Opinion: Grassroots meetings have opened my eyes

The ground’s drying up, the cattle are in for the winter and the backlog of hedgetrimming really ought to be addressed before I start a bit of ploughing. But suddenly it’s meeting season.

I used to have a near-pathological cynicism about meetings.

Having worked in the higher education sector, I know how people like to ramble on, meander down diversions, admire the sound of their own voice and detain everybody for hours while nothing gets decided.

See also: Opinion – artificial intelligence will take away farmers’ purpose

About the author

Sam Walker
Farmers Weekly opinion writer
Sam is a first-generation tenant farmer running a 120ha (300-acre) organic arable and beef farm on the Jurassic Coast of East Devon. He has a BSc from Harper Adams and previous jobs have included farm management in Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire and overseas development work in Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. He is a trustee of FWAG South West and his landlords, Clinton Devon Estate, ran an ELM trial in which he was closely involved, along with fellow tenants.
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Such meetings end with a note to “keep the conversation going”, which means “same time next week, free tea and biscuits and let’s all get paid to waffle on”.

In the past I’ve half-contemplated setting off a fire-alarm to end the agony and get out of the room.

As a self-employed farmer, I’m not earning while engaged in this process, so for years I tended to shun meetings wherever possible. But I was wrong.

Obviously there are the big national shows and conferences, where everyone gets to catch up and is guaranteed to learn new stuff.

But perhaps more importantly, there seems to be a huge amount of work being done at a grassroots level by people who are passionate about sharing their knowledge without seeking recognition or reward for their efforts.

I’m not going to name individuals for fear of embarrassing them, but recently I’ve had my eyes opened to some new business opportunities, my jaw dropped to the floor by the activities of fungi, earthworms and compost, my mind blown by the possibilities of soil biology, and probably my ears burned with the shame of asking too many stupid questions.

I’ve learned there are bacteria in cow saliva that have evolved to work in symbiosis with soil microbes (tell that to the vegans).

That a hedge may not be a hedge. That 25 earthworms in a spadeful equals 75t of wormcasts/ha every year. That you can get colossal wheat yields just on biology and less than 100kg/ha of nitrogen.

And that soil health, plant health and human health are inextricably linked. Of course, this may not be news to you, but it certainly was to me.

Some of our contemporaries are so far ahead of us in terms of organic and regenerative agriculture that I can barely see the dust from their wheels, yet they’re happy to share their knowledge to help others catch up.

I appreciate we don’t all want to be heretics facing down the archbishops of chemical agronomy, and I know many have serious concerns about the future of food production in this country.

But, with the current direction of government support for the environment, even the farmers most resistant to change are starting to pay some attention.

And the organisers of these meetings, often working for no pay or reward – the charities, vets, nutritionists, grassland societies and discussion groups – need our support and appreciation for getting people together and talking.

If you can, I urge everyone to try and join in this process. You might find it refreshing to benefit from information uncontaminated by vested interests. You may even have your flabber gasted by what’s on offer.

Either way, you get to choose what to believe, do your own trials and draw your own conclusions.

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