Northern Real Farming Conference has a growing challenge

The Northern Real Farming Conference has just opened. Fiona Finch finds out why organisers want to put local food production in the spotlight.

Monday, 5th October 2020, 12:45 pm
Updated Monday, 5th October 2020, 12:45 pm
Conference Coordinator Ellen Pearce

How can future flooding in parts of Lancashire be limited? How can we buy and grow more locally produced food?

These are just some of the questions being tackled at the inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference.

The event should have been being held at Lancaster Town Hall, with participants gathering to focus on the future of farming and food production in the north of England and Scotland.

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Anna Clayton

Instead, due to the pandemic it has gone online, with events taking place until October 10.

Its underlying theme is that now, more than ever, it is time to rethink the nation's approaches to farming, fishing and food production.

Conference Coordinator Ellen Pearce said: "I think the challenge of climate change and the challenge with Brexit were already significant for British agriculture but with Covid-19 and lockdown people ... It's made people really think about farming and food and where their food comes from."

She noted it had made people aware of food shortages and their impact.

Dr Rod Everett checking a dam

The conference will focus on the work of small scale producers, how to enhance biodiversity and repair soil health. She said: "It's a whole approach which works with and builds the health of the environment."

The Northern conference was born from a recognition that northern farms have different landscape and climate to farms in the south, but many case studies relate to, and policy development happens in, the south.

Ellen said: "We have over 65 sessions covering a wide range of topics related to regenerative agriculture and the food system, along with social and networking events. We invite everyone with an interest in localised, climate-friendly farming and a food system that provides access to healthy food for everyone to join the event."

Planning for the conference, which has been coordinated by LESS, a Lancaster based communuity interest company promoting sustainable living, in partnership with the Oxford Real Farming Conference and FoodFutures a sustainable food network in North Lancashire, started in March. Lancaster University has also provided support.

Team work at Claver Hill

More than 400 people had signed up for sessions as the conference began, ranging from farmers to retailers and ngos (non governmental organisations).

Ellen cited local examples of food being produced differently, or harvested to prevent it gong to waste, noting that at the Claver Hill Community Farm off Ridge Lane, Lancaster: "It's farmed collectively, people come down and work on site for a few hours each week and then come and take away produce. There are other models and we need to think outside the box."

While supermarkets and bigger corporations currently often dictate the prices farmers get for their produce, in contrast smaller scale operations would, she argued, allow communities to support and join in food growing and build resilience into the system, so that if one crop fails due to disease or weather there are alternatives. Ellen argues that small scale market gardens can be hyperproductive: "It's about thinking differently. It's important for customers to know where their food is from and what impact it is having on the land."

One example of thinking differently will soon be up and running in Lancashire. A FarmStart scheme is being set up to offer training and development opportunities to new growers. A new market garden is being created at Old Holly Farm at Forton, near Garstang . Ellen, who is also the FarmStart coordinator, said they had agreed the tenancy of two paddocks and hoped to be up and running in the new year: "It will be both a small scale market garden growing fruit and vegetables, but also a training centre for new entrant growers."

Part of the new flood and pollution management work proceeding at Claver Hill Community Gardens, Lancaster.

One of the speakers at the conference is permaculture expert Dr Rod Everett of Backsbottom Farm in Roeburndale. He was, says Ellen: "the driving force behind bringing the event to the North of England/Scotland."

Rod keeps sheep and grows hundreds of apple trees in Roeburndale, conserving varieties which favour the north west climate and conditions. He said: "I think that at the moment we're at a crisis point with climate change and the destruction of the soil, that actually it's a vital point in time to change the way farming is going on at the moment...If we can help show people a direction that's more ecologically viable and looks after the planet that's a worthwhile step in the right direction."

His particular focus will be on flood prevention. He is one of the speakers in a session entitled 'Natural Flood management and improving the headwaters of the River Lune' hosted by the Lune Rivers Trust and local farmers on the afternoon of October 6. He will examine four landslips on Backsbottom farm and tell the stories of water flows and past events that caused them. He has experienced many floods at the farm and recently set up a Natural Flood Management educational trail as part of a wider project working with neighbouring farmers to reduce flooding. As part of the conference he was also hosting a Natural Flood Management walk.

Anna Clayton is on the management committee of Claver Hill Community Food Project ,a member of Lancaster Seed Library and community growing scheme The Spud Club, which uses two acres of the Claver Hill site. She said pilot projects have shown 15 per cent of our fruit and vegetables can be grown in towns and on urban farms.

She said: "The pandemic has highlighted how fragile our current distribution systems are. We have the opportunity to think how we rebuild resilience and connection in our food supply chain. This is a big opportunity to look at what can be grown near where we live and what's not possible to grow where we live."

She cites The Food Zone model in London as an example of more localised food production and sai: ."There's really an opportunity to be growing a lot more of our food, salads, tomato and cucumber in the summer months, beans, courgettes, squash, potatoes, onions, garlic. If you go to Claver Hill (now) you'll see a whole range of salad and winter greens we can be growing all year round."

Anna praised the work of Preston Larder, another community interest company working to source and use locally produced food and cut food poverty. Citing the Preston Model, where organisations seek to procure from institutions rooted in Preston, Anna said this could be extended to food supplies and be used elsewhere with local procurement, where possible. Meanwhile she added part of Food Futures work is looking at how best to supply local hospitals, councils, prison and other organisations with local food.

* A full programme for the conference can be found online at