Emily Scaife meets farming whirlwind Abby Rose who is working - and promoting - the importance of working with others to share best practice.
A young farming enthusiast has taken matters into her own hands in a bid to foster understanding of agriculture among her own generation and beyond.
Abby Rose, 29, admits when she was growing up in Cheshire she was unaware of how hard farming was. “Every morning I woke up and looked out over fields of sheep and cows,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in them at all. It didn’t seem like the farmer did much – just left cows and sheep in the fields all day.
I certainly didn’t think farming impacted my life in any way but I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Indeed, today her outlook and pursuits could not be more contrary to this initial assumption.
From creating mobile phone apps to make fellow farmers’ lives easier and establishing a podcast, to helping on her family farm in Chile two months of the year and setting up a collaborative farming project, she has achieved a great deal with one thing at the forefront of her mind. Collaboration.
Abby’s family moved to Chile when she was 10 years old, setting up a small organic farm called Vidacycle which produces wine, verjus (a lemon juice-type drink made out of pre-ripe grapes) and olive oil.
“As I spent more time on the farm, and shared our produce with people, I became elated by the beauty and nourishment that came from the land,” she says. “But I also felt more and more despair at the many risks and unknowns.”
Every year, following the frost, a few hundred olive trees would die back. However, without knowing if it was the same trees each time or not there was very little they could do.
Keen to come up with a solution, London-based Abby used her background in physics and technology to create an app called Sectormentor.
“The workers can use it out in the field to record the condition of the trees, frost damage, pruning, anything of importance – the key was that it was easy,” Abby explains. “We now have two years of data and it’s exciting we are starting to treat trees differently based on their history.”
A nearby blueberry farmer recognised the potential of the technology and together with Abby developed Workmentor, which enabled them to keep track of how much each worker harvested and generate detailed daily timesheets. “Again the key was that all the workers trusted the app, and that way everyone wins because of the transparency it brings,” says Abby. Davenport Vineyards in the UK is also a fan of the technology.
“Last year they were able to get a good prediction of yield five months ahead of harvest, as well as make real-time decisions about whether they should add more compost, or do a second pruning.” Multiple farms in the UK, Chile and US are taking advantage of Abby’s apps and she is rightly proud she has created something that makes farmers’ lives easier.
“As I spent more time on our farm I realised how important farming is to our future,” she says. “That each decision farmers make has a much wider impact on the land around them. In fact, it dawned on me that farmers are basically in charge of our earth’s future. “This is why I care. And this is why many people my age will care – but most of us haven’t made this connection yet.”
After attending an inspiring workshop called Farmhack in 2015, Abby got together with sound producer Jo Barratt and farmer Nigel Akehurst to set up Farmerama Radio to give smaller-scale farmers and their opinions a platform.
Two years later the monthly podcast has years later the monthly podcast has gone from strength-to-strength and thousands of people now tune in for each episode.
“We are committed to making radio because we believe that by sharing knowledge, farmers will learn and thrive together,” Abby says. “We are proud to be promoting farmer-led innovation, which is again part of the new era for agriculture.”
As well as farmers, the podcast is popular with members of the public, who tune in to get a better understanding of the industry. “They are excited to hear why farmers are mob-grazing, or not ploughing their soils, or why they are planting lentils with their wheat,” Abby says. “I love meeting farmers . In my experience they are often good people, very humble and with a lot of integrity, plus they know so much about their local landscape.
It’s a joy to wander around the land with them.” It was while Abby was reporting on the Oxford Real Farming Conference last year for Farmerama the seed of yet another idea was planted. “I attended a talk called A Field of Wheat,” she says. “Two artists, Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Levene, were working with a farmer, Peter Lundgren, and had got together a collective of 42 people to co-invest in his field of wheat in Lincolnshire.
I signed up then and there and invested £200 – my first ever investment.” She describes it as one of the best projects she’s ever been part of and has enjoyed being a vital cog in the decision-making machine. “The first decision about how much nitrogen to apply, if any, had many of us feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “I was adamantly organic my whole life and couldn’t imagine adding nitrogen fertiliser, yet I learned the wheat would probably die if we didn’t add it and then I would be risking the farmer’s livelihood as he had a bigger stake in the field than us.
“In the end we voted to add 1/5th of the nitrogen he would normally apply based on recommendations from a wheat expert. “We also decided how we would sell the wheat . No local mills or bakers wanted it because it wasn’t organic and it wasn’t the right heritage wheat. So we ended up selling to OpenField co-operative; the wheat was good quality so we each made a profit of £10.99.”
Inspired by the experience, Farmerama, together with Future Farm Lab and two other women involved in farming, Carolin Goethel and Annie Landless, created OurField. The project has already attracted 42 co-investors for a field of grain on a farm owned by John Cherry in Hertfordshire and is currently deliberating over what grain to grow.
“We want to share the risk and reward, the highs and lows of nurturing the soil and growing food,” she explains. “We want to help increase respect for farmers; by empowering them to share their journey with many others.” Abby explains the project will help participants, and those listening through Farmerama, understand exactly what it takes to grow a field of grain.
“The collective will share in the highs and lows, feel the risks every step of the way, as a farmer does,” she says. The best thing about the project, Abby believes, is the different beliefs and preconceptions each member of the collective brings to the table. “Each member will have their own perspective — we want to work on this puzzle together not just have a bunch of like-minded people agree,” she adds.
The project is hopefully the first of many and the OurField team hope it will inspire other like-minded collectives to form across the UK. “We are documenting everything as we go so by the end of the year we will have a handbook so that others can do their own OurFields around the country,” she says.
The spirit of collaboration runs through everything Abby has created and she is keen to both give farmers a voice and bring together an audience keen to hear what they have to say. “My feeling is that we’re all in this together. We want to be part of a holistic ecological future and the farmers are central to the future of the planet.”