Changing Culture

By Will Frazer

5th May 2021

We recently hosted the fourth of five #RoutestoAction workshops, which explored the cultural aspects of agroecology. The #RoutestoAction series aims to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we were joined by a fantastic mix of over 130 farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society.

With presentations from speakers Tess Howe of AHDB, Jenny Phelps of FWAG, Brian McDonald of Natural England, Nikki Yoxall, PFLA, farmer and educator and Herefordshire farmer, Ben Andrews. With questions from the audience the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:

  • The potential for more collaboration between farms within a landscape
  • The potential for farm advice, mentoring and facilitation in increasing adoption of agroecological practices
  • The potential for improving knowledge transfer and skills to increase agroecological practices
  • The potential of technology in developing and scaling up agroecological practices

This blog discusses some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers, the audience’s comments and questions, and the answers given in the survey that accompanied the event. We will use this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due to be published in the spring.

If you would like to contribute your own ideas, please complete our survey.

What did we hear?
  • The agricultural industry is going through radical change due to the now unavoidable challenges of climate and nature crises, policy environment and economic pressures. We are now seeing huge action to address and facilitate cultural change within the sector from government-led initiatives, to peer-to-peer networks and farmer cluster groups through to individual farm responses.
  • Agricultural education needs to shift to become more relevant for the farming challenges the sector faces today, focused on regenerative principles not extractive practices, and teaching how to address root causes not just symptoms with chemical prescriptions. Agroecological education and wider sustainability-oriented courses and programmes are currently underprovided and in general, agroecological courses are served as alternatives to rather than integrated into production-driven courses. Shifting the education system (in its varying forms) is necessary to facilitate a transition to agroecology.
  • However, the cultural shift necessary in a transition to agroecology requires more than knowledge transfer. Behaviour change is a key lever without which there will be limited transformation. There is still a large amount of work to be done on monitoring and learning, to ensure that the right training and right learning materials are delivered in the correct way and there are ongoing challenges as to how this may be addressed in agricultures unique hereditary context.
  • Farmer groups have had successful impact in routes to transition. Learning networks that push people out of their comfort zone often provide very tangible behaviour changes, particularly when different sectors and age groups are sharing knowledge. Beyond discussion groups, and peer to peer learning, there is also opportunity for these groups to facilitate strong local supply chains, improved public procurement and accessibility and affordability of nutrient dense foods.
Comments from Nikki Yoxall

"The skills and mindset required to shift business as usual towards this path are not reflected in current agricultural education, which is still based on this post-industrial paradigm in terms of design and even when new qualifications are being developed, they are stuck in conventional patterns. And they’re informed in the development stages by stakeholders and educators, [who are] also stuck in those conventional patterns of being heavily reliant on inputs and fossil fuels. The chemical prescription approach teaches our students to address symptoms, not the root cause. We have agriculture and horticulture students who know more about sheds than soil, more about business planning than biology and more about machinery than ecological functioning. And that is not to say that business planning, machinery and sheds aren’t important, but they absolutely require context and consideration within a wider agro-ecosystem"

"What we require is a shift in education that guides and promotes working that is built around social learning opportunities that delivers at its heart regenerative principles, not extractive practices."

"Teaching agroecology doesn’t just require new knowledge, it requires a new educational paradigm and new ways of thinking."

"As a farmer, the most powerful learning experiences I have involves speaking to my peers, friends and colleagues, hearing about what works for them, visiting their farms, getting my hands dirty in the fields."

"We can’t fix this issue seeking and applying the same prescriptive advice that we have before. We have to be prepared to fail. We have to teach ourselves and others what it is to fail, to learn, to try again. And we have to develop the growth mindset Carol Dweck has been telling the education sector about for years’.

"As a sector, we must apply pressure to colleges, universities, awarding bodies and government funding agencies, to review existing agriculture and horticulture education."

Comments from Brian McDonald

On the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund: "Trust, flexibility and getting the right expertise on the right subject is critical."

"Collaboration is providing a useful mechanism to help build resilience to improve the dialogue between policy and delivery."

Comments from Tess Howe

"Moving forward, what we’re looking at is how do we implement behaviour change in whatever we’re doing? It’s ok us transferring knowledge, but if all we’re doing is transferring knowledge, then we’re not actually going to make any great shakes in the industry, we’re not going to make any great changes."

"What is the current behaviour, we want people to do? And what is the gap... Really understanding what are the drivers currently, and understanding: do they have the knowledge to change? Do they understand the benefits, do they understand the disadvantages, are they in a position where they can make that educated decision about what will work for them and how can we best provide that information for them?"

"I think we will see a lot of change and I think it’s almost the perfect storm. So much is changing in one go that people aren’t going to be able to just ride through this one like they might have ridden through changes in the past."

"Management and people skills are really important to help people with this transition as well."

Comments from Ben Andrews

"There’s so much knowledge out there, it can all be a bit intimidating."

"These are not new ideas, a lot of these are really old fashioned ideas, old fashioned mixed farming. There’s no such thing as a new idea... and there’s a reason why it worked this way for so long because you have a closed nutrient cycle on your farm, you are not constantly exporting organic matter and nutrients from your soil, you are replenishing it with what you take off...We haven’t had to use any synthetic inputs for 20 years are we are no worse for it."

"We need to not be too dogmatic about things … to evangelise too much about agroecology. It has to happen in baby steps."

Comments from Jenny Phelps

"Farmers do care about the environment, and we are potentially the solution and not the problem. That’s the culture shift we as a society need to be able to understand."

"In this journey, we have realised that we can crack food inequality. If we can map the land collectively as farmers and land managers and actually use UK habitat mapping as a system by which we can make an annual submission to a county based local nature recovery strategy that aligns the opportunity for investment for delivering those public goods (carbon capture, biodiversity, water quality, air quality, flooding). If we can monetise those, then we can make food that is only available to the wealthy, available to everyone."

"How can nutritionally dense food be more affordable, particularly if it can be purchased as part of a shortened supply chain? And that the money from the local authorities to buy this food, deliver their duties under the Environment Act and actually put nutrient dense food into our schools and hospitals and create the business driver for that transition to be able to happen."

"There’s a risk that the big land owners will be beneficiaries of big schemes and that the farmers will stop farming - and we can’t let that happen. What we need to do is find a way of all these inspired conventional farmers transition into regenerative agriculture not effectively be pushed off to become park keepers and tourism managers."

Comments from the audience

"How do we empathetically persuade the ‘conventional’ sector of our farming community, hard-wired into denial, fragile and brittle to breaking point, fraught with mental health stresses, to consider inevitable change, when change is seen as a threat?"

Denise Walton

"We have learnt to see ourselves as distinct from Nature. We (enlightened farmers and everyone else) have to move our minds to a place where we understand that we are part of nature, not above to the or below but of nature. How are we going to get that cultural change?"

Andy Johnson

"No one better than farmers to convince other farmers. This is why we need to support peer to peer learning and showcase best practice on the ground (including costs and technical pathways)."

Celine Delabre

"Is one of the challenges about culture change in farming that there is such a (unique?) familial context?"

Nikki Yoxall

"When thinking about whether farmers will make big decisions, I wonder what is really motivating them to farm. Is it more of the same old thinking about the balance sheet, about survival of business succession… because a lot of new entrants, especially from non-farming backgrounds, have really different motivations?"

Rachael Durrant

"How can agroecology or sustainable food production be truly integrated into agriculture and horticulture degrees rather than an addition?"

Celine Delabre


What is the mindset necessary for transition to agroecology?

We asked the audience to describe the mindset of someone they know who is currently committed to or using agroecological practices. These are some of the attributes they listed:

  • Curious and strategic, diligent and open to learning from failure and open to asking for help. And an ability to see a larger picture than simply what is at the end of one's own nose.
  • Passionate; determined; enlightened; progressive; experimental; wanting a better world; altruistic; open to learning and sharing knowledge, skills, passion; aware of connections; systems thinking
  • Curious, open minded, willing to take a risk, resilient to failure, innovative, confident

How can we better collaborate?

We asked the audience to imagine and describe how they would begin the process of collaborating more with their neighbours, supply chain or partner organisations. This is what they said:

  • Getting people together to establish common ground and identify common goals
  • Arranging to have a chat; sharing some 'scientific literature' to show that there is a science base behind agroecology
  • Farmer-to-farmer training
  • Demonstration sites
  • Blended learning
  • On-farm talks/presentations
  • Find where my business overlaps with my neighbours challenges and look to joint solutions
  • Knock on doors
  • Set up group chats online or phone
  • There could be a countrywide database of all growers and seasonal offers made available

More questions to explore

  • What are motivations for farming now?
  • How can we better integrate agroecology into agriculture and horticulture degrees? Is this the correct approach?
  • How can approaches be shifted in such a unique familial context?
  • How do we change culture passed down through family and tradition?
  • What skills beyond the technical agronomic do we need to equip young farmers and new entrants with now?
Research shared by the audience

Carbon neutral Cambridge, ‘From the Ground Up’:

Defining agroecology:

Rachel Lilley on behaviour change:

Achieving on-farm practice change through facilitated group learning:

What agroecology might look like for Scotland:

How has Covid-19 impacted knowledge exchange in agriculture?

Warm data, complexity and education:

A mixed-method study of the ecological and social outcomes from agriculture and conservation:

Farmer to Farmer Knowledge Exchange: Relevance and Challenges During Change, A Nuffield Scholarships Trust Report by Vicky Robinson: