The second Wales Real Food and Farming Conference was meant to be so much easier than the first. With all the practicalities tried and tested and our team working like a well-oiled machine, we thought we would be able to take the organization almost for granted and concentrate on making the programme still better, diving deeper into the question of how food, farming and society work together in Wales.

Then Covid came along, and we realized it would have to be an online event, which we would have to invent from first principles. Our team changed too, as several of us found ourselves with new responsibilities and less time. Right up until a few months before, we didn’t know if we should even go ahead. How long should it be? Were our tech skills up to it? Would anyone come? It was only because of a sense that the event was needed, and that nobody else was going to do it, that we finally made the leap of faith and set a date. This is the point to mention our sponsors (Organic Farmers & Growers, Soil Association (through FABulous Farmers), Nature Friendly Farming Network, Garden Organic, Hybu Cig Cymru, Whole Health Agriculture and Land Workers’ Alliance Cymru), whose ready support strengthened our resolve at the crucial moment.

We decided on four days, each with its own theme: climate and resilience, diversity and biodiversity, well-being, and histories and futures. Through that ran many threads. The challenge to farming to become carbon neutral began with the opening address from NFU Cymru President John Davies, wove its way through partnership working, agroforestry, low-input farming, farming for wildlife and learning from the past, and wound up with a look at the zero-carbon farming of 2050 led by IBERS.

Biodiversity, and the benefits of allowing farmers to be creative on their own land, was an official theme with Prof Davy McCracken speaking up for High Nature Value farming. It also popped up in one of the lunchtime bitesize sessions, where five members of the Nature Friendly Farming Network shared tips and photographs. Crop diversity was key to the session from Organic Farmers & Growers on seeds, which called for regional breeding initiatives that would provide locally adapted varieties. Another aspect of agricultural diversity was apparent in discussions about extending horticulture in Wales, which have moved into a phase of concerted action led by Tyfu Cymru, Cardiff University and others.

It is people that will create a better food system, and Ffion Storer Jones’ inspiring talk which opened the second day spoke to the need to include all voices. A member of the Rural Youth Project, Ffion had also helped lead an earlier session on the run-up to the Glasgow COP26 climate talks, which was hosted by Kate Hamilton of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) and Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland. They are calling for local food events to stimulate discussion, and we will be working with them to draw more people into the conversation.

On the third day, Jane Davidson called for a strong civil society movement aligned with the Future Generations Act, as well as the FFCC. Later, Andy Middleton chaired a session looking at the ‘food revolution’ that is so much needed, and asked how top-down and bottom-up fit together. Is revolution even the right word? Colin Tudge, co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference that inspired WRFFC, who spoke one evening about his new book, The Great Re-think, prefers to talk of renaissance, or rebirth.  

After three days of hard-hitting science and politics, it was a relief to enter the fourth day with a historical and cultural take on food. Carwyn Graves, author of Apples of Wales and Welsh Food Stories, has a gift for making food both a token of human connection and also a rallying call for a better future. Describing the rich diversity of our earlier food culture – some of us are now on the hunt for diodgriafol, a drink made from rowan berries – he challenged a few assumptions about monotonous peasant diets. That set the tone for the following sessions, on rural communities and Welsh food, education and school meals. It is through the fine grain of our three meals a day that the deeper change will happen.

The interconnectedness of soil, plants, livestock and human health was particularly evident in a session led by Whole Health Agriculture. But it ran through everything, including sessions on local food, water quality and regenerative agriculture. It also came out of Tuesday evening’s People’s Assembly on re-imagining food education, which was a free public event linked to the conference that provided a space for ‘deliberative democracy’.

It was an excellent programme, much of the credit for which must go to all the chairs, speakers and people who had proposed and prepared the sessions. But the great surprise of the conference for me was the response of the audience. With a jam-packed programme running over four days, we had thought of issuing a health warning: do not attempt to attend every session! But some people nearly did, and given that we had an average of 50 at each of our 30 sessions, with just over 250 delegates altogether (maybe more, given that households could share a screen), clearly many were giving it serious attention.

There are many advantages to an online event. Some are obvious – you don’t have to limit the numbers, and people who can’t take time off the farm or travel a great distance can join in when it suits them, catching up with the recordings later. Others surprised us, though. The ‘chat’ box was always busy with well-informed and respectful debate and added considerably to the sessions; this is something that is missing from live events, where only a few people get to ask questions at the end. Online, everyone has a voice, and the chat built up a sense of community too, drawing people in and keeping them there. With no parallel sessions – which would have been beyond our technical skills – nobody had to choose between topics, either.

By the end, the sense of shared purpose was palpable. It’s easy to dismiss conferences as mere talking shops, but I think they are more than that. As someone typed into the chat in the closing minutes, “let’s not think just because something is talked about it means something has got done.  Let’s get things done!!”. But unless we meet and talk and find a shared sense of purpose, action can merely cause confusion. I think we made a good start.

The recordings are being added to the published programme on our website, together with the existing gardening videos and recipes by Nerys Howell. We are planning a follow—up programme and welcome your ideas.

Jane Powell

Secretary, Wales Real Food and Farming Conference