When we were planning the first Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in 2019, the talk was all about the uncertainties around Brexit, and we hoped that we could provide a space where people could come together to shape a creative response. We also had all the challenges of doing any event for the first time – who would come? What would happen? All went well of course, but it is only with hindsight that we are seeing the significance of that first gathering, at Aberystwyth University, as people tell us of connections made and the inspiration it gave them.
We couldn’t have known then that the following year we would be in the middle of a global pandemic, learning how to use Zoom, nor that our third conference would also be online. Nevertheless, we kept going, and our archives now contain dozens of videos and a few transcripts that bear witness to the discussions we had, along with a concert or two. We even reached new audiences, as people could listen in from their farms and living rooms.
Now we are finally looking forward to meeting in person again, at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David, where we are working with the inspiring new Canolfan Tir Glas. Simon Wright, the new director, will say more about that soon. But we are hardly back to normal, as world events have moved on to fresh horrors.
War in Ukraine is threatening global food security and shows how vulnerable the global food system is to disruption. Soaring energy costs are hitting farms, food businesses and the public with potentially catastrophic consequences, not just for food poverty and inequalities, but for the whole economy. Meanwhile, climate change and collapsing wildlife populations of all sorts pose an existential threat that is difficult for us even to comprehend. Our standard piecemeal approach of tackling problems one by one will not serve us here. We must find a way to change the whole system.
As the bad news pours in, while for many of us life continues with apparently normality, how are we to respond to this crisis? As the saying goes, we can curse the darkness, or we can light a candle. I believe that those of us working in food and farming have a big part to play in what comes next, and that sense of purpose can give us hope. Food is central to human existence and if we can get that right, we will solve many other problems too.
The response to the pandemic showed us how much goodwill there is in our local neighbourhoods, and how much people value cooking, gardening and being out in green spaces. These are fundamental human needs, to which money is incidental, and the pandemic also showed us how quickly government can reorganize the nation’s finances when it wants to. Farming for soil health and biodiversity, producing nutritious food, greening our urban neighbourhoods, giving children food skills, ensuring everyone has enough to eat – these are the basics that will benefit everyone, and we are the ones to help.
It’s a common jibe that ‘we don’t need any more talking shops’, as if conferences were self-indulgent gatherings of like-minded people, distracting us from action. Certainly, we should always be widening our circle and drawing in people who will challenge us and show us what we don’t know. But most of us are pretty busy already, and I think we need more spaces where we can celebrate, reflect and play. This goes way beyond individual mental health, important though that is. Solidarity and a sense of belonging are vital to human beings, and by coming together to share our successes and challenges we generate enjoyment and goodwill that ripples out through our networks. This helps build the trust that is so vital, and inspires everyone to greater commitment.
Session ideas are flooding in, and there will be no shortage of things to talk about in November. We will move from the small-scale detail of individual projects to the big picture of the Welsh food system, and from putting all that together and sharing our own responses, we will start to see the outlines of a better future, and our own place in that. Everyone counts here, from the platform speakers to the participants in a workshop, and from the old hands to beginners with their fresh perspectives. It’s your conference – come and create it.
(Picture: Jane Ricketts Hein)
Ticket sales begin in mid September.
As ever, the conference depends heavily on sponsorship to keep the ticket price down to a reasonable level, and to cover our staff costs. We’re particularly grateful to Organic Farmers and Growers who have been top-level sponsors from our very first conference, as well as University of Wales Trinity St David, Coed Cymru, Garden Organic, Food Sense Wales and the Soil Association, and we expect to announce more sponsors soon.