What has 2020 taught you?

As we get closer to this year’s Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (16-19 November) that is one of the questions that keeps coming up. 

The replies we have received will be examined in fine detail in two weeks’ time.  But, spoiler alert, the message coming back is clear – diversity brings strength, and collaboration is key.  Or in other words, food systems with inbuilt elasticity can continue to function even within a range of dramatically different conditions. 

To reflect on the past eight months

The priority at the time of the March lockdown was to ease the burden on our health system.  Our food system, on the other hand, buckled under the weight of a nation suddenly all eating in. 

During lockdown the large volume and low-profit-margin supply chains took a battering.  And shoppers saw, for most of us for the first time in our lives, gaps on supermarket shelves.  Vistas of extended ranks of shelves stocked to bursting with food from all over the world were suddenly a memory.  And that lack, that insufficiency, was a very sober notice to us all that a just-in-time food system is inherently unstable. 

For food businesses that operate on a somewhat smaller scale than the large multiple retailer chains, the summer lockdown was also a difficult time.  But it was an enlightening time too, and, for some, it has been a boom time.  When UK shoppers found supermarkets were all becoming considerably less than ‘super’, people looked elsewhere.  And, in many cases, they found very good alternatives.  And many of those were pleasingly close to home. 

My friends in food businesses across Wales such as Felin Ganol watermill in Ceredigion, found themselves inundated with enquiries for flour.  And they were typical of the mills and the food hubs all over Britain who saw an enormous surge in custom.  Polly and Graeme at Slade Farm Organics in the Vale of Glamorgan, have said that the telephone at their farm shop was ringing off the hook, and their box scheme expanded rapidly. 

These are great examples where business owners can talk directly to each other.  They represent a short supply chain that is incredibly resilient and marvellously elastic.  It isn’t easy, particularly challenging when grain logistics are bent to the shape of very big bulk loads.  But with an open approach, a clear head and a healthy dose of patience, great things can be achieved. 

For farmers, 2020 has been tough.  Really tough.  Coming out of one of the wettest winters we’ve ever seen, it was clear that a lot of crops couldn’t be sown.  Much of the land was so flooded that tractors couldn’t get on the land. 

Then the lack of spring rain stunted and weakened those crops that were drilled.  Crops suffered, some did not survive and of those that did many were not yielding as they would usually be expected to. 

And the harvest of 2020 saw the return of the bad weather.  Just when you need the weather to abate, to dry the corn, to harden the ground, no.  No, what we saw was the awful sight of crops being pummelled by hail storms and heavy downpours followed by massive gusts of wind. 

I don’t want to come across as over-dramatizing the situation.  But, frankly, it was dire. 

Keep on keeping on

Famers and other food businesses have told me they are coping, thriving even, by leaning on each other.  People did get good grain into barns and over to mills.  People often shared resources and have managed to sow seed for the 2021 harvest.

Human ingenuity, with people’s compassion, and curiosity, are all still in evidence.  Perhaps more so.  Despite all the hardship, maybe even because of it, people are being warmer with each other, more willing to listen and more knowledgeable about the situation of the other as a result. 

We’ve seen a massive increase in farmers communicating directly with others, many of whom had very little knowledge of farming and who knew next to nothing about how their food got to the table. 

Diversity comes in many hues, but diversity alone is not enough.  Any system is only as good as its ability to communicate across the whole, to flex to any given stimuli and to employ its strengths wisely and efficiently. 

I’m looking forward to the conversations that will take place in a fortnight when we will hear from people who are helping to support good food networks across Wales in building a truly healthy food system.

Steven Jacobs is on the steering group for the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference and also for Food Manifesto Wales. Steven is the business development manager at Organic Farmers & Growers and is chair of the Welsh Grain Forum.

Don’t forget to watch our video which features Anne Parry of Felin Ganol water mill and others calling for change.