As small-scale farmers with organic pasture-fed Dexter cattle and an experimental sideline of traditional wheat, we were pleased to have the opportunity to both book time off our non-farming day jobs to attend both days of the conference. It also allowed us some rare peace from our lovely (but lively) kids who, at ages 6 and 8, never allow us much more than a brief moment of uninterrupted conversation. We relished the thought of two full days of uninterrupted thinking and listening on real food and farming, a subject we are both so interested in… what a treat!
Sheila Dillon’s opening talk was spot on – a suitably inspiring introduction but also a ‘call-to-arms’ reminder of why we had all come together to be there. This was a strong start to the conference – she set the scene vividly and referred to the evils of ultra-processed food as well as the ‘supermarket stranglehold’ on the industry – very important points that aren’t always highlighted enough. As a seasoned food journalist, she was perfect for giving some historical context to how far the real food movement has come and where it has come from.
As our interests span nature restoration, cattle farming, grain production and nutrition, we had a lot of ground to cover, so we strategically decided to separate out to hear as many talks as possible; me heading to the food-related talks, and Rich making a beeline for the farming ones. Rich’s farming highlights from the first day were the ‘Feeding Wales from the ground up’ session, and the ‘Nature Friendly Farming Network’ session. The session chaired by Kate McEvoy on new GMO legislation particularly stuck with me – it is urgent, and we should all be shouting about it to our MPs if we don’t want it to be passed. It was also a pleasure to hear Carwyn Graves, an author I hadn’t encountered before, discussing with Patrick Holden the virtues of traditional Welsh foods, everything from scallops to spinach curry. Carwyn’s perspective on different generations’ attitudes to food and cooking was fascinating, and I was inspired to read his book Welsh Food Stories.
At the end of Wednesday, we both went to the RSPB Cymru film launch of ‘Farming with Nature’ (complimentary wine was most welcome by this point in the evening). This was a great end to the programmed day, with the short film followed by a panel discussion. The film focused on three individuals who farm very much with nature and wildlife at the front of their minds and hearts. It was a beautifully shot film – an uplifting and inspiring way to close the day.
We missed booking in for the evening meal in time (although no complaints about the local pub – we didn’t go hungry), so we strolled down for the music afterwards, getting there in time to hear Owen Shiers sing, a local Welsh language folk musician. Owen is part of the Llafur Ni network reviving old varieties of Welsh oats, which we are also involved with.
The second day kicked off with a real highlight, an energetic discussion between upland farmer and television presenter Alun Elidyr and broadcaster Jon Gower, with an excellent translation it should be noted too. Rich went to the Hen Gymro talk which was a bread tasting session combined with meeting the grower, miller and baker. As a grower of Hen Gymro, it was great for him to taste what other people had baked but highlighted how we need more millers around Wales like Anne Parry at Felin Ganol and Emma Williams at Y Felin. Meanwhile I went to: “School Meals as a driving force for regeneration”. It was good to have a member of Carmarthenshire Council as well as a main supplier (Castell Howell) on the panel alongside the speaker from Social Farms and Gardens: it gave different perspectives and more debate to the discussion around what might be realistic to get children to eat for school meals, and highlighted issues around washing produce and allergies which are important practicalities for growers to be aware of if they aim to supply for schools. Alex Cook from Bwyd Sir Gar was chair for this session.
I was looking forward to the workshop on testing the nutrient density of food, which did not disappoint – it raised many questions and a large group of us participated by crushing carrots in order to squeeze a couple of drops out onto the ‘Brix’ testing device and read off the density rating. It was reassuring to be told what we all intuitively know anyway; that our taste buds are also a highly valuable measure of nutrient density for fruit and veg. As growers we all know this, but hopefully there is a place for ‘Brix’ testing of nutrient density in the world of quantitative evidence-based number crunching big agri-business (I know I prefer carrot-crunching!).
Our farm was part of the Wye Soils Group research project, discussed in the session “Soil health for farmers: carbon and beyond”. We were really pleased to be part of this research which we very much hope will continue, funding allowing. There is so much potential for research in the field (puns intended!). This was our final talk as the childcare timer’s sand slipped away (one tired granny) so we had to pull ourselves away home.
Our feeling as we drove home was that there was a wealth of inspiring, important projects and subjects covered by the conference, all flying the flag for good quality, real food, and bringing so many other community and wildlife benefits with them. With such a high quality wide range of discussions, our only complaint is that we would have liked to be able to hear more of them rather than having to choose. There is some value to holding an online conference, but we feel this is unmatched by the tremendous benefits of an in-person physical conference. The sessions, talks and discussions are only half of the event; the rest, which is just as valuable, happens in the countless conversations, meetings and re-unions of people, friends, colleagues, acquaintances old and new in the gaps in between. The university’s large hall area facilitated this really well, and next time we will make sure to book the dinner in time! WRFFC, thank you for an excellent conference.
Sarah Emmerson and Richard Thomas
Llandewi Dexters (and wheat), Powys
(Picture: Clic Productions)