Tony Little, farming consultant and member of the Organic Growers’ Alliance, shares his reflections on the first Wales Real Food and Farming Conference.

Earlier in the year, in the wake of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, a small group of Welsh producers and food activists got together to discuss a ‘real’ food and farming conference for Wales. They sensed a need for an event with a clear Welsh focus; a conference that recognised Wales’ own unique set of circumstances, culture, language and policies.

Colin Tudge addresses the conference (image Jeremy Moore)

They were right. It sold out weeks in advance, and on 11th November the inaugural Wales Real Food and Farming Conference opened its doors to a capacity crowd. It was fitting that Colin Tudge, known to many of us as the co-founder of both the Campaign for Real Farming and of course the Oxford Real Farming Conference itself, opened proceedings. He touched on many of the problems we face; the dysfunctionality of industrial farming and a food system failing in its primary purpose to make healthy, nutritious food available to everyone. Themes we are all by now very familiar with. But to me his key point was that our food and farming system not broken; it is dislocated. To large extent this conference was about realigning the different parts of the system in a way such that it actually works; for the environment, for producers and for communities. Now and in the future. Workshop titles such as ‘Feeding Wales’, ‘The future of rural communities’, ‘Farming and growing for healthy diets’, ‘Building a food movement in Wales’ and ‘Joining the dots of food policy’ neatly encapsulate the thrust of the conference.

So, for me it was less an opportunity to learn about the technical aspects of growing, and more a space to think strategically about horticulture – organic horticulture in particular – in Wales. Amber Wheeler, who recently completed her PhD, compared our current production levels to our requirement for fruit and vegetables based on a ‘5 a day’ diet. The figures are not in the least surprising, but no less startling for that. Wales needs about 650,000 t/year to satisfy its ‘5 a day’ requirement which in turn would need about 2% of the land sown to crops. The latter figure stands at less than 0.1%. We can debate the complexities (of which there are many!) but the overall conclusion is inescapable – our production is paltry next to our requirements.

I would argue the issue is not that Wales can’t produce – we have many fantastic growers that shatter that myth – but that it can’t produce economically within the context of a large-scale centralised food system. We simply don’t have the infrastructure, the kit, the processing facilities and much else besides. The key is in small to medium scale production for local markets. This was the theme running through so many of the workshops throughout the conference. Public procurement has a massive role to play. Local government has enormous purchasing power and could be in position to offer the sort of security that new growers would need to enter the market, and existing growers need to expand. Furthermore, they can use that power to support the production systems that the Welsh Government says it wants (see the Organic Growers’s Association response to that), and that includes organic. That would require a sea change in how food is procured. There are good reasons – to do with price, product range and delivery requirements – why growers are not currently queuing round the block for these contracts, but sea changes are exactly what the conference was all about.

Closing discussions. Image Steven Jacobs

If the purpose of the conference was to bring people in Wales together around a common theme of developing a sustainable food and farming system for Wales then it was unquestionably successful. It attracted a wide range of people, including farmers and growers, supply chain businesses, policy makers, food activists and advisors. What came out at the end was a commitment and desire to work more closely together and a proposal for a co-ordinated ‘real food and farming’ campaign that could turn that into action. I look forward to reporting on where we’ve got to after next year’s conference!

The Organic Growers’ Alliance is a peer-to-peer support network for growers, farmers and horticulturalists. See Main image: Organic Growers Alliance.