• Amanda Stibrany

Everyone should be a farmer!

Obviously, that’s an exaggeration; but picking up on Viola’s reminder (November blog) that around 70% of UK land is in agricultural use, it would surely be a good thing if everyone learned at least a little about this activity which is going on all around us, and the challenges its practitioners face.

Perhaps I’m also trying to convey that you don’t have to be a “farmer” in the traditional sense to join our group! You don’t need to have a career or academic expertise in this area, just an interest in learning more about the emergence of a healthy and sustainable food system. It hardly needs pointing out that food is one of our fundamental needs along with fresh air, clean water and shelter; but given this fact, why doesn’t the average person spend more time thinking about how and where it is produced? In the interests of self-preservation, if nothing else! Perhaps it’s because food is so readily available and affordable to most of us in this country today, which is of course a good thing, but may have led to a de-emphasis of the importance of farming.

Ideally, everyone would arrive at the threshold of adulthood with an understanding of what is produced on our farms and of the life cycles of the food they eat. I was fortunate; I picked this up without effort during my childhood because I grew up on a farm. Wait a minute though, what did I really learn? I saw how a handful of different crops were produced at scale and I saw what hard work it was to make a living; I learned to curse at the weather forecasters and that sheep die in very many different ways. But I learned very little about how to grow the plants which make up my mostly vegan diet today; how to actually sustain myself. My parents were tenant farmers on the low fertility, drought-prone sandy soils of the East Anglian Brecklands. Beautiful countryside, but today we would say that some of this land probably should never have been brought into arable production. Shortly after the war, though, there was still a strong push to increase domestic food production and this tenancy was the only one available to my father. He didn’t go into farming with enthusiasm; he felt he had no choice. He certainly didn’t encourage his children to follow him (and many generations before him) into farming and I never considered a career in farming, although I couldn’t wish anyone a more interesting and enjoyable childhood.

So off I went, after Physics at Oxford, into a career in high tech. I worked for 14 years in semiconductor fabrication, in noisy clean rooms with nasty chemicals. It was a fast-moving field and there were exciting opportunities to work in different countries, but by the time my son was born I was quite happy to exit the industry. The contrast between the pace of a production environment and parenthood was considerable and although the latter came with its own brand of chaos and stress, I found myself with time to ponder. The farming roots started to tug. Inconveniently for me, what followed was a long succession of temporary moves. With no opportunity to realise plans for a long-term garden of my own, I was nevertheless able to keep developing my interest in growing my own food through volunteering at community gardens and farms wherever we were living. It gave me purpose during these times of impermanence and convinced me of the many benefits of “getting my hands in the soil” – still my go-to activity to relieve stress.

We’d like to encourage more engagement with the food system among Oxford students, staff and alumni. During the first pandemic lockdown, many people found an interest and some comfort in working outside, growing edible crops and experimenting with more time-consuming food preparation in the kitchen. We’d like to build on this interest, so we are seeking use of a piece of land in Oxford where we could organise a communal food-growing activity for the University community. It could be the size of an allotment, a place where enthusiasts would turn up on an ad hoc basis to help tend (and harvest) veggies, enjoy fresh air, chat with other like-minded individuals and forget everyday pressures for a couple of hours. Or if it were a larger area, we could get more ambitious: experiment with different crops, compare various sustainable growing techniques, even act as a venue for showcasing career opportunities in the sector. The world needs more bright minds to tackle the particular set of challenges presented by the transition to sustainable agriculture; perhaps this humble growing space could spark an interest which would lead to an important breakthrough. If you know of a suitable piece of land, of someone who could help with our search, or if you just want to join us in pursuing this goal, please get in touch!