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The Living Soil Forum: Building a Movement to Steward Living Soil

This is a story with which any grower will be familiar. It is the practice of sowing and harvesting; the cycle of growth and decay; the dance between chaos and order. It is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the planning of the first Living Soil Forum; a humble gathering of soil stewards designed to grow a movement to secure a better future for our soils.

As a gardener I am fascinated by the potential of seeds. As a process host I am fascinated by potential of questions. Jostein Gaarder writes, “An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.” This statement asks its own questions to a culture where many of us look to so-called experts for answers or solutions to complex problems. “What if solutions can also be found by asking the right questions?” “What if wiser action can come through activating collective intelligence or by utilising the knowledge and resources at our disposal”?

In March, 2013 the ‘Summer of Soil’ team met together for the first time in person. Six young change-makers from Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand. We asked ourselves: “How could we sow the seeds of a collaborative and regenerative agricultural system?” “What if the principles and processes we apply to grow good food could also be used to grow a movement to steward soil”? If questions like these represent seeds of the Summer of Soil, then the Living Soil Forum is a fruit of these seeds.

The Living Soil Forum (LSF) took place at Kulturcentrum Järna , Sweden from 22-26 July, 2013; part of a larger five-week festival called the Summer of Soil. This festival also offered a series of courses designed to raise awareness and share knowledge on a range of soil related topics, and a beautiful exhibition showcasing the power, potential and vulnerability of our soils. The Forum itself brought together 130 policy-makers, scientists, artists, farmers, retailers and youth; concerned citizens from around the world. No ordinary conference, the Forum has been celebrated for succeeding where many conferences fail, by effectively engaging and connecting people and ideas; creating common understanding; integrating existing initiatives; and promoting genuine, cross-sector collaboration.

This story also represents a harvest, so to speak, of the LSF journey from intention to realisation. And it offers some personal insight into the arts of convening, hosting and harvesting meaningful conversations like those held at the LSF.

“Collective clarity of purpose is the invisible leader” Mary Parker Follett

It could be argued that the success of any initiative, organisation or action begins with, and depends upon, the skilful alignment of need and purpose. The Summer of Soil began as an impulse; a response to a clear need. Many readers will be familiar with issue of soil degradation. Yet sadly, despite being one of the most critical challenges of our time, it is still largely unknown to the majority. The issue affects the future of not only our species, but of all life. So the question of maintaining healthy, living soil should be central to conversations on biodiversity, food-security, health, climate and more. The challenge of soil degradation is of a magnitude and complexity such that it is beyond the power of any single organisation, industry or country to address alone. A broad-scale, cross-sector, collaborative approach is needed. Collective will and collective wisdom are needed. And they are needed now! Our first important step was to recognise and respond directly to this urgent need. We did so with the following statement of purpose; the objectives for the Living Soil Forum:

• Build an inclusive, global soil movement
• Inspire concerned consumers and especially youth to become active soil stewards
• Promote soil awareness throughout the entire agricultural system
• Showcase innovative practices and inspirational centres of agricultural production, living soil conservation and regeneration
• Design and initiate real projects and campaigns to leverage soil acupuncture points across the globe

This purpose resonated enough with others we contacted to enable them to step forward in support of the project. What had begun as a core team of six suddenly became a much larger field. 

“The quality of the field determines the quality of the yield.” Otto Scharmer

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of preparing the field. Wise growers understand that healthy soil is a living system in and of itself. It is essential for supporting healthy crops, healthy ecosystems and healthy humans. So it follows that stewarding living soil should be the principle practice of every grower. The same is true when it comes to nurturing life and health in our communities and organisations, only here, the field of practice takes a more intangible form as we create and host spaces for relationships to deepen and grow.

What emerged from the LSF, after roughly six months of preparation, was only possible due to help from the local community. Within this existing field, time and energy was invested in maintaining collective clarity of purpose; building a broad support network of international partners, sponsors and contributors; and gathering a team of dedicated interns and volunteers from across Europe to assist with practicalities. In all of these areas, the quality of the field depends on the consciousness and the intention with which people are invited into relationship.

“The need translates into a clear purpose and some defined outcomes. These two fixed-points can offer the coordinates for a good harvest.” Nissen, Corrigan et al.

Very few growers would plant a crop without a clear purpose. It would be foolish to invest time preparing the field, sowing the seeds and tending the crop only to find that it bears no fruit; that the fruit is of no use; or worst of all, that perfectly good fruit goes to waste. Yet this is precisely what many of us experience all too often in meetings, conferences and strategic conversations where despite the best intentions, results leave us feeling unsatisfied.

When we plan a meeting, what we are really doing is planning a harvest. To avoid frustration or failure it is important to establish clarity around purpose and desired outcomes. When these are clear, planning a meeting becomes more focused as we can now imagine which practical elements are necessary to generate a harvest that can be put to best use.

The planned harvest of the LSF led to outcomes whose impact can be seen and measured as well as those whose impact is felt or sensed. These intangible outcomes are no less important as they support the life and health of the metaphorical field and create favourable conditions for the seeds of tangible action to germinate.

“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place, but a seed to be planted and to bear more seeds toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” John Ciardi

If good questions are seeds of ideas and potential, a clear, purposeful invitation ensures that a seed finds a good seedbed in a fertile field of relationships. Appropriate timing ensures the temperature is right for the idea to break dormancy. Publicity provides the oxygen to allow the metabolic exchange of ideas. And good communication and dialogue behave as water to activate the growth of an idea and transfer nutrients around the living system. Once the idea has sprouted, collective will photosynthesises inspiration into energy for continued growth.

Much attention was given to crafting the LSF invitation. Our audience was anyone concerned enough about the state of the world’s soils to want to be part of the solution. Care was taken to clearly communicate the need and purpose to them, with seeds being planted in the form of calling questions around key focus areas. Communicating our objectives and intentions through the invitation was the best way to ensure that those who responded shared our intention. The invitation also planted expectations of a different way of working and collaborating; one that focused not on problems, but on solutions that work to secure and restore healthy, living soil.

“Who we are together will always be different and more, than who we are alone.” Margaret Wheatley

Just as working with the land is a practice, working and meeting well with others is a practice. It involves exploring the deeper patterns around effective relationships within groups and designing meetings where people can do their best work together. Experience shows that when working in complexity, dialogue-based methodologies and participatory processes are a way to generate fruitful results. These provide sufficient structure without prescribing the outcome, and they allow for the emergence of new insights and collective wisdom.

At the LSF itself, simple yet powerful processes were carefully chosen to serve the intended harvest. The program was composed of three main elements:
• Inspiration in the form of keynote talks and workshops,
• Conversation and participant led dialogue around the four Focus Areas, and
• Designing for Wiser Action, a 2-3 day design process in which participants formed design teams to collaborate on the development of actionable projects.

Work was balanced with generous breaks and mealtimes during which local, organic/biodynamic food was thoroughly enjoyed. Evenings provided opportunities to connect informally with other participants around cultural offerings and time was dedicated before breakfast each morning for those participants wishing to get their hands dirty by taking part in fieldwork.

“The fruits of our most important conversations need to be harvested if they are to have an impact in the world.” Nissen, Corrigan et al.

Picking the fruits corresponds to creating a collective memory. Collective meaning can then be generated by processing these fruits. During the LSF a team of ‘harvesters’ worked tirelessly to pick the fruits of the program. These were captured using a variety of media, from written word, film, photography and graphics to art installations. Many fruits were picked and fed back to the Forum right away. Some are undergoing further processing and some will be saved as seed for the next season to inspire future collaboration.

The LSF was a success on many levels with each of its objectives being met in some way. Tangible outcomes of the Forum included the coming together of 130 colleagues and friends, comprehensive documentation of inspiration and conversation tracks in multiple media, and 13 active projects for securing and restoring healthy, living soil. These projects included Solidarity, a volunteer program aimed at enhancing soils through organised engagements; a crowd-built, online course called Understanding Soil hosted by Allversity; and plans for a global network of beacon farms, research training and innovation centres for ecological restoration. Intangible outcomes were also significant and included a shared sense of purpose, a strong network of relationships in the field of trust and goodwill, renewed energy, inspiration, collective insight on a number of key questions, and individual and collective learning.

It was inspiring to witness the energy generated by the LSF 2013. Participants spoke of lives changed and commitments made as we accepted collective responsibility to work together, to restore and maintain living soils. Many of us came as growers with experience of stewarding life in the soil. All of us left as growers of a movement committed to stewarding soil for life. The Living Soil Movement continues to grow, with Forum participants planting its seeds widely into other initiatives and with projects initiated at the LSF already bearing fruit.

Visit www.summerofsoil.se for more information on how to join the Living Soil Movement and for details on the outcomes of the Living Soil Forum and the Summer of Soil. Or contact James Ede, Summer of Soil core-team member and coordinator of the Living Soil Forum, 2013