As an agency, we continually look for changemakers who are doing good for both people and planet. As we expand our experience in the agricultural sector, we interviewed FarmED, a food and farming education centre in Oxfordshire who are on a mission to revolutionise the way we farm.
GOOD FOOD AND GOOD FARMING: AN INTERVIEW WITH Farm-ED
Can you tell us about FarmED and how it all came about?
FarmED was born a decade ago in an attempt to engage a wider audience in a conversation around good farming practices.
One of the most important things we can do in relation to human, animal and planetary health is to choose our food from farming systems that increase biodiversity, protect water courses, and grow food in ways that can reverse climate change by locking carbon into the soil and improving soil health, whilst producing the best nutrient dense foods possible.
Most of us are unaware that the food we eat determines how farming is practised. Every single mouthful of food we consume has an affect on the very look of the countryside. The importance of soil and the health of that soil is paramount to the health and nutritional values of the foods that we grow. Farmers are literally the first rung on the ladder to the health of the entire nation. Good health from nutritionally dense whole foods begins from seeds sown into a healthy, resilient soil. Not all soils are equal, many are degraded and of very poor quality. Some are literally being washed away into our rivers and seas. In history there are many examples of nations dying out due to the loss of fertility in their soils. It is these gaps in knowledge that led to us creating FarmED.
At the centre of what you do is education. Why is education in agriculture so important to you?
Education and knowledge exchange are at the heart of everything we do at FarmED. Most people in Britain live in urban settings and have little if any connection with the source of the food we eat or indeed the natural world with all of its wonders and mysteries. We have children visiting the farm who have never seen a sheep in real life, or those who think chickens lay 6 eggs a day as that’s how they have seen them on supermarket shelves! We have adults who are thrilled at the sight of deer and hares on the farm, even the very common to us cock pheasants. Plenty of adults are intrigued to learn that cows need to birth a calf before they produce milk, as do sheep and goats, many children are unaware that cheese is made from milk.
Numerous farmers themselves have come to realise that the age of industrialised farming that has swept through the world since WW2 has caused numerous problems unforeseen 60 years ago. This has led to many becoming reliant on an ever increasing need for chemical solutions to crop pests, diseases and soil fertility issues – all fossil fuel based industries.This in addition to the almost total loss of British wildflower meadows and traditional orchards as well as depleted hedgerows and fresh water ponds that are vital components to a healthy, functioning farmland ecosystem. All of these factors have resulted in the current day devastating decline of many insect species crucial to a balanced ecosystem, with farmland birds fairing equally badly. Farmed animals themselves have been disappearing from the landscape in this same time frame as the inexorable growth of factory farms has spread across the world. 73% of the U.K’s farmed animals are housed in factory farms with all of the associated problems of welfare issues, antibiotic resistance and deforestation taking place to grow grains, including soya needed to feed these billions of confined animals every year. World wide, two thirds of farm animals are factory farmed equating to 50 billion animals.
We aim to promote regenerative farming practices in many different ways to not just the farmers and landowners that we host on the farm, but to every visitor who eats! Our cafe serves freshly harvested produce from our kitchen garden, visitors can see the food in the ground and gain an understanding of what local, seasonal eating looks like in Britain. There are times of plenty and leaner times in the autumn/winter months, commonly known as the hungry gap when inventive cooks come into their own! In the spring and summer months visitors can see the heritage wheat growing and enjoy the bread and cakes in the cafe made from the flour that is milled just down the road from us. The small herd of milking cows on the farm provide the freshest of milk to the cafe and visitors are informed of the principles of the micro dairy whereby the calves are kept with their mothers and continue feeding from them for many months until a process of quiet weaning is instigated later in the year.
At Marble we believe live experience is at the heart of shared human connection, so it was amazing to see the events you run throughout the year. What’s the main aim of these events and who are you targeting?
We aim to inspire and for people to leave the farm with a renewed interest in the way in which food is produced on farms in Britain and worldwide. Our audience is everyone – the youngest of school children, college and university students, landowners, farmers, politicians, policy makers, environmentalists, ecologists, large corporations, our local community as well as the general population with their vast range of interests. Our programme of courses and events is varied, and range from guided farm walks and talks, film nights, book launches, easy to access farm to fork experiences, hands on soil health days, muddy boots market gardening courses, beekeeping events, and deep dive science led courses for professional growers and foodies.
We’re seeing renewed passion for agriculture and farming with the clients we’re working with at the moment. Are you also seeing an increased interest? What do you think is causing this?
74% of the UK is farmed, and it is encouraging that more and more people are becoming interested in the impact food production might be having on the natural world and on the availability of basic foods. Climate change awareness, animal welfare issues, and the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture across the natural world seem to have spurred many individuals to reassess the food choices they are making and to seek out information and education. Most recently, the pandemic, war in Ukraine as well as climate change have all reminded us of our vulnerability to food insecurity. One solution to this is a varied and localised food system that is more robust.
What has Farm ED accomplished so far?
We have spent several years slowly developing the site as it stands today. We have had groups visiting the farm since 2013 even before we had any facilities. On completion of our buildings last summer we were officially opened by HRH The Prince of Wales. With all the difficulties of Covid restrictions we had some challenging times, but as things improved last year, we saw annual visitors rise and this year we are planning for 20,000. We do not plan to increase beyond this in order to preserve the tranquillity that is FarmED! We know that the farmers that visit represent millions of acres between them and the connections that we make with supply chains, cooks, journalists, academics and students all add up together to make an impact. What is most important though is smallness. Every visit to FarmED starts with the smallness of soil, plants and animals.
You’re planning on expanding into agroforestry and composting in 2022 – what will this involve? Why is it important?
Farming is always evolving with fresh new ideas. Currently, one of these is the growing of trees within the farmed landscape. In their various forms trees have the ability to provide habitats and food sources for birds and insects as well as storing carbon which encourages diverse and robust soil life. Trees also provide shelter and browsing opportunities for farm animals and fruit and nuts for human consumption. They are also beautiful to behold in the landscape!
Our farm is relatively small at 107 acres but we have recently planted 20,000 native trees in alleys on either side of our demonstration rotational grazing fields, along with a number of shelter belts. There is some evidence that the shelter provided by these tree lines can improve crop yields and they will be of enormous benefit to our micro dairy herd of cows and calves and our sheep once the trees are fully grown. In addition we have a very diverse heritage fruit orchard and our kitchen garden plot includes fruit trees integrated into lines of vegetables as another example of the types of agroforestry chosen to suit different uses.
Composting is an excellent way for gardeners and homeowners as well as farmers to turn waste products that might otherwise go into landfill into a soil improving resource. There are many different systems available from small backdoor compost turners to the massive piles managed on an industrial level.
Are there any tips you can share which you have learnt along the way from agriculture & farming, which might help the ‘everyday person’ be more carbon neutral or sustainable?
Food choice is a complex issue and alternative choices to the big supermarkets in urban areas can prove challenging.
Buying British produce would be a great place to start. Questioning not just where the food you are buying comes from, but asking for more detail about the farming system from which that food is produced could be useful to create a groundswell of demand for change. Price will be a major concern for many people, but where possible choosing outdoor reared, pasture fed British meat, dairy and egg products could create a new demand for many more higher welfare pasture fed animals in the landscape enhancing their lives and the very look of the countryside. Grazing animals are a very important source for building organic matter in soils with the resulting improved carbon storing capacity of such soils. This reduces the need for carbon emitting fertilisers.
Local markets can be useful sources of fresh, affordable foodstuffs with the added benefit of less packaging. Zero waste shops are springing up in many towns and cities. Growing a little bit of produce at home where possible is a nice thing to do, even if just a couple of tomato plants on a balcony. Urban gardens can be life savers to many insects, pollinators and other wildlife. Choosing bee friendly plants, planting a fruit tree, (there are small varieties available), leaving lawns to grow allowing wild flowers to thrive or even turning lawns into veg patches can all add to the habitats that help our wild creatures to flourish in addition to enjoying some home grown produce.
Massive thank you to Ian and Celene from FarmED, who are spreading such an important message with fervour and passion. If you want to talk to us about an upcoming sustainability or agricultural project, please get in touch. You can also read our sustainability policy here.