Research projects

Organic at the Heart

Contract Period : 01/07/2021 - 30/06/2023

Main Funder : Charitable Trusts and ORC Supporters

ORC Staff Contact : Charlotte Bickler

Collage of images from the OATH project

The Organic at the Heart project aims to build communities around environmentally friendly farming through the development and demonstration of local hubs that embody the Organic Principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care.

Project Aims:

Food is only sustainable if it’s produced in harmony with nature, protecting wildlife and the environment.  It is our hope that as a result of this project:

  • More farmers are inspired to transition from conventional to organic and agroecological farming.
  • Connections between farmers and local food businesses will be improved, leading to the development of regional relationships and food networks.
  • Communities will have improved access to healthy food that’s produced in an ethical and sustainable way and consumer demand will grow.

Working with farmers to identify their biggest problems and potential solutions, we will use research to test how the application of organic principles can improve productivity, efficiently use natural resources and enhance our natural environment. Local on-farm workshops will be held to demonstrate regional food and farming initiatives and develop food and farming networks.

We know that peer-to-peer exchange is a valuable tool when introducing farmers to innovative practices that solve problems. Building relationships with local food businesses to develop short supply chains is also key to achieving our aim to support sustainable food and farming practices. Farmers will also have the opportunity to welcome and connect local communities to real-life farming and the countryside. Working together, we will develop regional initiatives whilst exploring success factors for wider application.

ORC's Role:

Project leader

Key Achievements:

Regional hubs and living labs 

Kernow Agroecology Network  

This community of agroecological food producers has worked together through the OATH project to share skills and knowledge and collaborate practically to support a transition to a more agroecological food and farming system based in Cornwall. A particular focus of the group is to collaborate on transport, buying in organic produce and working towards an alternative local food ecosystem.

Co-innovation workshop at Newquay Orchard

Co-innovation workshop at Newquay Orchard

An initial mapping exercise catalysed lots of ideas including linking community growing schemes with GPs, schools and social subscribers. This is being developed further in partnership with Sustainable Food Cornwall, Cornwall Council, Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board, Food from Cornwall and Exeter UniversityThe map will now be used as an operational tool to enable visioning and collaboration across the sector. It is a work in progress but is available here: Our experience in Cornwall highlights how such a map can provide a great visual tool to start to imagine the possibilities of joining up the dots and creating a resilient food ecosystem in an area. Growers in a WhatsApp group are already starting to make connections to buy and sell produce and share journeys.

The final activities  (until November 2023) will be to identify and publish the needs and opportunities for agroecological food producers in Cornwall with a focus on opportunities for collaboration on transport, storage, production, and wholesale. See Exploring collaboration for a resilient local food system in Cornwall

Yorkshire Grain Alliance  

The Yorkshire Grain Alliance (YGA) is an umbrella under which a group of farmers, bakers, millers, retailers, researchers, and others interested in buildi

ng an alternative grain economy across the region meet and deliver activities and events. The Yorkshire Grain Alliance aims to get more people buying non-commodity cereals and to increase the opportunity for farmers to move away from intensive (monoculture) systems. Group members are united by their desire to see the benefits of diverse organic and agroecological farming systems (for biodiversity, climate and society) being applied over a greater area and recognise the need for an alternative system of distribution and exchange. The group aims for these system-level challenges (and opportunities) to be represented in a practical format for people to digest.

Members of the Yorkshire Grain Alliance visit Mike Stringer’s crops for 2023 harvest.

Members of the Yorkshire Grain Alliance visit Mike Stringer’s crops for 2023 harvest.

Two key priorities that group members identified were to increase the number of people attending group meetings and to engage the local small-scale organic mill in the network. The Grain Changers event was a catalyst in working towards both these aims. Following the mill owners raising concerns about the longevity of their enterprise as they are (over)due to retire YGA members have begun to explore how they can support the farm and mill. The group are now working towards a “One Grain Changer Product on the Counter per bakery” pledge to address the fact that local flour is likely to perform differently to standard industrial flour, e.g. strong white bread flour.

The ambition is that, over time, YGA will become a thriving network of farmers, millers, bakers, and people who love to eat their local grains. The hub’s lead has worked with York University’s Fix Our Food programme to secure funding for a knowledge exchange brochure about YGA’s work. 

Next steps include:

  • Continued facilitation of knowledge exchange between farmers, bakers and millers working with organic and agroecological grains across Yorkshire and developing “One Grain Changer Product”.
  • Networking with medium-scale processors to find a market for larger quantities of grain whilst bakers in the network become more confident working with local grains, and the number of bakers in the network grows.
  • Analysis of the current production figures for different cereal crops across the region, how they are processed and their end-markets, as well as consumption levels. This would help us to understand market potential and support visioning of future scenarios for the ‘alternative grain economy’.
  • Economic analysis of different production models, including case studies from the local food system, to unpick where the differences in costs of production and pricing lie to establish fair pricing mechanisms and map these against different scenarios for the future.

Cotswold Grain Network 

Like the YGA, the Cotswold Grain Network (CGN) is a group of bakers, farmers, brewers, and researchers who want to re-imagine the grain economy in the Cotswolds (See: What will arable farming in the Cotswolds be like in years to come?).

Visiting the crops at Lower Hampen Farm during the Cotswold Grain Network gathering

Visiting the crops at Lower Hampen Farm during the Cotswold Grain Network gathering

Some key themes identified have been:

  • The need for bakers to provide their flour requirements (volumes) to farmers to ensure the best supply/demand.
  • The optimum distribution chain and how risk can be shared.
  • Connection from farmer to baker via local mills.
  • Knowledge transfer between farmers and bakers so that each group knows what is required from the other.
  • Legislation – and the sharing of seed not on the National List.
  • Shifting metrics e.g., from protein specifications to gluten strength (taste & nutritional value).
  • How to handle grain in smaller quantities.

The activities in the Cotswolds supported by OATH have seeded the development of a new initiative: the West Midland Grain Network. This may provide further opportunities for collaboration with ORC.

See: Cotswold Grain Network

Developing tools for farmer participatory research in Mid-Wales 

In Wales, there is an interest from hill-grazier farmers to investigate the planting of trees for animal and biodiversity benefits, aligning with Government targets for increasing tree planting to cover 10% of the farmed landscape. To strengthen the central role of farmers in participatory research, this proposed network focussed first on the tools to be used – and tested – by the network in their planning and decision-making. The first tool is the ‘Farmer Field School or ‘Stable School’ model, modified to allow a wider focus and, beyond the farmers as experts, the inclusion of invited external experts to exchange knowledge without jeopardising or diminishing the farmer voice or ownership of the process. The second tool, which is at the heart of OATH activity, is the development of an ethical framework for decision making, based on the four organic principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care. The framework is intended to be a supportive planning tool for both individuals and networks to align any changes with the most ethical practices, identifying and consciously planning to realise these principles in practice.

Unlike the hubs above there was not an established group to work with in this area and the tools are being designed to be used to support the participatory action process and provide initial direction.

Should funding be available, the hub lead will collaborate with the Woodland Trust and other local NGOs to implement a participatory approach to developing agroforestry projects with hill graziers. Should funding be available, the hub lead will collaborate with the Woodland Trust and other local NGOs to implement a participatory approach to developing agroforestry projects with hill graziers. 

Agroforestry in the North of England Living Lab

Participants in the north of England agroforestry living lab discussing integration of trees into arable systems at the kick-off event in May 2023

Participants in the north of England agroforestry living lab discussing integration of trees into arable systems at the kick-off event in May 2023

The philosophy and approach developed in the OATH project is being integrated into other ORC projects. In early 2023 a new living lab was initiated in the north of England. Living labs are open innovation networks established in real-life environments that use iterative feedback processes to create sustainable impact. They are at the centre on many Horizon Europe research programmes. The living lab that ORC is working to establish in the North of England is focussed on agroforestry implementation as part of the REFOREST project. See: North of England Agroforestry Living Lab


Project leader and partners:

We aimed to develop the Organic at the Heart project as a collaboration between pioneering farmers and food businesses from across England and our research and knowledge exchange team. Together we set out to plan and deliver place-based action research and knowledge exchange to inspire change at a community level.

All sources of funding:

Thank you to everyone who supported out fundraising appeal for the Organic at the Heart project.

Other Web Links:

This project was developed following on from a workshop at the Northern Real Farming Conference (2020). You can watch a recording of the session here.

ORC Team involved with this project

Principal Researcher and Knowledge Exchange Manager – Crop Diversification
Knowledge Exchange and Agroecologist
Senior Livestock Researcher
Organic Business and Markets Researcher
Head of Research