We’re back from Groundswell where we temporarily left the doom and gloom behind to run a session where we asked farmers about what they felt optimistic about. Here are some of our (positive) takeaways from this year’s event…

A new vision for how Britain feeds itself

As George Monbiot made his case for why farming is destructive to the environment in a tent nearby, the Sustainable Food Trust’s founding director Patrick Holden argued that we could have it all. We can address the climate crisis while producing affordable, healthy food.

The Sustainable Food Trust shared details of its new report, Feeding Britain, which lays out a vision for how Britain can re-engineer what it grows to feed people better food while protecting the environment and supporting biodiversity.

In this brave new world, we would produce twice as much fruit and vegetables, grain production would halve and we’d feed less grain to livestock. Meanwhile, intensive livestock production that harms animals would be phased out.

Change is coming

Farmers are on the sharp end of a huge amount of criticism for the ills of the food world, but as we’ve been hearing through our Dairy Project  and the farmers at Groundswell, the majority care deeply about the food system and want to produce good food. And to do this, they’re embracing change.

This often means adopting regenerative farming methods – one of the big themes of this year’s event. Debate is intensifying over whether regenerative agriculture should be properly monitored and certified to prevent people jumping on the bandwagon without abiding by its principles, but farmers at Groundswell were largely focussed on the practicalities of how they can practice regenerative farming and learn from each other.

They’re also adopting innovative technology, from data analytics to measure the health of soil to using heat from manure to pre-heat water in pipes for washing down machinery.

Corporate motivation

The regenerative farming movement is happening from the ground up – but also from the top down. Yeo Valley shared details of how it’s supporting the move towards regenerative farming through real-world testing and research in partnership with organic dairy farmers. It’s aiming to measure over 1,200 fields to learn more about soil organic matter, carbon, soil structure and soil health.

Farmers want to tell their stories and connect with people

From LEAF’s session on how farmers can educate the public through open days to food journalist Sheila Dillon’s packed session on storytelling, farmers showed a hunger to get their stories across to the public more directly.

Many farmers spoke about how we need people to value of food and pay more for it – while recognising that this will be a tough sell at the moment. And this mindset shift starts from getting to know who grows it.

Rebecca Mayhew, a regenerative farmer at the Old Hall Farm in Norfolk, reflected on how people reached out to their local farmers during the pandemic and started buying from them, stepping past the supermarket. She believes that hasn’t gone away and that it’s important for people to connect directly with farmers – and for farmers to play an active role in their communities.

That idea was echoed by farmer Polly Davies, who told the audience that people would be far less likely to waste a carrot if they could see the person who grew it and understand all the effort that went into it.

Communities and connection  

This year’s event was bigger and busier than ever, and farmers spoke about how there’s now a real sense of community.

Social media and messaging platforms like WhatsApp are allowing forward-thinking farmers to swap tips, share problems and just feel a bit less lonely. One attendee at the Food Ethics Council’s session on reasons to be optimistic spoke about how he felt alienated decades ago for trying to adopt new methods, but it’s much easier to connect with like-minded farmers now.

What was your big takeaway from Groundswell this year, and what are you feeling optimistic about when it comes to the future of farming?