Posted on

Why Farming Matters

farming is public service

Last Wednesday, the UK Agriculture Bill was debated in parliament and despite an impressive campaign forged by the Landworkers’ Alliance and more than 5000 letters sent in support of amendments seeking to recognise farming as a public service and incentivise UK farming that is ecologically and socially sustainable, the amendments to the Bill were defeated.
 
It is entirely possible to produce all the food we need in ways that benefit people, community and planet. Big farms are not the solution.
 
COVID-19 is rattling communities and economies alike, and is exposing the fragility of the food systems that we all rely on. We urgently need to change the ways that we produce and consume and recognise the foundational role that farming plays in the wellbeing of us all. 
 
@rosannaprints

The words of Soul Fire Farm, located upstate New York, resonate:

This outbreak reveals the interconnectedness of our world in a very personal way. It is showing, conclusively, that the health and well being of one is intimately bound to the health and well being of all. We must take action to protect the most vulnerable who will be hit hardest: those whose health is already compromised, those who are denied access to medical care, those who bear great risk in asking for help and those on the frontlines of poverty and pollution.

We stand with the immigrants who are demonized, and the people in prison who are denied the tools to protect their health. We stand with our elders and neighbors with compromised immune systems. We stand with the workers in healthcare and service industries, who are at the front line of financial and health risks. We stand with the farmers and landworkers whose livelihood is at stake.

Here, Now.

Waiting to be served at the counter of a local corner shop the other morning, I glanced down at the shelf stacked with tempting snacks – crisps with familiar flavours, and weird ones, jelly snakes and sweets shaped like emojis, classic kit-kats and chunky ones with peanut butter in them, it was all there, arranged invitingly. Amid the spread of cheerful colours and fonts I spotted a label which read:

 

“Sorry! No brazils.” 

 

On an “Eat Natural” cereal bar, an innocuous looking information bubble explained that failed harvests have led to a worldwide shortage of brazil nuts. My mind whirred. Stumbling across yet another disconcerting example of the impact environmental changes was no surprise to me. What felt so stark was the way this reality had crept into a routine activity. Marketing companies expertly avert our attention from the convoluted and unfair supply chains of land and labour; and the impact climatic fluctuations have on essential supplies. This label felt as though the marketing mask had slipped. The label was a glimpse into a situation that doesn’t look as ordered and dependable as a typical wrapper might have you believe. It is so easy to browse the vast range of food on the shelves of brightly lit supermarkets and not give a thought to the people or environmental conditions that brought it there. 

 

Though it is the backbone to all our lives, the tireless effort of farmers is rarely acknowledged and given the respect it deserves. Nor is the land and it’s complex ecology and interactions from which our food, and many other essentials, are derived. It is labels like the one at the cornershop that morning that, for me, jolted our collective complacency into a new perspective. When we take our food, and all else that we derive from the land for granted, we do so at our peril. Even more so when we overlook the labour involved. The work that farmers do to meet our needs has far reaching implications. Both globally and at a UK level, many farming practices are not good for the land, for farmer wellbeing and security, for rural communities or for us as consumers, and the systems are not set up to incentivise practices that are. 

 

The brazil nut shortage is a reminder that farming practice impacts the quality of what is grown, the soil, the ecology and the climate – as one article put it, the shortage is “a canary in the mine of climate change. There is an urgent need for widespread change which honours the vital role that farming and farmers play in the survival of us all. 

Sorry! no brazils

Big problems need big solutions

The challenges we face are global, but can we do anything on a local or national level? And how can this slot into a global picture?

In recent decades, farming has become increasingly industrialised. Small farms are being swallowed by larger ones – in the UK, 30,000 small farms have closed in 10 years, and along with them, knowledge, skills and rural culture have been lost. Supply chains and local markets are being swept out of the way with big business taking their place – 95% of food retail is controlled by supermarkets

The diverse and dynamic form that farming can take is being hampered and shut out by the government and DEFRA’s market-based approach, which rewards intensive and industrial scale farms. Power is being removed from the hands of small-scale producers and communities with it. 

Furthermore, currently less than 1% of the population owns over half of all agricultural land. Land is opportunity: opportunity to grow food, opportunity to produce energy, opportunity to build homes, opportunity to access to nature. With land in the hands of a wealthy few, only a tiny minority of people get to decide how land is used and farmed, and who benefits. Access to land needs to be fair, it needs to be a resource for the many, not a vehicle to entrench power and privilege. 

The hurdles and obstacles that farmers face have heartbreaking consequences. In the UK, one farmer a week takes their life. Farm work conditions are not easy; work is often hard and repetitive and farmers work in environments that they have very limited control over (increasingly so in a changing climate). To top it all off, farm work is undervalued in society: farmers are key workers too, where are their claps? Farmers are forced between a rock and a hard place. Either they have to opt for corner cutting; or industrial scale production which threatens the health of land and compromises the quality of what is produced; or take on large financial and personal risk if they choose to opt for a smaller scale, ecologically gentler approach to production. 

Time for change

As it stands, it is not easy for farmers and rural communities to challenge the state of affairs that prioritises the interests of corporations and international free trade agreements. We, as land workers, need to  reclaim the farming system so that policy and practice accounts for the needs of all of us – anyone who grows, prepares, distributes or eats food is represented and has contributed to the answers. We need distant policy makers to recognise that we operate in the finite limits of the earth, and as such, we need policies that promote a system of using land within its means.


Could a return to farming through a patchwork of smaller holdings offer a way out of the multitude of challenges we face? Research suggests it could. A recent report points towards the ways in which small farms promote diversity and innovation in the farming sector, offering meaningful, skilled work and the opportunity for training; as well as reducing supply chains to allow for a more responsive way of working that connects farmers to consumers –  good news for rural economies and communities.

Developed by the LWA, Global Justice Now, the Ecological Land Co-op, The Centre for Agroecology and the Permaculture Association.

This involves incentivising and rewarding work that promotes on-farm biodiversity, practices which promote healthy and well structured soil, and practices which look after the people who work on the land and in connected work. In her book, Farming While Black, Leah Penniman centres the oppressive impacts of policies and structures. She centres the disproportionate affect these have on people of colour, impeding access to land and good food.  When we take a socially and racially just approach to these issues, the strategy for how to challenge oppressive policies and structures will be enriched.

Where does hemp fit?

Though the problems we face are vast, complicated and difficult to untangle, local scale farming practices and innovation offer us exciting possibilities to address these challenges. At Hempen we’re excited about hemp for its manifold possibilities; from social to economic to ecological. Recognised worldwide for thousands of years for its versatility in providing societal and economic benefits to people and community, hemp offers a promising stepping stone on the path out of the entrenched extractive practices of modern industry, towards regenerative ones. Hemp can provide us with much needed resources while also giving back to the land. 

Hemp is easy to grow organically because the dense canopy it forms eradicates weeds and is naturally resistant to insect pests. Its strong root networks can restore soil health by preventing erosion and promoting bioremediation. At Hempen we have used hemp in our crop rotation, replenishing land which is used by us or other tenant farmers. Bees love hemp flowers for their pollen which they use in nest building and feeding their young.  Small birds and mammals such as ground larks and deer, enjoy the shelter the plants provide. 

Hemp is also effective at sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere, for every ton of hemp grown, it is estimated that 1.63 tons of carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere – an indispensable tool in combating the climate crisis.

From the perspective of rural livelihoods, hemp is also powerful. It is said to have more than 25,000 uses, including as building materials, plastics, energy, and for health and nutrition. At Hempen, we are harnessing the plant to promote economic and social opportunity in our community. The small-scale production and processing methods that we use for our products provide reliable communal work in our community and form part of a varied and meaningful week. 

There are considerable and unjust barriers preventing the expansion of hemp farming in small scale farms in the UK. Hemp licencing is outdated, based on legislation created in the 1960s. Hempen is working with other farmers and activists to educate and lobby decision makers within the Home Office  to challenge current legislation and push for reform.

Stepping Stones

Just as growing hemp can be a stepping stone in the route towards a farming industry that is more in harmony with the wellbeing of people and planet, so is small-scale, agroecological farming. In the UK, the Land Workers Alliance (LWA) is working to assess and reform the way that farming is legislated, to include the voices of… Land Workers! In their post-Brexit policy recommendations, LWA are focusing on making sure that small-scale farmers have a ‘seat at the table’. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) does not reward small-scale farming, there is a democratic deficit in how farming is legislated, meaning the government is failing to ensure that producers and consumers can meet their needs. Reforms can revive family, community and co-operative based farming for high quality and healthy produce, while “enhancing the environment, strengthening communities and supporting good livelihoods for farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk”. Farming should be recognised and valued for what it is. Just as as healthcare workers look after us in times of need, and educators support us to learn, farms nourish us,  and farming is a public service. 

Posted on

Growing hemp at Hempen in 2020

And now, in other non-virus-related news…

Hemp farmer in a field of hemp

You may have seen our news from July 2019 about losing our ability to grow hemp. Since then, lots of you have been keen for an update, asking us whether we’ve got our licence to grow hemp back. Well, it’s been rather a long and complex process of legal advice, back and forth with the Home Office, debates and scenario planning to get us to the point where we can give you a proper update. So sorry about that.

And unfortunately, for now, the short answer is no – Hempen are not growing hemp directly this year.

But don’t worry, it’s not as straightforward as that! 

Why aren’t Hempen growing this year?

Before I explain properly, just to clarify a detail. Technically, “Hempen” the organisation can’t hold a licence. Again, not as simple as it sounds – hemp growing licences are held in the name of the tenant farmer on the land or landowner, as growing hemp is a farming practice (we’ll ignore the fact hemp is regulated by the Drugs & Firearms division for the purposes of this point!) – in our case, this was the very brilliant, experienced organic farmer James, then one of Hempen’s directors.

OK, back to the main point.

Rest assured that our long term vision is still very much rooted in the cultivation of hemp. And that’s what we’re still doing on a daily basis. The only change is that there’ll be no plants growing on this farm, this season. 

The main reason is one of the complexities around growing hemp in the UK: in this case, the Home Office’s request for a compliance visit to the farm before deciding whether to issue the licence. Not only is this costly, it is also a challenge for James, who would hold the hemp growing licence. Here’s why:

Most arable cereals (e.g. wheat or barley) are sown in March. Hemp is generally sown in the UK in early May (after last frosts). Usually, organic arable farmers will grow more than one crop in their rotation (part of organic principles and maintaining soil health). In order for the farmer (in our case, James) to decide whether they can sow hemp that year, they need to know if they’ll have a licence to do so by March. Because if not, they will, quite logically, choose to sow another crop, rather than risk having their fields lay bare.

Hempen farmers prepping the hemp seed drilling

The Home Office requested their visit for mid-March. The risk was, that if the application was turned down, James would have missed his chance to sow other crops, leaving empty fields and losing all potential revenue. And no-one wants that, when it’s already such a challenge to be a farmer. So the decision was taken to sow other arable crops instead.

No hemp?! What are you doing instead? Where is all the organic hemp for your products going to come from?

Though it is a little disappointing that we won’t have beautiful acres of hemp flourishing here in our part of south Oxfordshire in 2020, it won’t have any negative impact on our business, and we’ll still be helping acres of hemp grow!

It gives us the chance to focus more on our goal of increasing the amount of organic hemp grown in the UK. Alongside our own harvest, we’ve been collaborating with other organic farmers around the UK since 2016. And while we’re not growing here this season, we will be continuing to collaborate – to help more farmers grow and develop, and also source our seed-to-shelf UK organic hemp, so we can keep up with the rising demand! And our aim is to have hemp blowing in the breeze here at Path Hill again next year.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to continue produce locally-grown, organic nutritious foods like hemp to bring food security in difficult times. We’re grateful to keep having that opportunity. Love and peace to all.

We’re always looking for new partners, so if you're keen to grow hemp, do get in touch - email us! And follow us on social media for all sorts of goings on - links below.
#SaveUKCBD saveukcbd.org
Posted on

The importance of organic farming

“Organically grown”, “farmed organically”, “made with organic ingredients”… these phrases crop up more and more in our everyday, from ads on the underground, to our conversations at the hairdressers.  Organic ingredients are present in a whole host of the things we use, from food to wellbeing, clothing to cleaning products.

Hempen Organic Hemp Seed Oil

But organic farming is nothing new, nor is its importance to the wellbeing of our bodies and the natural world. Though pesticides have been experimented with for 1000’s of years, it has only been since the 1940’s and 50’s when the “pesticide erareally took hold, that non-organic farming became the new norm.

Rising populations, lower yields and smaller labour requirements are used to justify mono-cultural large scale agriculture. Today, non-organic farming accounts for 99% of farming globally, but pesticides and fertilisers are detrimental to wildlife and their impacts go beyond the boundaries where they are used. Insect populations are vanishing, spelling catastrophic consequences for food chains, pollination, soil health and our health. Can organic agricultural methods produce enough food for a population set to hit 10 billion by 2050, avoid the obliteration of insects and trees and the pollution of land and water? In these times of climate change, environmental degradation and disintegration of community, organic farming offers a relatively untapped source of hope.

Insect on organic hemp leaf

A recent US study finds that while organic farms have lower yields, food produced is more nutritious, soil and water is less polluted, biodiversity of plants, animals and microbes is greater, greenhouse gas emissions are lower, and farming methods are more energy efficient. From a social perspective, organic farms also come out tops, being associated with more jobs, healthier work environments and happier workers in more connected communities. 

Hempen is a not-for-profit organic farm co-operative. At the core of our principles is a dedication to practices which promote the health of people and the environment. We make all of our products from certified organic hemp which makes us unique in the UK.

Besides the farm being organised in a way that promotes ecological biodiversity and the wellbeing of all of us who work here, the quality of what we produce is also maximised. As hemp is bioremedial, in areas of contaminated land, hemp’s quick and deep growing roots can clean soils by absorbing toxins into the plant itself. This means it is all the more important that we farm organically. Our soil’s health is integral to the quality and effectiveness of what we make. We’re proud to say that our CBD comes from clean and nourished soils which help to maximise the many health benefits that stem from using CBD.

Posted on

Feeding the community well, together

Reading Town Meal 2019

We’re excited to be at the beautiful, community-powered Reading Town Meal this Saturday 28th September.

We feel so lucky to be part of a vibrant web of local growers and producers. This event brings us all together to provide the fruit, veg and – in our case – delicious hemp goodies to feed the community. The locally-grown produce will be cooked up into delicious dishes by Reading College students, and served up for us all to enjoy – for free!

If you’re around this Saturday, come down and join the meal. Learn more about growing your own food from local allotment holders, shop with local producers – including us and our friends from Greenbroom Farm, a local fossil fuel-free organic veg growing co-op – find out what local community and sustainability groups are doing in Reading, and dance to music from local bands. Sounds like a dreamy Saturday afternoon to us…

If you’ve got the time, there will be lots of roles to get stuck in with, from leafleting, to washing up. Volunteers always welcome! Have a browse here to see what you can do, and let the organisers know if you can help out.

See you and our lovely local community there!

Posted on

£2.4 million in lost potential from hemp

Close up of destroying hemp crop

You may have seen our story on the BBC News website yesterday. Its headline shares a figure of our estimated financial loss, just from the retail sales we could have generated from the hemp seed alone, as hemp seed oil and hemp protein powder:

That is a large figure, especially for a small business. But, it pales in comparison to our calculations of the potential revenue we could have generated, were we allowed to harvest the flowers of the plant. The 40 acres lost to us this week could have been transformed into £2.4 million as CBD at retail price, for a not-for-profit farming co-operative. Of this, £480,000 would have been tax for the UK government! 

Instead, the flowers are crushed, along with the hopes of other farmers around the UK of being able to harness the full economic and agronomic benefits of hemp. We’re developing our campaign to save UK CBD, and will keep you updated, to let you know how you can support us in our mission to free hemp for all.

Destroying the hemp crop