Hello and welcome to Farmerama. This month we bring you a conversation I convened at Groundswell Festival back in June, focused on Landscape Scale Regeneration. I heard from three people involved in different ways in an initiative in Waterford, Ireland. Firstly I spoke to dairy farmer and Bride Project creator Donal Sheehan, then weaving lab lead Sarah Prosser and finally Commonland facilitator Pieter Ploeg.
You might remember we featured the Commonland initiative in Southern Spain back in Episode 68. Well this expands a lot on that conversation to show the power of a common vision and working across a whole region.
Abby: Welcome everyone. Thanks for making it to the 9 a.m. rainy slot. Well done. And really great to see you all. I’m Abby Rose and today we’re talking about landscape scale regeneration connecting ecology, community, and culture. And I’m really excited to have Donal, Sarah, and Peter with me here.
We’re going to be focusing in specifically on a project in Ireland, the Waterford project, initiative, sorry, not project. And yeah, digging into what’s happening there, and then broadening that out into wider initiatives through Commonland. So we’ll get into that in a second. I just wanted to give a bit of context to the session.
So… For me, what’s so exciting here and, and why it was brilliant to bring you all together is I think this term landscape scale regeneration or recovery it’s talked about quite a bit, bandied around and often it’s just thought about from the perspective of the farming, farming community only, um, and how can we regenerate the landscape. Mainly working with farmer clusters and at that level. And I think what’s very exciting about the work you’re doing, is that obviously that’s a key part of landscape field regeneration. But when doing it on its own just working with farmers actually you’re missing this wider context and possibility, opportunity for regenerating community, and culture, and all of these other things that actually are vital for the farming community to thrive as well, and for that landscape scale regeneration to, to move forward and have a long term impact.
And so I think that’s, yeah, I’m excited to dig into that a bit today and understand how you’re working to do that in your project. So we’re gonna start with Donal. Welcome, and I’d love if you could tell us a bit about your farm, and also the BRIDE Project.
Donal Sheehan: Yeah good morning everybody, and thanks very much for having us.
I’ve been trying to get to Groundswell for the last couple of years, and it’s a real privilege to eventually get over here, and it was so inspiring last night, chatting to people, and seeing all the positive stuff that’s going on. So as Abby said, my name is Donal Sheehan, by the way if you can’t understand me, Sarah will translate the cork accent later on.
But I’m Donal Sheehan, I’m a dairy farmer in Cork in the south of Ireland. And I suppose, just to give a bit of background, in probably 2010 as you know, quarters went in 2015, and from 2010 onwards, there was a real drive in Ireland and indeed everywhere because dairy farmers knew that the rains were going to come off and they were getting ready for this massive expansion of milk.
But in my own farm, I had a limited amount of land. We had 55 cows. And it never appealed to me to go down the road of, you know, massive expansion and follow the high numbers game. And in any case. And I could see the way farming in general, dairy farming in particular was going, we were losing so much biodiversity, water quality was being impacted. A friend of mine who was a tillage farmer and a friend who was an ecologist (kind of strange bedfellows) but we were always given out to one another.The ecologist would be saying, well, why, why don’t you just do this, lads? It’s that simple, you know, and you bring back the, the skylark or the lapwing and they said, mm, it’s not that simple, you know, and we decided to ask what if you had the perfect agri-environment scheme, what would it look like?
And of course there’s no such thing anyway, but we went about designing an agri-environment scheme for farmers and for conservation and for perhaps even the wider community. But the way agri-environment schemes work, as you know, you apply and you get funded if you’re successful, but in an agri environment scheme the next farmer could be 10 miles away. There could be another farmer 10 miles over that way. And so, there was no joined up thinking and every farmer in between is doing something different. And you manage your land you know, if you have a hedgerow you should be managing it for biodiversity and carbon sequestration and so on and likewise with every other habitat. And so that pus thinking that this needed to be at a landscape scale, not just individual farmers doing their own thing. So we put in an application for funding for a landscape restoration in the Bride Valley. So the Bride is the Bride River.And the BRIDE Project stands for biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment. And even though it was a dairying environment we didn’t want other Enterprises to lose out because that’s where the landscape scale comes in. So we were successful in the funding.
We got €1.1 million for five years and it finishes this year. And we, we opened the funding scheme and we had 20 chairs out in a hall similar to this now, and, and 120 people turned up, about 50% per local community and 50% farmers. So it was a brilliant start.
And so we went ahead with it and we drew up plans for each individual farmer. If you were a tillage farmer, we weren’t asking you to put back hedgerows because, you know, the size of machinery, that’s why they took them out in the first place. But there was other options they could choose. And we, the standard was trying to get everyone up to 10 percent space for nature.
So if you had 100 hectares, we wanted you to get to 10 hectares space for nature. And it wasn’t compulsory, and it was bit by bit. But as well as the quantity of it we also wanted them to focus on the quality. So the quality of all the habitats. And when we started measuring and calculating the space for nature, it was absolutely torturous. At the time the mapping was only just coming in. And then we had to design all these scorecards to give what’s called a results based payment. So… they got 2,000 euros for capital payments each, which was planting trees, excavating ponds, increasing field margins, increasing riparian buffer strips, putting in woodland, etc. And then, that was a one off payment, and then annually, they got what’s called a results based payment. So we’d go out, an assessor, an ecological assessor would go out, and they’d rate all the habitats on the farm. And they’d score them, and they were paid based on the quality. So they were given a payment based on the quantity, so the amount of space for nature on your farm, and also the quality of that space for nature.
And as you can imagine, it was a torturous task for us, but we had to get it, we had to be able to stand over it. And, and once we were able to stand over it, but what we did then was to make it more efficient, and that the people going out measuring and assessing wouldn’t be getting all the money and the money wasn’t going to the administration, we needed it to go to the farmers.
We applied for a second tranche of funding to design an app, so now we have a web portal that we can take to any farm in Ireland. Once we know where the coordinates are and the outline of the farm and we can map that for space for nature and then we go out and we we do a full farm walk, assess it and it’s, it’s given a quality score and that’s your Farmland Biodiversity Index, FBOI, everyone knows what FBOI is.
So, it’s the quantity of space for nature plus the quality which is A, B, C or D and that’s your results, your paid base on that and you can’t go wrong. It’s very, very fair because it’s based on the percentage. So if you’ve a 10 hectare farm, or if you’re, if you have a 200 hectare farm, it’s the same payment.
It’s based on the quantity and the quality. And that’s your Farmland Biodiversity Index that, that everyone is paid on. And it could be that a small farmer could get twice as much as a large scale farmer or vice versa. And that’s more or less your, that’s where we’re at. That’s the BRIDE Project
Abby: Wow! Sounds like you solved all the government in the UK’s issues. Perfect. Great. Thank you so much, Donal. And that’s amazing that you, you know, a farmer led initiative to get that off the ground and fully funded. And I think that’s an amazing jumping off point for Sarah to come in. Sarah, obviously you are, well, I’ll let you introduce yourself, but I think what’s exciting is that you are coming to this Waterford space and taking the work Donal’s already done, and yeah, tell us how that’s integrating into what you’re bringing to the space.
Sarah Prosser: Hi I am Sarah, and I am a weaver. And I have taken that role of weaving very much to my heart. And it’s a delight to be able to bring it to Groundswell. And again, thank you very much for inviting us.
I was sitting at home and I saw this job come up and I thought that is something that I really want to apply for. So I started about a year ago and I’m now in Ireland on the ground trying to see what large scale landscape restoration protection and regeneration looks like from a sort of really systemic point of view by doing this job of weaving.
So weaving involves looking at the in between things. We know that there’s all these brilliant projects going on, but they’re tiny, they’re fragmented, they’re everything from farmers to teachers to growers to restaurants to policymakers. They’re all happening all over different areas. And what weaving does is to try and go in and look at the relationships between all of them, see what we can do to bring them together into a bigger sort of space, and if we can…
So this role, I think it’s so important and yet when is it ever funded? So the fact that it was funded is, has been just fantastic. That funding has come through Commonland, which Peter will tell you more about soon. And Commonland is one of our three backbone organizations. So we have CommonLand, who are sort of global experts in landscape scale restoration. We have Ashoka, who are sort of global leaders on system and social innovation and social entrepreneurship. And also in making sure that every young person in the whole world can grow up as a positive change maker. And we have the Presencing Institute, who are looking at sort of new ways of leadership.
So those three organizations brought together people about sort of two or three years ago, some of the Ashoka fellows who are big, sort of inspiring innovators and brought them together and said, what would really make change and accelerate the kind of change that we’re all looking for? They came up with these ideas of Bioregional Weaving Labs.
So there are eight at the moment, eight bioregions around Europe. I’m at the Irish one, but there’s also one in Romania, Spain, in France, in Belgium, in Austria, and we’re all looking at our own context on a bioregional scale. What is it that we could weave together to make change, both by looking at what’s coming out already, so the kind of thing that Donal’s doing, but also what could we perhaps learn from the other labs in terms both of process and in projects and innovations that might be interesting to bring in.
Within that, we’re really focusing on community led projects and on nature based solutions. So those are the kind of things we’re looking for. Rather than going in and trying to sort of change the existing systems, we’re looking at what systems can we bring up. So the way we do this is, first of all, to sort of try and build a sense of trust and togetherness.
So I turn up and I sort of go and ring up Donald and say, can I come and visit you? And he luckily said yes. And I go around and I walk the land and I get to know the people. And then we invite them together, so all the stakeholders into, into different kinds of workshops. The fact that when you bring in these really different kind of people, so there are farmers, teachers, growers, all these different kind of people in one room, and we all look at the system as it is today, and what it is that we want it to be in the future, and what we could do to change that.
We initially went in with some of the overall mission and vision of the whole Bioregional Weaving Lab network, which is to restore, regenerate and protect the land across the labs and to mobilize 1,000,000 changemakers in those areas within the Four Returns Framework.
The Four Returns Framework is something that Commonland has developed through its work over the last decades. And it looks at returns both for the capital, nature capital, social capital, economic capital, but also, importantly, inspiration capital. And this element of looking for how to do this within an inspirational point of view is also fundamental to how we work.
We’re just talking with Donal now about, you know, the levels of depression that have been, and isolation that have been measured within farming communities, but also generally, and without bringing back some sort of common sense of motivation, how can we ever expect people to really sort of pull up their socks and say, let’s all make change.
You know, we have to bring in some sense of let’s do this together. So one way we did that was to say, look, this, this vision that we’ve brought in about a million hectares and a million change makers doesn’t really motivate local people. What is it that motivates them? So we did this process of co-writing a manifesto.
And we brought together, I think there were about 35-40 stakeholders in a room. And we asked everybody to sit down and, and start by saying, what is it that you know? What is it that you believe? And what is it that you want? And we started by writing personal manifestos and then we did it for a collective.
And then we took the key words that were coming out of that. And it was a very moving event. It was the, the, the atmosphere in that room, just hearing people saying what they wanted was just, it was really moving. So then we took all those inputs and we turned it into what we call the, the Manifesto for the Bioregion.
And I think what we’d like to do is play it to you. This is the result of that workshop. And it’s something that I can take to this panel and say, here are the words of the stakeholders in the bioregion. This is, this is what they believe in. And I’ve also taken it to a panel in Brussels, where we’ve had policy makers sitting there.
And I’m saying, this is what the people want. So if we could play that now.
Manifesto Recording: Food is not a luxury. Food is a basic social need to which everyone has a right. It is a right not only to enjoy food, but to be able to create it. Food is a way of building ideas, connections, and communities. Through food, we become aware of ourselves and of each other. Food is a common good. It is grounded in our common need and our common vulnerability. Food is revolutionary. How we grow food, how we consume it, how we think about it. can lead to radical change. Food is not only about the present. Rethinking our relationship with food is a call for a different future. A better one.
We, the local producers and consumers of food in the Waterford Bioregion, assert that we have the right to a good quality of life grounded in communities of mutual support. We have the right to disagree, to disrupt the status quo. We have the right to respect, even while we dissent. Our dissent is moral, philosophical, cultural, effective, economic, and political. Sometimes, all at once. Our dissent is about building a better world, because we are the ultimate decision makers. We stand for the breaking down of barriers between thinkers and doers. We are, all of us, both thinkers and doers. We stand for a reinvention of the relationship between producers, retailers, and consumers. We stand for a renewed focus on quality of life for all. For food that is sustainable for our health. For the protection of the land, the richness of the soil, the flourishing of the imagination. We stand for new ideas, new stories, new inspirations. We stand. For new ways of relating to the food we grow and eat. We want future food to come from a place where community is core. Our aims are both visionary and practical. We want to create new habits and new ways of working. We want viable ways of living. We want to protect our rivers, restore nature, cherish life. We want a world… Where everything is connected from rocks to the human heart.
We want our children and grandchildren to know the taste of wild salmon and the foods those before us enjoyed. We want to be good guardians of the soil and of our traditions. We want to become good ancestors. We want future foods to be grown and eaten with passion without which we will fail. We want future food to be inspirational, to be easy to get and affordable for all, to be connected to people and communities. We want food to be familiar, to be surprising, to be secure in a system where farmers and consumers share an interest in this security. We want food to be pristine, to be fair, to be seasonal, to be delicious, to be nutritious.
Sarah Prosser: Yeah, it’s good, isn’t it? I just want to acknowledge Ray McGrath who read that in. He’s one of our key stakeholders. He’s 85 and is such an active changemaker. And he wants now to sort of unleash all the potential of older people to be change makers across the whole of the bioregion and things. So just a little bit just to wrap up.
Now we feel we’ve got quite a powerful thing to be able to take any little part of it and say, right, if we want food to be pristine, or nutritious, we can then say, well, what systems changes do we need in the bioregion to bring about pristine food or to bring about the rivers that do bring up the wild salmon and bring that back so that the grandchildren can, can taste it, whatever it might be.
So we use that now very actively as the vision where we’re trying to design using, you know, theories of change and three horizons and models and all these kinds of things. But that now is our vision. So what’s happened since then? That was last September we did that manifesto. And now we’re looking at what we call emerging concepts that are coming out from across the bioregion.
We’ve got 10 sort of emerging ideas of ways that we could work, ranging from a sort of rural hub that’s already there, but we could really turn it into something much more meaningful for the community and be a point of distribution for local milk, food, or whatever it might be. be. We’ve got older people as change makers, like Ray was promoting.
We’ve got a geopark in the area and could we make the UNESCO area of beauty, but it’s not being really sort of forward and showing what we could really do with a mission driven geopark. So we’ve got all these different, we’ve got 10 different concepts that are coming out. And in September, on the 8th of September, we’re inviting both international and local people and funders to come and say what would it look like to fund a whole portfolio of concepts that are linked in this way? You can’t come in and say transactionally you want to fund this one new idea of perhaps bringing in Aronia berries into the mountains as a business profitable idea We want you to be thinking about how to how to fund the whole portfolio All at once with the Bioregional Weaving Lab in there as one concept so that you’ve got this support going on continuously building capacity, supporting people, linking them. And to see that as a fundamental part of what you’re investing in is the relationships between the projects is as important as the projects themselves. And the Four Returns must be what we’re all working for, not just the financial or the natural, but also the social and the inspirational.
So that, that event in September, we’re going to bring the communities in to talk about their concepts, we’re bringing the funders in, mostly philanthropists and public funding, the business people can sit and listen if they want, but there’s very progressive people coming in to talk about why they’re, why they are funding in this way, and we’re trying to see how would it look like to, to sort of maybe even do the same process as we did for the manifesto for food, but to do it for funding.
If we’re saying, this is what we want from funding, from the community voice, bring in the top down sort of funders and say, what would, what would it all look like? But really driven from what the communities know, sitting on the ground, what is working and what isn’t, and what they need to make the change.
Abby: Beautiful. Thank you, Sarah. Amazing to hear about it.
And Pieter, it’s almost apt that you’re coming last in your Commonland role here, because I know that when I first came across Commonland, I thought, what the heck is that? Didn’t really understand it. And it was only actually through speaking to farmers that I started to really understand the power of what Commonland is doing, kind of in the background almost, in many ways.
And so, yeah, maybe you can share a little bit about Commonland and kind of positioning this work that we’re talking about, which is one of the bioregions, in this broader work that you’re doing across many continents at Commonland.
Pieter Ploeg: Yeah, thanks, Abby. So yeah, my name is Pieter. I’m actually based in the Waterford Bioregion, but Commonland is based in Amsterdam.
It’s a real privilege to be here and have this conversation with all of you. So Commonland was started around this, this observation that whether it’s restoration or nature protection, whatever NGOs have been doing for half a century, half a millennium has not been enough. Obviously the crisis in biodiversity is imminent.
So how could restoration and nature protection include agriculture as being the primary land use often? And how can people remain involved? And how can the economy thrive? So these questions set our founder on a journey. And to visit degraded landscapes speak with farmers, but also speak with the investment community, like what would it take to build an economy on restoration? A restoration economy?
One of the findings was that in a degraded landscape you obviously have a loss of soil or biodiversity or water retention. But you also have a loss of natural capital, but you also have this loss of social capital There’s a loss of jobs. There’s a loss of prosperity and livelihood opportunities. And if both of these are at a loss, you obviously also have a loss of financial capital.
There is no money to be made in a desertified region. All of these three we know as a triple bottom line. But one thing that our founder added was if this is the case in a degraded landscape, there’s also a loss of inspiration. Young people will not move there. People will not start families there.
They will move to cities. And we’ve we’ve seen this in the landscape where we’ve worked for about 10 years in Southern Spain neglected buildings empty villages there’s no hope or for the future or there was the future so
That was the beginning for this Four Returns Framework. It’s like, if we want to restore land holistically, obviously, you know, we want to bring back biodiversity or water retention or bring carbon into the soil. But we cannot do it if we do not also build job opportunities and livelihoods for people. If we don’t bring back hope and inspiration, and if these are back, if we have natural capital, social capital, inspirational capital, well, then our economy can also thrive.
So we tested this four returns framework in a landscape in southern Spain Western Australia, South Africa and the Netherlands and more recently in India as well at a scale of about a hundred thousand hectares minimum, believing that if we want to impact, we want to be above the farm scale, but not at the national level.
So we don’t get caught up in national politics, but still at a scale where we can make a big enough story and where there is a sense of belonging of the stakeholders to that landscape. People will say, yes, that’s where I’m from. And that sort of collective feeling allows us to create. Shared visions, such as the Waterford Manifesto which all of our landscapes have done.
And that allows for all of the smaller parts that are active in that region, which, whether it’s pioneering regenerative farmers, or new markets, or whatever element is part of that, of that future, to be collected under one story, under one narrative, and that narrative can be translated into what we call a landscape plan, which is this portfolio, which we can bring to investors to invest at the landscape level, at really systemic parts of the change that the landscape wants to see.
But that can also be through advice. So some of it is sort of building an investment portfolio. Some of the work that we do is, yeah, finding expertise that’s relevant for that region. So maybe what I’ll close on is in terms of my role. It is sort of like weaving in the background of all of that, that landscape level weaving to try and see what are the, the, the insights that are relevant across these landscapes.
So we have these landscapes around the world with Commonland, and now we have this new program of eight European landscapes where there’s a lot of lessons to be learned amongst and between them of, of similar systemic issues. You know, some of the things I’ve heard yesterday and, and what we’re talking about today.
That’s happening across the board. Farmers in Spain are trying to figure out, should we certify regenerative agriculture? Farmers in Romania are trying to figure out, like, what’s a new market, right? So this is across the board. These systemic issues are there. Everyone’s trying to sort of deal with these root causes of the problem. So how can we set up learning infrastructure between these different bioregions that could accelerate the transformation towards a new food system? So that’s what we try to support, and indeed we are in the background, and we love that role.
Abby: Yeah, amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I think it is something that I sometimes describe almost as like you’re the acupuncture in the background. You’re just providing these little needles of whether it’s money, or insight, or whatever is needed, and CommonLand just seems to be there at the right time doing that for these different projects. So that’s really cool to see. And I was wondering, I was gonna have a few questions here, and then I will open it up to you.
But, one of my questions was Donal, for you obviously you shared about the BRIDE Project. And I wonder, you know, as Sarah and Pieter and this Commonland, or the Weaving Lab Project has come in, how do you feel about that?
And, and also when you sat in that room with those other forty odd people and made, created that manifesto, what was that like for you?
Donal Sheehan: Well, that’s the, that was always going to be the next step of the BRIDE project. The Bride is a valley about 40 kilometers long by about 15 kilometers wide. And when we set it up, it was it was never, it was always meant to be a bit bigger than just a handful of farmers in an immediate locality, but not big enough that we couldn’t We didn’t have a hold of it as well, but it was always set up with a view to Being able to roll it out further and it just happened that the Waterford bio region came along as we are finishing up so What I would love to see now is we have what’s called a farming with nature standard and and we want to make that a brand so that The learnings from the bride project can be applied further afield and thus the, when you are farming with nature does a margin comes back to the farmer that’s lacking at the moment.
There is no connection for from, from the farmer to the consumer that that’s broken. Anything that I do on my farm, I can’t get the message out there that I, this is what I’m doing and this is what these farmers are doing. So we want to take the learnings from the Bright Project by setting up this Farming with Nature brand and taking it really to the Waterford bioregion, which would be a much bigger area, but not the whole country, that we can take the learnings and, and drive it on from there.
Abby: And that’s interesting, because I know that that has happened in some of the other bioregions, like for example in Spain, I know that they created the Almendrehesa, a business that was helping them sell regenerative almonds.
And now they have Alvalal Foods, is that right? I don’t know, do you know much about that?
Pieter Ploeg: Yeah, exactly. So one of the things that happens is when farmers start to unite these kind of questions come up, right? Like how can our products get a new market or how can we brand or tell the story?
So indeed in Spain where we’ve been active for some years we see the Like the almond racer for the almond products rainfed almonds And now Alvelal Foods as a as a platform for all of the local producers to bring these products to market whether it’s wine or olive oil telling that story and also Yeah helping farmers already sell those products at a premium while they’re in transition to really help accelerate that and sort of leapfrog that into the future, yeah.
So we see that across the board in the Netherlands, we also have a platform for, you know, new types of dairy production and local vegetable production. So, yeah, we see that across the board, and by connecting it, we can accelerate it everywhere, so that not everyone has to reinvent the wheel.
Abby: Yeah, amazing, and I think one of the things I also love about Commonland is you’re moving very seamlessly between, like farm community level projects, a business, or charitable things. It’s all part of the picture and that’s vital. I feel like that’s exciting on a new level.
Pieter Ploeg: Wherever we go there’s a pattern in terms of what people will describe as the problem. They’ll talk about silo thinking like oh, yeah these parts of government are not working together or farmers and NGOs are not talking to each other or farmers amongst themselves are not speaking. That’s like across the board, any culture, any landscape, people will talk about that.
And then what we find is missing is a common language. How can they speak with one another? Because everyone realizes that we have to solve the problem together. So they all agree we should do it together. We’re not doing it together. So what’s missing is this common language. So In our humble background position, we try to offer the Four Returns framework as that common language.
And so far, that seems to work. That, you know, in terms of the actual language, it may look different everywhere. It’s a manifesto in Waterford in this way, but, you know, with the people, by the people. It’s a collaboration of mayors in Southern Spain. It looks slightly different everywhere. But it’s about developing that common vision, that common language, and then including everyone in the process at, you know, in, in their role in the system that seems to be the, the crucial bit, and, and we’re still learning, cause yeah, it’s, it’s evolving constantly. Always.
Abby: And Sarah, I wonder, because I know that Commonland, or the projects, they have a 20 year time span, is my understanding. And I wonder, Sarah, you know, coming in as this weaving role. But knowing that there is, like, a very long runway for this work to unravel and take shape, is that that important, do you think?
Sarah Prosser: I mean, it’s fantastic that you’re acknowledging that it does take 20 years to change a landscape. I mean, if we’re not gonna turn it around in a year. But I think what we’re trying to say to people interested in the whole emerging portfolio is that, you know, we need people looking at the 20 year kind of processes as well as the five year systems changes and as well as the sort of one year six month sort of visible things And that if you’re going to invest in a portfolio of emerging things like this you really have to be looking at all of them all at once We can’t just have one of those being addressed without the others.
Otherwise, it doesn’t work. So please just acknowledge when you’re investing that we have to do these both at once and don’t just look for the fast returns but buy into the whole long term vision. Now when you say it’s 20 years. Yes, but the funding isn’t 20 years as such, you know, we’re having to sort of look for new partnerships as, as we go, you know, so that’s, and I think what’s, what’s been fantastic is to get this initial funding to show what difference it can make to join things up.
So that’s the sort of initial funding from Commonland, but we’re looking now to sort of say, well, what’s the local interest to match that and buy in and have a sort of sense of ownership as well locally. So it’ll be a mixture of different kind of fundings with different kinds of timescales. The moment we’re looking, just as an example, we’re talking to the Department for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Ireland who have got some money to look at their future food and sustainable agriculture strategies.
And they’ve come up with flagships, and they want to sort of design a solution for the future of dairy in Ireland. And they came to us and said, well, could you contribute to this? And we said it’s not really the way that we’re working. We’re working with a community bottom up, different alternative ways of doing things.
And instead of them saying, well, we can’t work with you, they introduced a new work stream that is just looking at the kind of thing we’re doing and said, could you now lead this? And we said, yes. So to hear systems acknowledging that, you know, that there’s other ways of doing things rather than just trying to change the current system is for us a fantastic sign to say that, you know, look, maybe the pioneers of the futures that we’re looking for are going to come from the pockets that are really small rather than the big industry changing.
It can come from lifting up these pockets of the future into the future. So that’s, that’s the, you know, kind of acknowledgement, and that will come with funding to let us do at least that focus on dairy to begin with, but we’ll be looking for other kind of funding for different thematic, all over the, the, the different concepts, so I, my vision is that we’ll have co weavers.
One looking at different themes. So this might be a co weaver looking at the future of dairy, but we’ll have a co weaver looking at the potential of older people to be change makers and perhaps that funding will come from people particularly interested in, in older people’s council and the kind of things that are happening there.
So yeah, that’s the vision is co weavering and a big platform of support and lots of different kinds of hybrid funding all going into maybe one big port. And not trying to be too specific and just say, look, this is the big support structure. So that we make sure we don’t do this you know, everyone competes for all the different things that we all just feel that we’re all supported in the whole bioregion from, from a single sort of combined co financing kind of hybrid pot.
Abby: Wow. Amazing. Okay. So I wanted to open up for questions at this point.
Audience Member: I’m pretty interested to hear where Commonland’s funding comes from.
Pieter Ploeg: Absolutely. So maybe just as a context to that before I answer that question is that we’ve learned that by having this long timeline, there’s different types of funding needed at different spots, like right at the beginning of a new landscape partnership, we notice there’s lots of separate project funding, but they’re missing this collective piece.
So then this process of developing a collective vision or collective plan for the landscape needs to happen. So process funding needs to come in, which means it needs to be unrestricted in terms of the specific outcomes. And then later on, that can be, you know evolving into a blended finance model, which could be a mix of investment, government subsidies, more regenerative enterprises, et cetera.
And we see that now in the landscapes where we’ve worked five, seven, eight years, such as Spain, such as Western Australia where that funding is really changing. So we are quite actively involved in the beginning. So we need that unrestricted process funding. We built the narrative for that and approached philanthropic funders to then channel that money for that process.
So you can, yeah, there’s a couple of Private philanthropy sources and lottery money, the Dutch Postcode Lottery puts in quite a bit of money into NGOs and then we act as a vehicle to bring that to the right kind of landscape partners.
Abby: Thank you. Okay. Yes, person further back. Hi.
Audience Member: My question is also for Peter. You said that one of the things you do is you set up learning infrastructures. I wonder if you could give some examples. I kind of had a meaning, but I’m not sure that I understood exactly what you meant. So a couple of concrete examples would really help.
Pieter Ploeg: Yeah, absolutely. So our partners in the Netherlands, for example, called they started with a small pilot with about five farms working together with an NGO to reduce fertilizer inputs on their dairy production land by using waste streams from natural areas through developing Bokashi compost.
So this was a very practical, on the ground pilot. Can we use Bokashi composted waste streams as an input for dairy grasslands? So that expanded, and those farmers were part of that pilot, that expanded to a bigger learning network. How can we now… Tell the story of our dairy products and can we sell our milk locally?
Can we sell directly to Amsterdam? So the learning network expanded. So we may help set up a farmer to farmer learning network. Sometimes it’s a broader regional learning network specifically for that landscape. Directing or connecting with consumer networks or with banks or with the city.
With the European project, we try to build a European learning network.. So what that could look like is you know, in Spain, we’ve been there for seven, eight years. And a manifesto writing process for them was really the right step to engage mayors, which have a crucial role to play in terms of decision making for land management. So that manifesto example was an inspiration for Sarah to initiate the process of the manifesto here. So we offer the platform and we direct it a little bit thematically, and often then the learning happens just by the people participating.
Abby: Question over there on the side.
Audience Member: Thank you. Question for Donal. When the ecologists were coming and giving you the biodiversity score, what metrics were they gathering? How were they removing subjectivity or assessing the value of woodland versus hedgerows or set aside?
Donal Sheehan: So the results based payments have been trialed elsewhere and every one of them has a scorecard. Each habitat there’s a scorecard we designed our own because we felt the previous other scorecards were nearly always dependent on indicator species. So, if you’re, for instance, scoring a hedgerow the way they were working was the more, the more species you’d have in a hedgerow, the higher the score. Now, that would mean an ecologist having to decipher what species were in each hedgerow counting them, and deciding then whether white thorn would have a higher rating than black thorn or gelder rose. So for us, that wasn’t important. It was important in that the more species you had, obviously, the more biodiversity.
But this was all historic, and the farmer could do very little about it. So we really focused on, first of all, making sure the scorecards gave credit to, to habitats that were quite good. And that didn’t need much improving. So the way, the way a hedge row would be scored is, has it been cut in the previous 12 months?
And if it has, it’s really down there. If there’s, if there’s pesticide on it, it’s auto-filled. I suppose from where I was coming from as a farmer, I felt that it wasn’t the way things were done before. They’d always say, ah, look, just, you know, let him off. He’ll be alright. You know, we’ll get him off the line. But we had to be very, very straight. And if there was pesticide… no payment autofill.But if it was fully mature and, and side trimmed because we didn’t, we didn’t want farmers to think that we wanted them to let the hedgerow go out onto the field and then impact on your income. So there was a certain management, but for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, the visual impact and shelter, all of those meant a mature hedgerow was best. And all the other habitats are done the same way. A field margin is, we wanted a two meter field margin beside every hedgerow. So if there’s only a half meter, you only get a very poor score. And again, if we went down the road of looking at indicators, botanical indicators, and giving higher scores for, you know, more botanicals then you’re, you’re paying more for the administration, and what’s left for the farmer then is, is nothing, because it takes so long to assess. So it was with a view to making it fairly robust and like you said, taking out the subjectivity and the grey areas in as much as we can and doing it in a speedily manner as well that we’re not taking all day to do it and that it can be verified after.
Abby: Okay. Go ahead.
Audience Member: We are speaking about bioregions and the notion of weaving. I can’t help but consider the Fiber Shed movement and what you consider the role of, or connecting food and fiber together in this system?
Sarah Prosser: Fiber Shed are fantastic. We’d very much like that to be part of that, obviously. And, wool in particular has been a real waste product in Ireland recently, you know, and could it bring back a market there? And is there a new market to bring in? Which is exactly sort of one of the Four Returns would be could fiber actually come in as a new market and begin to give it a new role? Mulch and fabrics and things like that.
So it would be perfect. Now, what’s happening at the moment is we say what we do, we’re looking very much for what’s emerging from the bioregion and actually the Fiber Shed activities and the things that are most exciting about them are actually not happening within our bioregion right now. They’re happening within other parts of Ireland. So while we would love someone in the bioregion to show the energy and interest to take that forward, if they did, we would be supporting them right now. But at the moment, we’re taking the ones that are showing, sort of, people are holding the concepts that really want to drive them forward. Those are the ones that are merging for us.
Whereas the FiberShed is one sitting there outside, looking brilliant, waiting for someone in the via region to say I’d like to take that and run with it, sort of thing. So we will, and we’re very aware of it. But it’s not quite there on the number ten of the ten that we’re doing at the moment. And so we’re also using food as, as maybe the way in to a lot of our systems change at the moment. So, yes, but no.
Abby: Thank you. A question over here.
Audience Member: Thank you. Great to hear other people describe themselves as weavers. We’re just starting out with a bioregional approach in the Marches, which is the area of the English Welsh border that is traditionally siloed. And the way in is with, so we’ve got a Marches Real Food and Farming conference taking place in September, but really that for me, it’s like a sort of entry point and we would love to sort of seed ideas for producing a manifesto and taking a sort of bioregional earth regeneration approach that I see food and farming being one sort of part of. So really a question whether, yeah, how we could engage perhaps with Commonland or the experience that’s come out of those processes that are taking place and how to do that.
Pieter Ploeg: Yeah, thanks. And it’s interesting. I’m glad you highlight the role of weavers here, and we’ve realized across our landscape that when we ask, especially the ones who have been active for longer, we ask, like, what are the moments in which things really shifted? Like, what was the moment that a lot more farmers signed up to be part of, of transitioning to regenerative, or whatever, and they will refer to to moments in time or events that were put together by people that show this weaving capacity, that could see how the collective is more than just a sum of the parts. And whether that was a particular festival or an event or a collective visioning workshop, afterwards everyone will say that’s the moment.
It really clicked for me and that’s when we learned as Commonland that investing in this role, whether you call it landscape orchestrators or landscape facilitators or weavers, which is our latest term, is really important. So to acknowledge that that role is really crucial to design it into the work and ideally funded is, is really important. And if you want to engage with all of our lessons learned, we have a platform called The Four Returns Platform where we try to share as much of our lessons learned and have an ongoing, what we call community of practice, which are open events, online events where anyone can join.
Each one has a different theme and we try to bring our lessons and insights to anyone. It’s all open source.
Sarah Prosser: And, and in my particular case, I try to really capture what we do in every workshop in a sort of very, sort of just real, realist way in a way. So you can actually go in and see exactly what we did for each of the workshops.
So like for the manifesto, there is a report out there which just goes exactly what we did and shows pictures of it and shares that. And that was on our website. I’m hosted by an organization called G. I. Y. which is Grow It Yourself and we at the moment we just have one web page there and past events and under past events there’s like reports and you can go and click on them and in there you’ll see the whole process of exactly what we did. But we’re actually speaking to Wyndon Bones who were the people who helped us in the manifesto writing process and they said, They really want to make something more elegant and beautiful for us. So I’m waiting for an elegant and beautiful website. And I think Donal’s going to put it onto his as well.
But at the moment, you know, it comes down to capacity for sharing. For us at the moment, it comes down to just one web page in these reports. But I guess in the future, if the funding comes to give us that proper support, we’ll make better communications and be able to share even more in the future.
Abby: I thought the reports were beautiful. Yeah, no, very comprehensive, and you really can’t, because I agree, there’s something, there is something abstract about thinking like, well, how do you actually Bring these people together and actually make it work. I think it feels very scary.
Sarah Prosser: It is quite scary. Yeah.
Every workshop you think no one’s gonna come and then they come and you go, whoa. What’s interesting is that the philanthropists who are now supporting us are really interested in co-learning about that process. You know, they’re recognizing that philanthropic sort of transactional gifts and funding isn’t isn’t the way to make long term, large scale change.
So they’ve said to us, you know, we really want to co learn what’s happening on the ground. And that recognition is quite nice. So we have both the Robert Bosch Foundation and the Daropa Funds at the moment, and they’ll be coming to Ireland in September as well, just to really co learn what does it mean to, to build trust, to build togetherness, to build a common vision.
And even the reports, they’re saying, you know, those are the moments in time. But we don’t see what you do in between the reports, you know, and, and what, what’s happening there. So it’s, it’s, I, I’m really impressed that the genuine interest in how to make change on the ground is coming now, I think.
Abby: And that’s cool, the Bosch Foundation, because my understanding is they’re a steward owned business. So, the foundation is collecting all the profits and then putting that into different important things. Maybethis is beyond, this is beyond this talk, but, yeah, they have an interesting business model, which has been true for a long time where all of the profits from that company are being reinvested all the time into projects that they think are important, and it’s a charitable aspect of what they do.
Anyway okay, we have time for one last question? Okay, Sam.
Audience Member: I really, well, I really love all the work you guys are doing. I think it’s fantastic and really inspiring and what I’m really taken by is the acknowledgement of the connectivity, but the actual financial support that is needed because there’s so much jeopardy in transition and I just wonder in terms of, so your thinking to do bioregions is clearly really important, but then what is the financial plan to be able to spread it further and wider so people have the opportunity to have the kind of support that they need to have this collective change?
And is all of your finances and where you put the money transparent so we can actually see the breakdown of the cost?
Pieter Ploeg: That’s a great question, and so, as Commonland, we really, we support our landscape partners, so we try to make sure everything happens in the landscape.
So also, financial flows go to the landscape and the actions are done by landscape partners. So in terms of transparency, you would have to look into each landscape separately and the partners that they have and work with and see how money is invested. What we do is we try to see what are the patterns of that financing model over 20 years. So how does that start? It starts with unrestricted process funding. We give some of that. Then it moves into a co-funding structure where we have a smaller role. We try to find other funders and from there it moves into a blended finance model of some investment funding, some government subsidies, maybe other programs and that looks different everywhere.
The farmers in Australia, they’ve started a company that went to the Australian stock market, so people can invest and buy shares in regenerative oat production. In Spain, it’s, you know, the collective branding and the alvahal foods, bringing it to Northern European markets. So what it looks like is different everywhere.
We have a couple of colleagues specifically on the finance piece that are coming out with some reports on what that looks like and what the blended finance transition looks like. And what we try to do as Commonland is, specifically with the financial world is to help them see the value of this process funding.
Because if we want to scale up our impact with landscape partners, eventually, you know, investment will become obvious. It’s gonna get too expensive to not act. So eventually we’re moving to, that’s our big assumption and what we’re working for, to an economy where a lot more money will flow into this because, you know, loss of biodiversity and climate change will become just too expensive.
Until then, we’re going to need quite a bit of money to flow into this unrestricted process. So we work with funders to try and get that going, to expand time horizons, to see the value of inspiration, to see the value of social capital and why that’s worth investing in, change making, all of that, and we see an uptake from funders.
And the event in September, we’ll try to do that within the Irish context. But we see that now that interest is coming up everywhere. We get a lot of requests to, to bring this conversation, have this conversation with funders everywhere.
Sarah Prosser: And maybe just a little comment from an Irish point of view is that at the moment, you know, at the very early stages, we’re hosted through GIY. So it’s an initiative. So they take all the… the financial and accounts and help and support that, you know, but I think, once we get the financial stability, the Weaving Lab will probably spin out as its own organization. And at that point, you’ll be able to see much more clearly what actually is happening through the Bioregional Weaving Lab.
So we’ve got a call out at the moment to set up a governance group just to look at what that would look like and what the transactions with our partners such as, you know, Farming with Nature or whoever it would be, what is the governance relationship between bringing in money and, and making partnerships to make sure it ends up with the farmers out there or the community in general.
And so it’s not quite there yet. But meanwhile, I am just very honest about numbers. So at meetings, I say we have £17, 000 to do this, you know, or whatever. And I think it’s just using the numbers in the conversations.
Abby: Thank you. Okay. Do you have one last short question?
Audience Member: It’s kind of following up on the other role of funding strategy long term, because we’re like looking at a similar kind of bioregional thing in the Avon bioregion near Somerset. How do you sort of secure funding that so it’s long term?
Pieter Ploeg: So we can stay here for an hour and go into the details. But what I would just very shortly say for everyone who then will get up and leave is that we try to develop what we call “landscape plans” where that bigger long term financial narrative is developed. And some of the landscape plans are available on our website. So you can see really concretely, what does that look like in the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa and Western Australia. And we’re developing them as we go in, for example, Waterford. We’ll be having our first version in the fall. So for those that are leaving, find them on our website.
Abby: Okay. Thank you all so much. Thank you, all three of you. It’s really Wonderful to hear the work you’re doing and the contributions. And I love the kind of flow of energy that’s going in both directions here. And I know we didn’t reveal this at the beginning, but Peter is also a farmer in the Waterford region as well. So you are very much involved and immersed, as well as having that other view at the same time. So, yeah, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much. And I think everyone is really excited. And we look forward to hearing where things go. So thank you so much.
This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barret and me, Abby Rose. Big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Katie Revell, Dora Taylor, Olivia Oldham, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins, Lucy Fisher and Fran Bailey. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt
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