We are in a moment of collective crisis. Climate change is wreaking havoc with the cycles of nature, bringing droughts, floods and heatwaves to more people, more often. Species extinction is happening at a rate not seen since the last great extinction. Chemicals and microplastics contaminate our waterways, our soils and our bodies; while forests are cleared, grasslands ploughed, wetlands filled and the seabed trawled in the name of progress. At the same time, our world grows ever-more unequal. More people are hungry today than in the first decade of the 21st century. Fractures in society–along lines of race, class, gender, and ability–are widening once again into gulfs.
Agriculture–in the way it has come to be practiced over the past one or two centuries–and the broader food system have a major part to play in this ongoing process of social and ecological devastation. But food and farming can also be a major part of the solution. Agroecology—an approach to food systems that centres principles like soil health and biodiversity, synergy and connectivity, fairness and participation (among others)--aims to reverse the harms caused by the industrial food system and to contribute to the renewed flourishing of our social and ecological systems. Agroecology, and other forms of ‘regenerative’ and ‘sustainable’ approaches to food production, distribution, and consumption—such as organic and biodynamic farming, community-supported agriculture, farmer cooperatives, and more—offer a future of food and farming that promises both the mitigation of climate change and climate resilience; the protection and restoration of biodiversity and diverse landscapes; clean, healthy ecosystems for human and non-human life; and greater social and economic equity and justice, particularly for those marginalised and excluded from the existing system.
In the context of these wider issues, Farming the Future came into being.
The seeds of an idea
It all began with a seed: the seed of an idea, a question—what would happen if two funders came together and started collaborating to support a movement in the UK? How could these funders work collaboratively to support collaboration; to help weave a network—an ecosystem—of actors working towards shared goals; to provide an infrastructure to allow this ecosystem to imagine a new future?
Asking these questions in early 2019, the A Team Foundation and the Roddick Foundation breathed life into what would become the funder collective known as Farming the Future. The movement they were interested in supporting and uplifting was the food and farming movement—a diverse collection of organisations, farmers, food processors, creatives, advocates and others seeking to change the food system for the better. They launched with a gathering, bringing together a wide range of key players in the movement to share wisdom, discuss ideas, and devise collaborative projects to receive funding.
In Year One, Farming the Future supported 11 projects across the sector—from action on pesticides, to farmer-to-farmer mentoring. Over the following years, the collective quickly grew, bringing on board five new funders to contribute financially and creatively and organisationally to the work. More money was funneled into the movement, more projects supported, more organisations brought into the Farming the Future network.
Sowing seeds of experiments
In its first three years of operation, Farming the Future experimented with a range of creative and alternative approaches and processes for funding the food and farming movement. For instance, early on in the collective’s journey, a decision was made to involve representatives of the movement in the decision-making structures and processes of the collective, knowing these people were more connected to the needs of the movement. To this end, representatives of the movement, initially identified by the funders, were invited to be a part of Farming the Future’s steering committee. Once formulated, this group experimented with collective decision-making, with all members of the committee given an equal say across a wide range of decisions—from funding choices to operational decisions.
Looking at the bigger picture, Farming the Future organically developed an iterative model of funding involving, broadly, two phases: listening to the movement and sensing developments, needs and trends within it; and funding and otherwise resourcing the movement. With each emergent iteration of this loop, the ambition and scope of the work grew. In the collective’s most recent grant round, conducted in the latter half of 2021, £554,352 was granted to 11 different projects, encompassing 33 organisations and many different focus areas.
For many of the funders who joined in the two years following Farming the Future’s launch, food and farming was a totally new area of funding. Getting involved in Farming the Future gave these grantmakers an opportunity to experiment with a different approach to funding, and to learn more about a new field, in a low-stakes context environment. Many of them took what they learned from their involvement in Farming the Future and applied it to other parts of their work—from incorporating new and different ways of working into their own foundations’ processes, through to identifying new grantees to fund more deeply beyond the remit of the collective. It was (and continues to be) a process of deep learning—and unlearning—for all involved.
Not only did the funders who joined the collaborative benefit from what they learned from the movement, but also from the other funders. Each funder within Farming the Future brings different forms of governance, strategic focus and personal experience. In a sense, Farming the Future could even be considered a mechanism not only for resourcing the movement, but also for resourcing funders—with the knowledge, courage and confidence that funding can be done differently. It’s an exploration not only of what to fund, but also of how to fund. At the same time, we recognise that not every funder wants such a hands-on approach, and that there is a need to balance making space for funders to have that opportunity to learn with making sure this doesn’t take away from the need to focus on resourcing the movement.
Tending to the soil of our collaboration: shifting strategies
The horoeka, or lancewood tree, is an unusual plant from Aotearoa New Zealand. When it is young, its leaves are brownish, tough, narrow and thorny, sweeping down towards the earth from its narrow, branchless trunk, like the fletching on an arboreal arrow. As it matures, however, it changes tack entirely. As it surpasses the three metre mark, its leaves become greener and broader, arraying themselves in a bushy canopy, its large purple fruits providing food for birds like kererū and tūī.
Like the horoeka, Farming the Future began to outgrow its earlier form as it grew. Some of the experiments that had worked for it as a small, two-funder partnership didn’t make sense any more as the number of funders expanded. Strategies that had been ideal when the network was small became unwieldy as the number of possible grantees ballooned with each successive round. To respond to the changing needs of the funder collective and of the movement, it was decided that we should carry out a six-month facilitated process of learning, reflection, and imagination, geared towards renewing and revitalising the initial vision, and developing new processes, relationships and structures. While we likely could have carried on without investing our time, energy and funds in this process, it would have become increasingly challenging for us to continue pushing at the edges of what is possible and needed.
As part of this work, we took the time to reflect on and celebrate all that has happened so far, including a process of active listening and engagement with the food and farming movement. It was important to us to take the time to understand not only what was working and not working for the funders involved in the collective, but also for the grantees and other members of the movement who inspire us and who we are in service to. This process culminated in a three-day facilitated, in-person retreat at the glorious 42 Acres in Somerset at the end of March. This was particularly important for us as, having started in 2019, the majority of Farming the Future’s existence has been carried out online, and most of us hadn’t met in person for a significant amount of time. We left with a renewed commitment to the work Farming the Future is doing, and with lots of ideas about how best to organise over the coming months.
Reaching for the sun
While we’ve learned a lot from this process, there are still a lot of questions that are still unanswered. Of course, that’s always the nature of change and evolution - and it’s important to remember that building a collaboration, like any relationship, is a continuous process of reflection, change, and intentional and active commitment. Part of the magic of the collaboration has been the rich learning for all who have been part of it. It’s not been easy, but there is a shared commitment that is powerful and has much potential yet to be realised.
Over the coming months, Farming the Future will be continuing to grapple with a number of questions that came up during the past six months, and particularly at our retreat. These are questions like:
- What is the mode of organising governance that will enable this collective to thrive and grow? How will we ensure this mode allows anyone to step in or out as necessary?
- How do we create a culture of care and support for all those involved with Farming the Future?
- What is an appropriate role for funders who want to support movement and field building? What are meaningful strategies for doing this? What is the nature of support required by movements and fields that funders can provide?
- How can we ensure that we are continuously receiving and listening to input from the movement we serve without creating perceived or actual conflicts of interest?
- How do we choreograph the dance of knowing when to step in, step out, and let go?
If you would like to be a part of the next phase of Farming the Future’s development, to contribute to answering these questions, and to participate in building relationships, please, get in touch with Anna Van der Hurd on firstname.lastname@example.org.