I was at the farming conference yesterday. It turned out to be more interesting than I had expected, but not for the reasons you might expect.
As with previous conferences the focus was largely on the commercial aspects of farming. The first two speakers on brexit showed this rather well. They talked about the possible deals, tariffs and the impacts on employing labour. All very significant to the business of importing and exporting food products. What we didn't get even a hint of were the implications for agricultural policy in the island. How much different would the problems of Brexit look if we had treated farming as a strategic resource. Growing nutritious food for the local market instead of exporting a narrow band of produce for cash and importing the food we eat at additional costs. We did get a glimpse about this in the last session about SCOOP.
The middle two speakers were techheads., one presenting on-line from Microsoft in the USA. That would have been a lot more convincing had they been able to keep the slides in synch. Funny given the key part of the presentation was about using redundant TV bandwith to facilitate mega data capture on farms. The other tech presentation was from the lecturer at Harper Adams who did the hands free hectare. (http://www.handsfreehectare.com/). A dynamic presenter with a passion for what he does. Full marks from me for an academc showng the theory can be implemented. Not that I believe it is the right way to go. I asked the question of the two of them: doesn't this drive for tech mean we are deskilling, devaluing and ultimately destroying the human element of farming?
That question led me to discover the second audience at the conference. (The first being of course the farming businesses). At least half a dozen people approached my at the break because of that question . All but one were women and they all said the same thing - its the question on their mind too. These people are all small scale food producers/processors and smallholders. They value the lifestlye and the flexibility and the personal touch in what they do. They likely don't have the capital to invest in robo tech, not that they would want to. If anything such tech threatens to destroy their opportunity to work as they want. I will relate you a comment I made to one of the young market garden growers I know who was there.
See X, if you spend a load of money on this stuff you could have an army of tech doing the work for no pay. (he has employees now). In a couple of years you can retire, maybe take up a hobby. Oh I don't know, something a bit active and useful, maybe say vegetable gardening !
I won't say much about the presentation of the dairy advisor at Reading. It was of some interest to me as he was dealing largely with greenhouse gas emissions (methane, NO2) from cattle and how it is affected by feed and additives. Apparently farmers have to be told that things that affect sheep digestion don't affect cattle digestion (who would have thought?).
Jersey Hemp presented on what they are doing and the products they are producing. They have expanded from an initial 2 vergee trialling to 240 vergee last year, and still llooking for more land, preferably organic. The main value of what they do to my mind is to offer the possibility of a break in the cropping cycle which is very much needed on potato fields. However my opinion is they are going to have to access a lot more land if it is to have a much impact across the whole Island, probably 10 times what they are now.
I have left the best until last. The two speakers who addressed things pretty high on my agenda. Emeritus Professor Mark Kibblewhite of Cranfield University and India Hamilton of Scoop. The prof gave a very good analogy of the complex interating parts of soil and is microbiology as an engine. And of course if you push it too far bad things happen. A number of his papers can be downloaded at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mark_Kibblewhite . India spoke about the origins and thinking befind the newly created SCOOP cooperative. She address the problem of alternative supply chains for organic growers locally, and of the imbalance of scale. Scoop is a co-operative run venture between local growers and consumers with low waste and no single use plastic. She has set up a kitchen at the site based on her previous experience in India and London to maximise use fo the produce that might otherwase be perfectly edible but presentationally unsaleable. Their initial fundy was crowdsource in a very short time (see https://chuffed.org/project/scoopjersey) mostly they communicate on Facebook ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/organicjersey/)
Now I have yet to mention the third 'audience'. I am not sure how big this group might be. I met two but there could be more. One was someone I used to work with, no connexion to farming. He was there sussing out opportunities for his newly formed venture. They are into data management and packaging/presentation management. The other person I met who also was not from a growing backgound was Rachel who runs the IoT work as Digital Jersey. She was looking for opportunites to collaborate with farmers/growers on using tech locally.
Two other observations I have to make about what was there. Actually about what was not there. One of the presentations was pulled I believe by the organisers. The Morning Boat were planning to present some material about agricultural workers rights. I'll leave readers to draw their own conclusions about the implications of that. The other thing to note, I only spotted 2 other of the 12 or so certified organic local producers at the conference. It was only a couple of years ago you might well have seen all of them there.
I came away with a rather uneasy feeling about all this. The whole technology push both inside and without feels akin to the way the chemical companies treated farming in the 1950's. More capital required, more control and conformance to third parties who supply the 'magic'. And before long the farmer is the servant of the agri bis corporations and the soul and joy and even perhaps livelihood has disappeared.