypothesised, will help to lower heart disease. 

Biodynamic Agriculture

Knowing next to nothing about Biodynamics I was interested to hear from the panel about the role of Biodynamics and its relationship to the Harmony philosophy. My understanding is that Biodynamic agriculture considers the farm as a living, evolving organism. Each part of the system - the soil, the plants, and animals - is part of an interdependent whole. One of the speakers, Ueli Hurter from Switzerland, spoke of soil as the “respiratory organ of the Earth”. In practice, I understand biodynamic agriculture to include planting with the cycle of the moon, taking its lead on when to sow seed, transplant and harvest and when to work with leaf plants, roots or flowers dependent on how the water is moving through the plant at that particular day and time. Ed Berger of the wonderful project Ruskin Mill, near Birmingham, noted that people into ‘alt ag' are often drawn to it from a sense of disharmony. A common thread leading people to question that feeling of unease, and steering many toward ideas in permaculture, organics and the many expressions of more joined-up, ecological thinking.

Peter Brown of Tablehurst Farm in Sussex, and founder of the Seed Co-operative, noted that while employing around 25 people at Tablehurst (a farm of roughly 700 acres), his neighbour, with a similar sized area, employs one. Noting the changes he’s seen in agriculture over the years, Brown said: “It’s not just farmers who are responsible for the land - we all are. We all eat.” The vivacious Alex Valsechhi, an Italian who found herself in Surrey after many years in the UK, spoke charmingly about viticulture and bringing wine to England. Letting nature take ‘her’ course, working with the grain of nature, Valsechhi proudly spoke of her vineyards and that letting the vines, the main crop, thrive amongst everything else meant there was room for beneficial insects, a greater diversity of plants and better care for the soil. With extensive experience and travels in New Zealand she showed us an example of sheep grazing amongst vines. A trip to Albury Organic Vineyard in the North downs of Surrey Hills, where Alex Valsecchi manages the vineyard, is in order! Moderator Thomas Harttung, farmer and SFT chair, reflected that perhaps biodynamics helps us shift from an ‘egocentric’ to ‘anthropocentric’ world-view. Rather than humans being at the centre and above all living things, we perhaps need to appreciate our role, and responsibility, and recognise it as central to a healthy, functioning farm-as-organism system.  

Carbon Based Lifeforms

Agriculture’s role in re-balancing the carbon cycle was explored by three long-standing practionners in the organice movement. Craig Sams of Carbon Gold (and founder of Green & Blacks, who, interestingly worked with Christopher Nesbitt of the Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize), Peter Segger of the long standing and well respected Blaencamel Farm, and Richard Young, policy wonk and stats boff at the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), who farms, alongside his sister, Rosamund Young (author), on 390 acres in the Cotswold.

Each of their excellent presentations put the case forward for an urgent need to re-frame the carbon cycle that is so out of whack.

Sams quoted the UN who have claimed we only have 60 years of soil left. He passionatley implored the need to stop burning food (as biodiesel i.e. ethanol) and how burning wood is worse than burning coal. An answer to the disharmonious carbon cycle would be the use of biochar.

Young reminded us that carbon is indeed the basis of all life. In the UK, 71% of land is grassland and so many of the answers lie in managing it properly. If all grassland was ploughed to pursue conventional, industrial agriculture it would spur a carbon catastrophe. He noted that in the last 50 years there’s been a shift (in the UK) from all dietary fats deriving from animals to much of it now in the form of palm and other vegetable oils. The consequences of carbon farming being disastrous.

Peter Segger of the respected Blaencamel Farm emphasised that it’s all about the soil. Working their organic farm for over 30 years, compost has been central to re-vitalising the land and creating a carbon negative footprint. He mentioned that globally we have potential to feed everybody but currently we don’t have the right diet.

On the real cost of food and the carbon cycle Sams said that, “As long as we allow industrial farming to externalise the cost of global warming then we will lose the price argument. We need to make industrial farming pay the price.” 

Everything is connected

A heady two days of ideas and conversation, with excellent food sourced locally the conference ended with a series of field trips. Participants had the choice of travelling to Strata Florida Abbey, the site of a former Cistercian monastery; Troed y Rhiw Farm, where Alicia Miller, freelance writer and editor for the SFT, runs the farm with her partner; Holden Farm Dairy, home and farm of SFT’s chief executive Patrick Holden; and, Blaencamel Farm, a pioneer in the organic movement run by Peter and Anne Segger. We attended Blaencamel on a truly wet West Wales afternoon. Despite the drizzle it was wonderful to see some of the workings of a 50 acre organic farm that focuses on vegetable production all year round to supply markets across Wales. Peter spoke passionately about thermophylic composting – a real focus for them in ensuring they are adding carbon and nutrients into the soil rather than taking it away.

An excellent conference that pitched philosophical ruminations with delicious meals and field trips, I sincerely hope the Harmony continues. 

To find out more about the Sustainable Food Trust, organisers of the Harmony in Food & Farming conference please visit: http://sustainablefoodtrust.org

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Permaculture communicator, blogger and contributor to Permaculture magazine, Phil Moore is also one half of the communications team for the Ecological Land Co-operative. He tweets at @permapeople & @ecolandcoop

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