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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. 

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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!

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Managing morale with co-operative approaches

Co-operative Principles

Ever fancied working as a Tofu Morale Manager? It might not be the life dream you shared in circle time at primary school, and maybe it wasn’t what your career adviser suggested for work experience in your teens, but join the Twin Oaks Community Foods workers co-operative in Virginia, USA, and this job could be yours. Workers co-operatives do business a little differently; along Twin Oaks, Hempen is no exception.

We are coming to the end of Co-operative Fortnight, a 14 day long celebration of the power of co-operation and alternative economics. Co-operatives recognise that in a world where cut-throat capitalist models dominate, it’s possible to step out of the mainstream with worker-owned business models. With their origins and influences in grassroots activism, co-operatives offer exciting spaces for people to organise collectively for mutual benefit, explore the nature of work, capital and how we can forge and shape new possibilities in a co-operative way. Hempen is a farm co-operative and at the core of how we work is an appreciation for why we work, prioritising values over profits, ethics over growth, well-being over productivity as a measure of success.

Co-op membership is open and voluntary

Co-ops are open to those who are able to give their services and accept the responsibility of membership. Hempen is collectively owned by its members, and we’re lucky to live as a tight-knit community with the additional contribution of long-term volunteers and short-term volunteers supporting us when extra hands are needed.

Co-ops are controlled only by their members, who have equal say

At Hempen, self-help, responsibility, equality and solidarity are core values in our organising and decision-making. We regularly meet to discuss both day to day needs, plans for action and wider visions. We use consensus decision-making to ensure all voices are heard and the direction we take reflects our values as a collective. From seed to soil, from plant to oil, all the workers in our co-operative are involved in the discussion and decision-making that feeds our work and our vision.

Co-ops are autonomous and independent self-help organisations

For us, there is huge possibility in our autonomy. Hempen strives to innovate in hemp farming, the products we make and the way we organise as both a business and community. We recognise our social responsibility to empower and educate our members as well as the wider community through a culture of openness and care for each other, the community and the land.

Co-operation among co-ops benefits members and the wider co-op movement

Wherever possible, we look to collaborate with other worker co-operatives, sharing ideas and resources, to help the movement strengthen and grow. As the philosopher Alan Watts put it, “no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.” We find when we prioritise co-operative ways of working and living, with a balance for what we enjoy and care about, we connect to our tasks and to each other and to why we do what we do.

Yes, there are some parts of running a hemp co-operative that can be a little tedious, but we’re a fun bunch, and haven’t needed to draw up a Hemp Morale Manager job spec yet!

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Hemp for the future

Imagine hemp for a moment... What comes to mind?

Hemp leaf

Five years ago, it wouldn’t be so far fetched if mention of this much talked about plant drummed up images of coarse-fibred wallets patched with badges from far corners of the earth, or black and white film reel of thick-set naval ropes tightly wound around iron mooring pulls. Lately, you’d be excused if your thoughts jumped straight to a pom hibiscus CBD-infused sparkling water. The recent re-emergence of hemp into the mainstream markets of the western world may be resetting your understanding of the versatility of this much misunderstood plant. Its uses and potential stretch far beyond the pages of hipster magazines. At Hempen, what excites us is the role hemp is already playing in addressing a whole host of ecological, climatic and social challenges. 

During the second world war, the US government’s Department of Agriculture, made a film called Hemp for Victory, encouraging farmers to grow hemp. US officials recognised the instrumental role hemp could play in rope, rigging and canvas, bolstering naval power. Their sentiment echoes the drive under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to produce hemp for British national security in the 16th and 18th century. 

Today, industrial hemp has a place at the table, but for a very different type of victory and a very different type of security. When you start to look into it, hemp appears a bit of a miracle plant. Can hemp help us overcome the many extractive and exploitative practices that threaten life on earth and offer sustainable and regenerative alternatives for both land and life?

The carbon sink

Hemp takes large amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, making it a perfect carbon sink. more than most plants per acre, and more than forests or other commercial crops. Though it’s not an exact science, some estimates say one hectare of industrial hemp can sequester approximately 15 tonnes of CO2. Hemp absorbs more carbon per hectare than forests or other commercial crops. Where the carbon is incorporated into the plant itself, it can then be processed and stored into building materials such as Hempcrete, and fibres, such as hemp cloth. When you consider that cotton requires more water, nutrients, land and is slower to grow, hemp is a durable and more ecologically gentle option.

From a construction perspective, Hempcrete is a natural building material that relies on plant not mineral-based inputs. It is 7 times stronger and half as heavy as concrete, with insulating properties that also reduce the energy demands of the building. Carbon passive homes and clothes are a thing – and an amazing one at that!

Organic hemp growing

The Soil Improver

Industrial hemp grows with a deep tap root, enabling access to water and nutrient supplies deep in the soil. The root also helps to improve soil structure and nutrient availability for future crops, leaving the ground in a better condition to when it is planted. Hemp grows quickly and easily, and can germinate at temperatures just above freezing meaning it can grow in many parts of the world and using organic methods – so no need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The power house

When tasked with imagining a future world with cleaner air, soils, and oceans, it is not long before conversations stray into the arena of energy storage. Yes we can harness the power of wind, sun and waves, but how can we lock it in for when we need it? Enter, hemp. Again. Research finds that the waste fibres from hemp crops can be “cooked” to produce carbon nanosheets that meet graphene at its game to produce energy storage devices. Hemp alternatives to graphene are a fraction of the price, made with bark fibre leftovers.

The ocean protector

Unlike conventional plastics, derived from petrochemicals, and choking ocean life with debris that take several centuries to degrade, hemp plastic is biodegradable. It takes 3-6 months to biodegrade and, rather than rely on fossil-fuel heavy processes which cause damage to air, soil and water, its raw ingredients and manufacturing process have far less impact on the environment. 

What’s more, hemp seed oil offers a locally-grown, sustainably produced plant-based source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids at a ratio that is perfect for human health, in higher concentrations and better ratio than fish oil. One tablespoon of hemp seed oil provides your daily dose of essential fatty acids as well as being a source of zinc, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron and Vitamins E and D. 

Organic Hemp Seed Oil

Hemp for health

Organic CBD Coconut Oil 550mgHemp seed oil is just one of a host of treats this plant can offer. At Hempen we aim to harness hemp for health in the range of products we make. 

Besides its culinary uses, hemp seed oil’s nourishing vitamins and moisturising qualities make it the perfect ingredient for both our relaxing and energising moisturisers. Our moisturisers are non-comedogenic, meaning that the oil doesn’t clog your pores but rather, can help regulate skin’s oil production and hydrate your skin. The vitamin E found in hemp seed oil also helps to moisturise the skin as well as being associated with wound healing and reducing inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acid also has anti-inflammatory properties and encourages skin growth and new cell generation. Our bodies can’t produce linoleic acid and oleic acids which are found in hemp oil. Topically applying these to our skin can play a role in skin cell health and reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

CBD is an of-the-moment acronym. This oil has sprung onto the scene with a lot to say for itself, helping moderate a plethora of complaints from pain to anxiety, hyperactivity to inflammation. The mention of this oil is almost as abundant as the compound itself, but you wouldn’t be alone in not having any idea what it actually is. 

CBD is short for cannabidiol and is the most abundant of the cannabinoids,  a spectrum of chemicals found in the flowers, leaves and stalks of the cannabis plant. When trying to get your head around what is actually going on at a molecular level, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with talk of receptors and transmitters. CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system. The science suggests that CBD acts indirectly to enhance the effects of anandamide,  a fatty-acid neurotransmitter which interacts directly with the endocannabinoid system. This is important because this system is involved in regulating a range of cognitive and physiological processes including memory, mood, pain-sensation, appetite, and fertility. Described by one of our customers as “meditation in a jar” and another as “like taking a warm bath”, its effects are felt differently by different people, but always, CBD offers a non-toxic and natural route to balancing and levelling core mind and body processes and states.

Hemp for Victory?

Victory has connotations of power and domination, war and control. It might sound quite grandiose, but the astounding versatility of industrial hemp for the health of land, sea, air and body offers a change in course for humanity,  away from exploitation and destruction, towards a peaceful victory over some of today’s biggest challenges.