This post is a reflection on the Land Skills Fair that took place in the UK from 13th to 15th August 2021. The event was the first major in-person gathering organised by the Landworkers’ Alliance since the covid pandemic – it centred not only their commitment to up-skilling for the agroecological transition, but also to building a diverse and people-centred food and farming movement.
Last week I attended the Land Skills Fair (LSF), an event co-organised by the Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) and Land in Our Names (LION). The event was intended to be about “sharing knowledge and skills about farming, forestry, crafts, food and land justice”, with an impressive range of talks, workshops, tours and musical entertainment on the programme. The format is hardly original, mirroring recent agricultural knowledge exchange and community events (think ORFC in the field, Farm Hack, FarmED, the Green Scythe Fair, etc.) but which of course dates back to the classic agricultural shows and fairs found all over the world. But something about LSF felt fundamentally and importantly different.
As with any LWA-led event, LSF was a testament to the sheer energy and health of the movement, with an abundance of inspiring ideas and projects to engage with. Key to this was event co-lead LION, who ran their own space, asking searching questions about ‘Access to land for BPOC in the UK’, the problems of inheriting systems which have their roots in colonial and oppressive histories, as well as ‘diversity and inclusivity in land-based activities’. There were also plenty of sessions run by veterans of the UK local food scene – like Jyoti Fernandes, Jonty Brunyee and Charles Dowding – offering insight into their innovative models as well as ample space for dialogue and exchange. And then there were the vast array of skills sessions on offer from woodwork, to seed saving, and composting – I myself was there to deliver one of these workshops on using weeds as a way to understand soil health (more on this here if you’re interested).
For all the importance of ‘knowledge exchange’ in an agroecological transition, it was only too obvious by the end that the workshops and talks were but a side show to the real event: people. This has been a long, dark eighteen months, especially for a food movement that is built on human connection, not merely yields and financial turnovers. The 500+ people who came out for this event embodied this – and the appreciation for that human connection was palpable. One attendee even triumphantly told me she had deliberately avoided any of the sessions, being intent on catching up with people she hadn’t seen for years, as well as connecting with new ones. I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t have adopted the same strategy!
And if people were the main focus, young people were the headliners. Each session was packed with young growers and new entrants – many of them taking part in the LWA trainee programme – simultaneously keen to learn from their forebears, but intent on doing things differently. And this isn’t your average grower profile either, with a deliberate emphasis on BPOC and also LGBTQ+ communities, taking seriously the inseparable connection between ecological diversity and political, social and cultural diversity.
Looking back over the rapid rise of LWA in the last 10+ years it is now clear the role that having a leadership team from diverse backgrounds – figures like Dee Woods and Jyoti Fernandes have been indispensable in making space for new perspectives to enter the movement and begin reshaping what land-based work, local food, and rural communities of the future could be like. As food researchers – whether within Agroecology Now, funded projects like COACH, or generally working towards agroecological transitions, it is clear these are the communities we as food system researchers should be working with.
LSF felt like reawakening to me – but more accurately it was a convergence of energies that have been bubbling for decades, lockdown included. This has been the product of many years of dedicated work to highlight the injustices of the systems we’ve inherited and of building new ones. As the event drew to a close I was reminded of an Octavia Butler quotation:
“Embrace diversity. Unite – Or be divided, robbed, ruled, killed. By those that see you as prey. Embrace diversity or be destroyed.” Parable of the Sower (1993)
I had previously seen this as an urgent and desperate invocation, but basking in the energy of LSF it felt more like a joyous fact. We have a long way to go in the UK to counter the effects of our racist and colonial histories – but the signs of change were powerfully evident at LSF. Our diversity is our strength; all we need to do is to embrace it.
To learn more about Land Skills Fair, follow the Landworkers’ Alliance on twitter (@LandworkersUK) and LION on instagram (https://www.instagram.com/landinournames/) or check out their websites in the links above.
Words: Chris Maughan
Images: Alice Taherzadeh