Guest author Jane Powell reflects on the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference that took place in Lampeter, November 2022.
What fun we had, meeting in person at the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Lampeter late last year, where we were welcomed into the new Canolfan Tir Glas. No longer taking for granted the wonder of being able to gather at a particular place and time, with all the random interactions that happen as you scramble for a cup of coffee or navigate an unfamiliar campus, I marvelled at how a conference can be so much more than a choreographed exchange of news and ideas.
Looking at the photographs afterwards and seeing white-haired elders, twenty-somethings in dungarees, farmers in fleeces, salaried professionals with their pop-ups and Powerpoints, and many more, the sense is of a family gathering – a big one, with 300 people over two days of talks and discussion, plus a third day of field trips. Our registration desk doubled up as a home base for newcomers while our dinner, with poetry from Sam Robinson and music from Owen Shiers and Camilla Saunders, was a celebration of friendships going back variously decades or a day.
Although it’s common to disparage a gathering of like-minded people as an echo chamber, I think it is no bad thing to call our tribe together.
It’s an opportunity to synchronize our intentions for a better society mediated by food and farming, and celebrate what we have achieved.
Together we puzzled over how everything fits together: getting good quality local food into school meals, bringing up children to better understand food, helping people to access land, marrying up food production with care for nature, building an inclusive food culture, reducing carbon emissions, growing the food economy, trading fairly with the rest of the world. Our 35 sessions covered these topics and more.
Radio Four Food Programme presenter Sheila Dillon kicked us off with an overview of the challenges facing the food movement, and a theme soon emerged of how change happens. Wales is becoming well-known for its pioneering Well-being of Future Generations legislation, but not many people know how it works. A session organised by the Food Policy Alliance Cymru gave us a look at the machinery by which popular sentiment can be refined and translated into action – and it is frustratingly slow.
“I feel like an imposter here, with so many experts,” confided one delegate, a retired person representing a small campaigning group. But in fact, she was one of the large pool of concerned citizens who are our best hope. Policymakers cannot do much on their own, and I think an important purpose of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is to amplify the voices of the thinking public, connecting them with the experts who can share knowledge and shaping programmes of action that are fair and realistic.
The local food partnerships that are springing up across Wales (Food Cardiff and Food Vale were both represented) as well as other place-based partnerships like the Dyfi Biosphere, Canolfan Tir Glas and PLANED provide spaces for such conversations to happen, and so do people’s assemblies and various co-design projects such as Tir Canol in mid Wales. With mounting anxiety about the obvious unsustainability of our current way of life, we need outlets for constructive action, and participatory democracy is a practice whose time has come.
It was encouraging that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales sent several delegates and contributed to the sessions at the Conference. They were there to listen as much as to speak, responding for instance to a few challenging questions that came up in discussion. One anonymous delegate, on their evaluation form, coined the term ‘keynote listener’ for this role and suggested that they have a slot at the end to respond to everything they had heard, which is an excellent idea.
The third day of the event was given over to field trips – a vineyard, several farms, the Lampeter university campus with its collection of centuries-old volumes on horticulture – and the discussions sparked during the first two days continued in smaller groups. It was clear from talking to these enthusiasts how much the conference had achieved in terms of establishing a place for conversation and commitment and shining a light on the burgeoning goodwill.
Spaces like this, where people can connect across divides of age and sector and begin to enact a better way of being together, are rare. And it is just as true to say they are everywhere, once we know what we are looking for. It’s just that with our busy lives we tend to forget.
We need events like this to build our confidence in our collective ability to create a better future together – and remind us that underneath all the conflicts, that is what we most deeply want to do.