The Oxford Real Farming Conference has become a regular fixture in my calendar. Now bigger than the ‘other’ (National Farmer’s Union) conference taking place in the same city at the same time, it is the go-to event for farmers, smallholders, policy makers, horticulturists, experimenters, environmentalists, campaigners, academics, mainstream media and even the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove MP, who gave a keynote speech this year and took questions, moderated by Zac Goldsmith MP, former editor and owner of The Ecologist. Michael Gove acknowledged that the event was “not merely a conference, more a movement”. He spoke about redeploying subsidies to favour smaller, more ecologically run farms that use less pesticides and herbicides, and preserve and build soil. That part of his speech went down well.
The British Conservative Government is aware of the crisis in farming. Industrial agriculture is depleting soil at such an alarming rate that no amount of chemicals will compensate for loss of fertility. A collapse in yields is inevitable. They are also aware of the strong mandate of younger voters who are well informed about the environment. If they want to have any chance of being re-elected, they have to provide policies that respond to this demographic change. We need to record these promises and support lobbying organisations like the RSPB, the Soil Association and The Sustainable Land Trust to hold them to it.
One example of environmental degradation: in the last 27 years, flying insect populations have declined by 75%.1 There is no single reason as this is the result of complex, ‘entangled’ factors like the removal of hedgerows, the loss of habitat due to development, vast industrial monocultures sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, and climate change. This decline in insect diversity and abundance is a ‘smoking gun’ and is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and to jeopardise ‘ecosystem services’. (Incidentally, I object to the term ‘ecosystem services’, as I do ‘natural capitalism’. They imply that we own nature and extract its products like an economic system. That is the sort of thinking that has got us into the mess we are now in and are an arrogance that we need to remove from our conceptual thinking.)
My stand out moment in the conference was when Perrine Hervé-Gruyer from La Ferme du Bec Hellouin in Normandy (featured in PM94) introduced her permaculture farm. In 2006, husband, Charles, and Perrine began to explore how they could live off their 20 hectare farm and create a biodiverse, productive landscape.
They studied bio-intensive methods, along with other techniques learned from organic pioneers like Eliot Coleman (Four Season Harvest) and from indigenous tribes from around the world. They incorporated these techniques, plus forest gardening, agroecology, no dig, alley cropping, into their farm. Yet techniques on their own were not the factor that enabled them to create their ‘miraculous abundance’. Perrine told the Oxford audience that it was permaculture framework, with its three ethics and its principles, that enabled them to design such a highly productive, healthy, species-rich farm, a farm so profitable that it employs eight people and only needs to cultivate 1,000m2 intensively. The rest is left as unimproved pasture, woodland and forest gardens. Researchers have also discovered that the farm is capable of sequestering carbon in the soil and biomass up to six times more than an ordinary woodland.2 This is one way of drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and locking it down, a potentially revolutionary strategy for climate change.
What made my heart sing was that it reinforced the work Tim and I have been doing for the last 25 years, not only in publishing permaculture books and this magazine, but on our own patch of land. On one third of an acre we have a small vegetable garden where we use no dig methods with intensively planted crops to grow vegetables year round. We also cram crops into our little greenhouse all year. The rest of the land is taken up by the house, a patio, ponds, perennial plantings of edibles and ornamentals, a forest garden, a hedgerow planted with species native to Hampshire where we live, and glorious wildflower meadows that teem with flying insects, birds, reptiles and small mammals, like bats. The meadows and hedgerows are the magic of this garden. They provide habitat for our pest-predators that make the whole garden a balanced ecosystem. Permaculture has taught us to mimic nature and design a productive garden as akin to a wild ecosystem as possible. We are like a tiny version of Perrine and Charles’ farm. For too many years, perma- culture has been on the edge. I saw it enter centre stage in Oxford. Its time has come.
Watch Maddy interview Perrine about the techniques they use on the farm HERE.
Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine International and the author of Fertile Edges: Regenerating Land, Culture & Hope