#84: Beltane celebrations, the Black Farmers Market and mentoring

#84: Beltane celebrations, the Black Farmers Market and mentoring 150 150 Farmerama Radio

This month we begin by hearing from Ben Murphy and Rosanna Crawford about a Beltane celebration for young people in rural areas at The Shieling Project. The event brought together youth working on the land for a weekend of conversation, debate, socialising and collaboration.

Next, we chat to Natasha Pencil – the founder and guest director of the Black Farmers Market – about platforming growers from the black community and fostering a space to restore the cultural and historical communal atmosphere of Brixton. Now in its second year, the next Black Farmers Markets will take place on Sunday 10th September and Sunday 8th October. To get involved check their website, or follow them on instagram. Growers, it’s not too late to sign up!

Finally, we check back in with the Pasture and Profit in Protected Landscapes mentoring scheme organised by Pasture for Life. This episode we talk to Tim Jury, a life-long farmer who has recently adopted regenerative farming techniques. He tells us all about the benefits of having another farmer to collaborate with on this new journey.

This episode of Farmerama was made by Jo Barratt, Abby Rose, Katie Revell and Dora Taylor. Big thanks to the rest of the Farmerama team Olivia Oldham, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt.

Thank you to everyone on our Patreon. Your support helps us in bringing you the stories of regenerative farming around the world, each month. We appreciate it. If you’d like to join, please visit patreon.com/farmerama where you can choose your level of support.

Full Episode Transcript

Jo: Hello and welcome to Farmerama

In this month’s episode we head to Scotland to hear about a Beltane celebration for young people in rural areas. We speak to the organiser of the London-based Black Farmers Market, and we check in with another farmer benefiting from the Pasture for Life mentoring program. 

Abby Rose: At the end of April, Katie Revell travelled to Strathfarrar, west of Inverness, for an event called “Beltane at the Shieling Project”.

You might remember hearing about the Shieling Project in our “Landed” series. It’s an off-grid learning centre that gives people the chance to connect with the land and learn traditional skills – things like caring for livestock, a range of crafts, and even sustainable building techniques.

The Beltane event was organised by Rosanna Crawford and Ben Murphy, who both work in sustainability and are directors of the Shieling Project. They wanted to bring together young people working in land-based jobs for a weekend of conversation, debate, socialising and collaboration.

The event was also a chance to discuss some of the barriers young people face to living and working in rural areas – barriers like depopulation, isolation and a lack of employment opportunities.

Beltane, by the way, is the Gaelic May Day festival – it’s a chance for communities to come together to celebrate the start of summer and the emergence of new life.

I’m Rosanna. I work as a researcher in sustainability and yeah, I worked at the Shieling project with Ben last summer, so we were up here for six months.

I’m Ben. I work at University of Glasgow in education and research, mainly around climate change and teaching sustainability. I worked at the project last summer with Roanna for six months.

Katie: Can you tell us a bit about this event, why you wanted to organise it? Where did the idea come from?

It was a bit of a joke at the time, but we wanted to do something for Beltane, and I was desperate to walk some cows through the smoke that obviously didn’t materialise. The event was a one and a half day event on land use, biodiversity and wellbeing.

And we had workshops, we had a panel discussion on role depopulation and we had a walk up to the shieling site and traditional ceilidh as well. It was sort of as well, a bit of a networking opportunity for young people working in those sort of thematic areas to come together and, and meet others because yeah, as we’ve kind of found out, those opportunities are rare.

But yeah, it was a mixture of workshops, talks, activities and yeah, also to, to introduce people to the Shieling Project as well. We’re trying to do a bit more engagement around the project.

So I was doing some work for Cedar Land last summer, putting together a bank of resources on land use, and I think when I was doing that, I was really thinking about how engaged a lot of young people are, but maybe that there wasn’t a way for them all to come together and talk about all the exciting things that were happening.

Even just to have ceilidh is kind of rare and there’s not really any sort of celebrations for Beltane. So just, yeah, those are the main reasons.

Yeah, I mean, I think it was maybe a bit sobering to hear so many people say like, there’s no chance to meet anyone and it’s nice to meet like-minded people, and that’s surreal. That’s a real shame.

I think as well, part of the project is about living with the land and trying to understand the importance of not excluding humans and communities from land. And farming was a big part of the Shieling system. So I think it’s trying to make those connections for people and trying to kind of bring those conversations together, and then also thinking about the kinda wider debates around land reform and land ownership in Scotland. And I think that was probably the overarching theme, but we kind of know how emotive and polarising that can be so I think we wanted to kind of break that down into smaller chunks and we kind of saw that, yeah, the land reform, land ownership issue kind of ran through every conversation.

And it was nice cause we had Arianne Burgess here and I think it was important for her to, I mean, I’m sure she is aware of this desire that young people have to live rurally and also to engage in food production and yeah, different ways of using the land and sharing, sharing land, and maybe going back to more traditional practices.

Katie: How do you feel this weekend has gone? How are you? I know you’re tired, but apart from that, how are you feeling?

I feel really, really happy. I feel really proud of us. And it was just lovely to see everyone. It was really special. Yeah, I’m really, really happy we did it. 

I feel quite emotional actually. I think to see so many young people engaged in an issue, I think it was great that we didn’t have the same opinions on everything. There was debate, although it’s maybe a bit more nuanced than can be portrayed. And I think it was just so great to have so many people here in a rural space and kind of coming together and really engaging in what are really kind of real and live issues, especially around here. But then also it was just great to have a sort of a social time and a celebration afterwards with the ceilidh. It’s great seeing 50 folks around a fire singing songs and having a blether. 

Katie: What would you say are your main takeaways from this weekend? And it might be, a piece of information or a conclusion you’ve come to or something you’re really excited to do now, or a conversation that you had. Anything that sort of sticks out? 

I think we need to have more ceilidhs happening everywhere, but especially in rural places. And I think, yeah, the main thing that came out was the opportunity to meet other young people. That doesn’t have to be around a bonfire around ceilidh or involving alcohol or food. It can just be a space to come and meet people. And I think we really struggle. That’s probably not just a rural thing that’s, you know, the kind of erasure of public spaces and stuff.

And as well this thing around community and, and how important it is and how difficult it can be living somewhere where there isn’t that sense of community I think as well.

I think we talked about community of interests and community of place and maybe it’s like to all the people listening that you should get people together either around an interest or where you live. And yeah, like Ben said, it doesn’t have to be something fancy, it just is nice to bring people together and to chat and have a good time. 

I think as well, another sort of key takeaway for me is a feeling of hope. I think it was real serious important issues like the biodiversity crisis, like the lack of housing in rural areas, depopulation and underinvestment in these places. But I think what emerged towards the end of each day was this kind of sense of hope and that sort of recognition that there are solutions out there and a lot of those solutions are land based and a lot of them are related to food. But yeah, I think there was a lot of positive energy alongside the kind of admission that things are quite difficult at the moment.

Hi, I’m Molly Saunders from Trees for Life. Hi, I’m Helen Woolston. I also work for Trees for Life, but I’m also a freelance creative with Studio Compost. I’ve known about the Shieling Project for quite a while, and I know they do really important work here, connecting people to the land and to their local environment. And so anything that goes on here, I’m intrigued to hear about and interested to join in. And yeah, just getting together with like-minded people, also people in a similar generation to me who share similar issues, similar experiences on living in rural places and to have a place where we can come together and discuss our problems, our issues, the things we wanna change, the like positive ideas, uh, was really appealing and it was really uplifting to have this space to share with people.

I think it’s massively important to have gatherings because, um, it’s only at gatherings where you’re face to face with people and you connect with people on a deeper level that you begin to realise the absolute depth of power. I think quite a, a big theme of this weekend has been talking about how events as a whole hold more sustenance than, than the individual components. And I think that just truly represents that. Um, and I think that having a gathering of people that are not only like-minded, but within a similar generation allows you to feel like you belong and feel like you actually are doing something in the world. And, it allows you to, to be a part of the bigger picture, but also feel safe.

What’s been really lovely for me is just the general atmosphere of acceptance that you get from everyone and kind of like unspoken, smiley acceptance. So I feel from everyone we haven’t had the chance to get to know everyone here really well, but we know we are all here for a similar cause, and you can just feel that and there’s like a buzz of energy and a kind of a really welcoming feeling, which I think is really important in order to create a safe space where we can talk about our issues and what we wanna change.

There was an experience that we had, um, on Saturday night. Um, where we had been having a kind of traditional ceilidh where people were singing and sharing stories around a campfire. Um, and there was a moment quite late in the evening where the singing stopped just for a moment. And I think for about a solid 10 minutes we all just sat together and just stared into the fire.

And that kind of sounds quite terrifying, but it was just the peaceful silence of a group of people that had connected together and the power that held was yeah, just absolutely resonated with me.

Jo: Natasha Pencil is the founder and guest director of the Black Farmers Market, which happened for the first time in October 2022, in Brixton, London. She works in philanthropy, and is a carer and an activist. She tells us about how the Black Farmers Market is, first and foremost, an opportunity to platform growers from the black community. 

Natasha: So it was a response to the fact that a lot of growers felt like, you know, if they had produce that they wanted to sell, they struggled to find spaces that they could do that in. I was talking to people who were using car boot sales who were selling, um, kind of their food below its worth. Spaces that weren’t, that, that aren’t set up for selling, you know, fresh pesticide free fruit and vegetables and herbs. You wanna have a space that’s catering to that. And what we found, even myself because I have a condiments business – I make sources – is that you have these gatekeepers, literally a handful of companies that own and run farmer’s markets, you know, within the M25 and you then find the same farmers, the same traders, the same brands and businesses across these various markets every weekend and in the weekdays. And that cause, you know, that, that, that leads to a shutout of new people, um, especially from our community. I think for me as well, taking over Brixton Station Road to do it was about taking up space there as well. Um, you’ve got the Black Cultural archives down the road. You’ve got so much history in Brixton for the black community, for that Windrush community, and that’s a space that we’re losing to gentrification, um, amongst other things. And so, It felt really important to take up that space. It’s somewhere that I used to go shopping with my grandma, with her trolley, and you know, you don’t, I don’t really, I didn’t feel like I saw that anymore. I was starting to not see the grandmas with their trolleys in Brixton market anymore. 

And what we did last year with our pilot last October was we filled that street and there was so many people that kind of came up to us, um, came up to our researchers even, and was like, yeah, I haven’t seen Brixton look like this since the nineties. I had counsellors from the Lambert Council saying the same, like, we need to bring back more of this. Like, I had people from the community saying they never thought, you know, farmer’s market and black people were something that come, that went together. So we wanna, you know, we wanna break that stigma. We wanna break down those barriers. At the end of the day, a lot of the food that we eat that is on our tables comes from, you know, the global south comes from being grown by communities of colour. And yet we are so separated from that, from our means of production, from our growing, from having our hands in the soil. And that’s another side of it as well, it’s about, um, giving platform to community growing projects cuz essentially, I mean, we don’t have that many black farmers and growers across the UK yet, so what we wanna do is kind of shine a light on that and say, yeah, where are we? Where are we, outside of the cities and the towns? Where are we when it comes to farming? Why is it that there isn’t so many of us in that space? How do we change that? What are the barriers? What are the obstacles? 

Um, I went to something not too long ago, and they were pulling on this study that they did, um, with farming communities and, um, the effects of, I guess, rural isolation and poverty and mental health and how covid had a really detrimental effect on communities. And that being something that wasn’t spoken about. And then I just felt like, and still though the intersection of, you know, race and how all of those factors also affect people of colour in rural communities is something that still wasn’t being spoken about in that space as well. How do we bring that, you know, to the forefront as we, you know, know, and I’m sure everybody who’s probably listening to this podcast knows, the environmental, agricultural, horticultural sector is still the whitest in the country. 

You know, there’s a lot of apprehension and I understand it from the growing community. There’s a lot of people being reached out to, um, especially, you know, since Black Lives Matter, saying you know, okay, yeah, we wanna get, black growers or black community growing projects, or yeah, we wanna engage with this community and we wanna show we’re doing this and that. And then somewhere along the lines it’s kind of stopping or you know, the promise of we’re gonna do this and that for you not being fulfilled. And so those interactions start feeling really extractive. And I know when I first kind of came up with the idea and went around going, this is what I wanna do, do a black farmer’s market. There was a lot of, who are you? We don’t know you. You are an outsider. And we’ve been promised the world before and not delivered to. So it was a big piece for me to make sure that I made, you know, made that the busiest, buzziest, get as many people down and show that this is something that we can do and we all put our heads together. Um, there was a lot of, I think, apprehension about, you know, are we ready for markets we don’t sell? This is not something that we do. So although, you know, at the end of the day we’re in one of the most expensive places in the world, so it’s very hard to operate in this space without money coming in. It’s not something that comes natural to some people who are more, you know, about kind of just having your hands in the ground rather than how do we create these streams of income. But community wealth building is something that I’m also very passionate about. Investing in the next generation as much as possible in many different ways. And you know, that doesn’t always have to mean, yeah, you come in and bring in something can sell it, but you are somewhere where people can find you. So what else do you have? Do you have knowledge that you can sell? Is it workshops that you wanna promote? Is it a foraging group or a supper club? It could be you know, trying to get people down to your land so that you can get them volunteering. There’s so much. It was about, you know, trying to get as many feet on the ground as possible and getting people down there so that, you know, we can see what we’re capable of doing. Because, um, I feel, and, and this is not even just coming from like, oh, I think I feel, but this is from experience. You know, so many people have really great ideas. So many people, or even more people, have similar or the same ideas. And actually, if we came together and combined our ideas, it could be something so much stronger. And what unfortunately happens is that people kind of get in the, oh, well I wanna do this and I want my name to be on it, and I want it to be about me.

And it was really important for me to make, not make it a me thing and to make it a we thing as much as humanly possible. That’s why, you know, coming on here is also a big thing for me because I’m not looking for people to come and jump on my thing. I want it, I want people to jump on and, and make this thing a part of their thing so it’s our thing. And I want this to be, yeah, about community and us coming together and pushing what we are doing rather than it being pushing what I’m doing. 

Yeah, we are looking for traders. We’re looking for growers. So, you know, if you are someone that is in that space, if you are a grower, if you’re a food producer, if you’re a baker, if you are a cheese maker, like there’s so many spaces as well that we still are trying to tap down. Black beekeepers, you know, just people that are doing their best to get out there and occupy that space. So please, yeah, do get in touch. We’ve got, I’m pretty sure our application form is on the website as well. Um, if you DM us on social media, we’ll send information out to you. We’re happy to have a chat as well. Yeah, we’re out here. Come find us, please. 

If it’s not about coming down and trading, just come down and enjoy the day. We will definitely have the DJ back out, so there’s always gonna be a good vibe on the street on the day. We wanna have more activities. We wanna have a messy kitchen and bring back the face painter so we’ve got something for the kids to come down and enjoy as well. You can learn about foraging, you can learn about Permaculture. We wanna expand on kind of the knowledge sharing aspect of the market as well. Um, oh, and. I completely, nearly missed it. Gosh. So, um, one thing that we’ve done as well, we’ve worked really hard and squirrelled away. I say we, me, to bring in funding. Um, and so we’ve got a small grants program because one thing that I noticed when talking to people was, you know, who haven’t sold before was: “I don’t have a card reader, I don’t know how to set up my table, I don’t have a banner, you know, to advertise my business, I don’t have business cards or leaflets. So there’s two things. One thing is working with the council. So we’re gonna be putting on two virtual and one face-to-face workshop, um, to onboard people. So one thing as well, that’s a barrier to entry for a lot of people that wanna kind of go to markets and sell is working with environmental health and making sure that, you know, you are all ticked off and signed off to sell to the public safely and legally. We’ve got environmental health that are willing to come down to each of those workshops and talk to everybody, get them signed up so you are working with them rather than trying to fill in really complicated paperwork by yourself. We are also going to have them come and show us how, you know, ways you can visually merchandise your stock. So you know, you’re doing the best to make it look good and you’ve got a store that you feel proud of. And then the other side is the funding for our small grants program. So we wanna give grants of £250 pounds. They are bits of money that you can use if you wanna, you know, spend it on a seedbed, or if you wanna spend it on business cards and leaflets, or on a banner or even transport if you’re coming in from a journey in, if that pays for, you know, you hiring transport or taking, cabs or whatever, you know, we wanna be able to support our growers as much as possible to get there. So we really sat down and we thought about all the different things that people have said to us. We need space. We tried to create space. We want it to be fun. We tried to create something that’s fun. We want something for all age groups. We’re trying to think about how we can bring in every age group and every demographic and, you know, these are also, you know, logistically and practically issues for us. Okay, well then if we can give you a little top up and a little money so that you can buy that card reader before the event, work out how to use it, you know, how do we get you onboarded? Because, and this is another thing as well, if you are a part of the market and you are onboarded with Lambeth council, there’s nothing stopping you from coming back as a trader at their markets throughout the rest of the year as well. You’re on their books. You know, we’re not trying to do little one-off. Oh, that was nice, and then it’s forgotten. We were trying to create legacy, longevity and sustainability here. 

The next Black Farmers Markets are happening on Sunday the 10th September and Sunday the 8th of October. Find out more on their website www.bfmarket.co.uk, or follow them on instagram on @blackfarmersuk

Abby Rose: Last month we heard from one of the participants of the Pasture for Life mentoring programme. They invite farmers who are interested in nature-friendly or regenerative farming practices to be paired with a more experienced nature-friendly or regenerative farmer to guide them on their learning journey. This month we’re lucky enough to hear from another of the participants. Tim Jury is 69 years old and in contrast to Clementine who we heard from last time, he has been farming his whole life. Tim farmed conventionally in East Sussex for 40 years and had enough, he was ready to leave farming behind but then everything changed and as he learned about the concepts behind regenerative farming, that set him on a whole new track.

Tim: About three years ago, I wanted to wind down the whole operation and was talking to various people about Conservation projects that I might get involved in. And it became apparent quite quickly that the best option I had was to continue to keep livestock because livestock are the basis of many sort of increases and improvements in biodiversity. Really, they are central to, to doing the good work that we wanted to do. 

Without appearing to sort of overawe anybody who’s considering regenerative agriculture, there’s no doubt that it is a complete game changer really in terms of style of farming and what you’re trying to achieve. From an environmental point of view I’ve felt I needed the support of an experienced grazer who had already made some of the mistakes, should I say, and was able to advise and be on hand at the end of the phone, visit obviously, this sort of thing. But just to steer me on the path in the initial couple of years or, well actually the mentor scheme lasts just 12 months, but nonetheless, so I just had a sounding board really to develop, because every farm is going to need a slightly different approach, even though the basis of what you are, how you are grazing, because making it fairly clear that that mob grazing generally is the central part of the Pasture for Life movement if you like. At least that’s what I think is correct to say. But so, you know, it is a different concept and it’s sometimes almost counterintuitive. You sometimes think, oh, should we really be doing this like keeping the livestock out all winter. You know, sometimes I’ve looked at the fields and think, oh dear, this is a bit, uh, but you gradually learn to have more confidence through having a mentor there to sound these problems and issues or doubts that you might have.

We’ve gone through a very difficult winter and it’s been both cold and wet and that’s put increased pressure on the availability of cover. The way that you utilise this cover, because I had intended to keep the cattle out all through the winter. They have actually had to spend about a month indoors, but that’s all. So I guess deciding when to bring livestock in was one issue I wanted to discuss, but also how to supplement because I needed to bio-graze as well. That’s to say, using hay rolled out to feed them. And there’s one or two tips about how to do that without putting too much impact on the ground.

It is slightly worrying to see animals that are making an impression on the top surface of the soil. And you think, gosh, this is not what I was taught to do, conventionally. But the one thing that I don’t understand – I could have understood myself, but I didn’t until it was explained to me – these cattle are only going to be on that ground for 24 hours max before they move on. And that is a fundamental difference between what we’re doing and what conventional grazers might do if they just decide to leave the livestock out or winter. And it’s, it’s been quite an eye-opener to see the regeneration and the recovery of these paddocks that were supposedly quite severely hit. But now, you know, you see new growth coming through and they’re not as, they have recovered. And this of course comes back to the, the real mainstay of the whole process, this long recovery that you’re giving the soil, and that’s what it’s all about. 

I could have thrown the towel in once or twice throughout this winter easily, and just bought in a lot more feed, brought the cattle in and just decided that this winter wasn’t gonna work. But, you know, persevering and, you know, it paid off to have that support that made me realise that yes, they’re bound to be one or two days when you make a mistake, you know? But a lot of it was just the weather. You couldn’t help very heavy rainfall overnight. You come in the morning and you think, oh my goodness, but you move them on quickly and, you know, hopefully they’ll recover. I think the beauty of the scheme is that we can, overcome the distances involved because obviously neighbours are not likely to be doing the same thing as you, yet, you know, we hope that will grow, but they’re more likely to look over the gate and think, oh, what a complete mess you are making of it.

Whenever one is feeling, oh gosh, you know, things might be going wrong, could be better, you just have the confidence to continue because of the experience that others have just come through. And they may be even, I think a lot of the issues with confidence is knowing that the people who are helping you, the mentor that’s helping you, has made those same mistakes that he’s, fallible as it were. By being a mentee, I’ve had the confidence to see out a very difficult winter only having the cattle in for a month, which has saved quite a lot of expense in extra feed and bedding and the like. So that’s maybe indirectly, but nonetheless, it’s all key and part of the benefit that I’ve had, and that’s I think after this winter, which has been the period of time that I’ve have been, a mentee in the main, that would have to stand out as being the most, the biggest gain that I’ve had. You know, obviously building a bit of friendship as well with somebody else that I didn’t, haven’t met before. And, yeah, knowing a bit about his history and the like, and yeah, it’s all good stuff, isn’t it? Learning more from other people definitely. 

 The standard wintering period for my sucklers, 20 years ago was, as near as damn it, six months in and six months out, and so having had a month only, although I have been bale grazing outside, so the feed probably has been reduced by half. But then again, I haven’t made expensive silage. I bought hay in the main, but the bedding cost saving has been quite substantial. Maybe I should sit down and work it out, but I would’ve said several thousand for sure, or only a small herd like I’ve got, you know, with 24 cows and at the moment only about 12 followers, but when it goes up in numbers, then that’ll be even more. And of course the health benefits, I mean it’s difficult over, I mean, we’ve been doing this now for probably 18 months or so. We’ve just gone through our second winter. But I can already see that ongoing veterinary costs certainly don’t look like being as high. I’d like to think anyway, but that’s something I’d probably ought to keep aside a little bit because, you know these things go in cycles and you need maybe five years of data to actually say yes the costs in that way have gone down. 

You’ve only got to look at the scale of increased numbers in the Pasture for Life membership to see how much interest there is in this whole style of grazing and the regenerative movement generally. So to be part of that is really, yeah. Really great. 

I’ve sort of touched on the other benefits that, over and beyond the financial side of things and it’s a more enjoyable everyday life if you like. I mean, we are starting calving now, which still fills me with a little bit of dread because I’ve gotta tag these calves and you know, look after things. And I’m not getting any younger type things. But once that’s out the way, I mean it’s just a really easy, well, not easy, but it’s sort of a laid back style of farming, if you like, once you’ve got your infrastructure started out. But it’s just seeing, I think about the different forms of wildlife coming back and what you’re doing as part of the whole environment rather than sort of fighting it as it were, and treating the things that nature throws at you as obstacles rather than, well, they’re just, there’s somebody I go along with, you know, they’re just my partners.

Join the PFL and get yourself a mentor and give it a go. But certainly talk to others that are doing it. I wouldn’t think there’s one single member of the PFL that wouldn’t discuss their experiences and give their encouragement to people to just try to unshackle, these awful burdens that we have financially, that affect far more than your bank balance. And I’m sure they’re affecting lots of people’s mental health and the like. And I just think you can really liberate yourself a lot by giving this consideration.

Abby Rose: We’re very grateful to those of you that support us and allow us to bring you these stories every month. Even the smallest contribution makes a big difference to us. So if you’d like to become a supporter, you can visit patreon.com/farmerama.

Jo: This episode of Farmerama was made by me, Jo Barratt, Abby Rose, Katie Revell and Dora Taylor. Big thanks to the rest of the farmerama team Olivia Oldham, Fran Bailey, Annie Landless, Eliza Jenkins and Lucy Fisher. Our theme music is by Owen Barratt