An agroecological year
A monthly exploration of agroecological farming, folklore and nature by farm coordinator, Fern Towers
January … An Introduction to Agroecology
In many parts of Britain and Ireland, Plough Monday traditionally marked the beginning of the agricultural year. Falling on the first Monday after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, it was a time to tighten one’s belt, return to the field, and hope and plan for a successful year ahead. Since the winter solstice, the days have been getting almost imperceptibly longer, and I have noticed the usual tiny, but hopeful, signs of spring beginning to emerge again. Like the blackbird who has been belting out his ‘subsong’ (an incomplete rehearsal-melody of his spring power ballad) outside my flat at midnight. Or the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly I found testing the air in the barn, to see if it was warm enough to end its hibernation. And the electric-green shoots of comfrey I discovered hiding in the wet, sloppy undergrowth – alive and strong, but biding its time before charging forth and growing tall.
It is comforting to see these signs of life again. But each year I must restrain myself and remember not to get too carried away with sowing seeds and lunging into the horticultural year too soon, as February can bring harsher weather than any other time of the year. So, I remain in a state of ‘subsonging’, planning, and anticipating.
Reflecting on and mirroring the behaviour of nature in this way explains a little of the essence of agroecology. At the start of the month I (virtually) attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), which has become one of the biggest celebrations of agroecology in the world, with over 150 speakers and 5,000 participants this year. I felt dazzled (and a little overwhelmed) by the range of ideas and wisdom being shared, and it got me thinking about how we at Jubilee fit into this new and exciting movement. In what ways are we practising agroecology? What have we learnt during our first couple of years that could help others on their agroecological journey? Or indeed, what can we do to improve our agroecological credentials? To attempt to answer some of these questions, I have decided to start writing this monthly blog. Although it may result in more questions being asked than answered, if it helps to bring some theoretical concepts to life and spark some interesting chats, then I think that is a very good start.
So, to begin with the obvious question – what exactly is agroecology? It is a broad and ever swelling concept, but can be defined simply as “the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming” (Soil Association, 2021). An agroecological farmer aims to mimic the structure and function of a natural ecosystem as far as possible. Although it necessarily encompasses well-known practices such as organic farming, it goes beyond this by actively trying to restore ecosystems, rather than simply doing less harm to them. As Professor of agroecology and food politics Michel Pimbert explained at the ORFC, some organic producers still conform with the dominant industrial agricultural paradigm of creating input-intensive monocultures for the good of global markets. With nature at breaking point, many now argue that organic alone is not enough.
So how does agroecology go beyond this? It is a holistic set of practices, differing according to the needs of each landscape. Examples include: poly-cropping (avoiding monocultures); ceasing all synthetic inputs such as fertilisers; using heritage crops suited to local environments (and therefore needing less artificial supports); creating mixed rotational systems; practicing silvopasture (integrating trees in grazing areas); rewilding marginal or unproductive parts of the farm; building soil health; and so on. In sum, this is ‘knowledge intensive agriculture’ – replacing artificial inputs which disturb nature’s fine balance – with knowledge, deep attention, and skilful husbandry. Some of these topics I hope to unpick for you in more detail, as the year unfolds.
As well as these agricultural practices, it is incredibly important to mention that it is also a social movement, aiming to (re)build human communities in the process. Although scientists have been developing these practices for the last 90 years or so, they reach back in origin to indigenous cultures across the world. These cultures, including our own in Britain and Ireland, would not have used the word ‘agroecology’, but their practices would certainly fall under that banner now. The post-war ‘Green Revolution’ aimed to increase food production by industrialising farming and making chemicals the essential ingredient – resulting in many of the ecological crises we face today. So, a central aim of agroecology is to restore lost local knowledge, re-empowering small-scale farmers and local markets. Not only does this build solidarity and human connectedness in the process, as it has done at Jubilee, but it begins the essential task of restoring food security and sovereignty. As Brexit and the pandemic have illustrated, we are incredibly vulnerable if we leave our food security in the hands of global markets.
To conclude this first blog, agroecology is about noticing and learning from the world around us; working in harmony with our surroundings, rather than fighting against them. This is what I think the ‘subsonging’ blackbird, the Small Tortoiseshell and the comfrey are all doing for me. From watching and thinking about them, my overzealous excitement to lunge ahead was chastened, and instead I have been mirroring their cautious, attuned behaviour with how I practice horticulture. To not rush, test the air, and wait until it is the proper time. I was also touched to read that the origin of the word comfrey is thought to be a derivation of the Latin confervere, which means “to heal or grow together” (Richard Mabey, 1996). I could not think of a more apt word for this plant and the themes I have been discussing – a plant so emblematic of agroecology for its multiple uses in the rearing of livestock and plants in a way that does not harm the environment (for example in making a ‘comfrey tea’ plant fertiliser). But going beyond this, the very sharing of knowledge (such as how to make comfrey tea) is a simple act which binds human communities in the process, ties us to our landscapes, and helps us ‘grow together’.
Mabey, R (1996). Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson. p 307