Fifteen months ago an idea came into my head. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some of the young farmers and conservationists who are just starting out in their careers could come together at an event to learn from each other, talk with each other and build connections. After all, as individual organisations and networks Young Farmers and AFON both work really well and do a fantastic job in bringing their members together – so, why not collaborate and organise a joint event for both naturalists and young farmers? After discussing it with a few friends, farmers and fellow AFONers the idea was set to become reality, propagated over the coming months, and it slowly took fruition. I could not have done it without the support of the brilliant Sarah Palmer at NFYFC and I want to thank her for all the work she put into it. Likewise I want to thank the team at the Allerton Project, who hosted the event last weekend, especially Jim Egan who I cannot praise enough for his dedication, enthusiasm and knowledge, and of course thanks to Defra for funding the event.
After months in the making around 25 young farmers and AFONers came together at the Allerton Project last Saturday. We were joined by a selection of invited speakers – dairy farmer Emily Norton, young farmer David Goodwin, policy adviser Ed Barker and Quentin Clark from LEAF. The day was superbly facilitated by rural commentator Rob Yorke, who I had invited knowing his capacity for encouraging others to think as individuals and tease out collaboration. I was particularly pleased to see people attending from all over the country, having travelled from Kent, Cornwall, Wales, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and the surrounding counties to Leicestershire.
Following a brief introduction from Rob, myself and Sarah, the morning was led by Jim Egan, who first introduced Allerton in the form of a Powerpoint presentation (the most conventional part of the day) and then encouraged us all to put on boots and coats and join him on a walk around the farm. Rob was keen to remind everybody that this was a day for asking radical questions, ‘no holds barred’ and for pushing boundaries. With this in mind I was glad to see questions being asked by both farmers and naturalists, although if I’m completely honest it felt as if the farmers were on more comfortable turf here, perhaps something to keep in mind in future.
We explored a significant extent of the practices undertaken at Allerton, with Jim as our able guide. From tillage to pesticide mitigation, game management to winter bird feed and public access to wildlife surveys, we were given a super insight into what is possible on a modern working farm. However, Jim did not hold back in explaining any problems that they face on the farm, and ensuring profitability whilst being environmentally aware is always one. The trick is to find solutions for as many of the problems as you can. This was an excellent message to hear in my opinion – here is a farm that is determined to improve its state of nature and yet needs to be a profitable business.
The morning walk encouraged people to talk to each other and enabled those attending to reflect and learn before the afternoon conversations back in the hall. It was great to see farmers and naturalists walking and talking together as equals without labels.
We returned for lunch (delicious! Thanks Allerton!) and an afternoon ‘conversation workshop’ chaired by Rob. This was deliberately not set up with a panel at the front speaking at an audience but framed with the speakers integrated within the room. This hopefully made it easier for others to engage directly, and enabled us to get away from a ‘them and us’, ‘expert v non expert’, ‘speaker v non speaker’ dichotomous environment.
Beginning with short speeches from each of the visiting speakers the format of the afternoon was suitably informal, and yet there was no shortage of people wanting to raise points. We covered an enormous selection of topic areas and in my mind, this was useful because a) it suggested the need for future ‘Future Wildlife, Future Farming’ sessions, perhaps drawing on these areas and b) it showed people are passionate about the subject (at least those attending are). Certainly the room would have kept talking for a good few hours after we had to leave.
Before we sat down together some in the room had never heard of ‘conservation agriculture’, ‘zero till’, Open Farm Sunday or the hashtag #tractorbirding, but the afternoon put this to rights. It was a free-flowing conversation and Rob successfully encouraged everyone in the room to raise points and opinions. This was a safe space in which all could speak without fear of judgement (at least I hope that everybody felt that was the case).
Some key points and questions from the day:
- Should strategies for conservation be government or industry led? Ideally we need to get to a stage whereby all land managers want to and feel pride in integrating conservation into their land management. They must be able to afford to do it.
- Should we and could we use more market driven systems e.g.LEAF marque or organic to drive welfare and conservation? Consumers are overwhelmingly influenced by price – a risk to remove payments for environmental works?
- Social media is important to the way we frame things and the way we think of ourselves. Farmers can also be conservationists, naturalists or birders.
- We should challenge ourselves to talk about wildlife, to both ourselves (farmer to farmer; farmer to naturalist; naturalist to naturalist) and to others.
- Is environmental advice under funded? Is it valued enough?
- Conservation without money is just a conversation
- We need to be aware of shifting baselines – what is normal now wasn’t thirty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred or a thousand years ago. Wildlife abundance and environment changes over time, influenced by a myriad factors. Policy has an overwhelming impact on farming and the environment.
- Farmers and naturalists can work together, helping each other both on the ground and in telling others about the good (and bad) situations out there.
Thank you again to everybody who came along and please continue to use #farmenviro30 and keep the conversation going on social media (n.b any farmer or naturalist around the age of 30 can take part).
p.s. Brexit wasn’t mentioned once!