Meet the Director: Liz Bowles
29th June 2020 by OFC Press Team
I am Liz Bowles, OFC Director and Associate Director of Farming and Land Use at the Soil Association, leading the work we do with farmers and growers. As part of this role I help to direct the Innovative Farmers Programme, which supports farmers in testing new ideas on their own farms. We reached the landmark of setting up our 100th field lab this Spring, which I am very proud of as I have been leading this work since 2013. I am also a pedigree sheep farmer in Devon, with one of the largest pedigree Shropshire sheep flocks in the UK. I manage the sheep on strictly commercial lines, including using performance data to inform selection decisions.
I come from a long line of farmers on both sides of my family, so it was perhaps inevitable that I have ended up keeping my toes dipped in the soil. I have had a varied career in Agriculture following completing a degree in Animal Sciences, I worked as a VSO in Africa training “barefoot vets”. On my return to the UK, I joined ADAS, where I worked in a number of roles culminating in being their national red met specialist. I then spent an enjoyable period with English Food and Farming Partnerships, where I worked with groups of farmers and supported whole supply chains to find more collaborative and hopefully effective ways of working before joining the Soil Association in 2013.
How long you have been an OFC Director? I have only been an OFC Director since January. I am loving it so far.
Where are you based/what area do you cover? I live in Devon, but my role at the Soil Association involves working across the whole of the UK and working with EU partners.
Could you please describe for me your first experience of the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC)?
My first experience of Oxford was in 2013, when we sponsored a fringe event on Innovative Farmers, which has been followed in subsequent years by our great debate sessions on the eve of conference which focusses on a specific food or drink.
Why did you want to be part of the OFC Council?
I wanted to be involved in the OFC Council, partly to help support the great institution which it is, partly to pay back to the agricultural sector for the great experience I have had within it throughout my career and partly as I hoped I had something useful to offer the Council as we move into such uncharted times with regard to future agricultural policy and with our rapidly changing climate.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Good question. I have been very lucky to have been able to combine a career as a practical farmer with that of an advisor and to some extent an influencer and leader. It is a great privilege. The key life experiences have been those which have demonstrated to me that the qualities of determination and commitment will always pay in the end. I love being able to support others as they make their way through their careers in Agriculture. A very helpful mantra I will always keep close is to value everybody I come into contact with as it has given me such a positive store of goodwill which helps me to achieve far more.
What has been the highlight of your Directorship so far?
I think it has to be how effectively I felt we worked as a group to decide how we would change format to deal with the Covid pandemic and hopefully have moved to a new programme which will help to build the reputation of OFC and is already engaging with new audiences, which is brilliant.
What OFC session or speakers have most impacted you and why?
The session on the microbiome inspired me. OFC hosted this topic when it was really new and it was something I heard about first at OFC and it has informed my work ever since.
During your Nuffield Scholarship, you researched and worked on the development of supply chain collaboration in England. In your opinion, what is the future for supply chains post Covid-19?
Covid -19 has made us all think long and hard about the kind of food we want to eat and the relationship we want to have with the people who produce it. Part of the reason for this, was that for a short period, normal service was massively disrupted as retailers struggled to react to the 50% increase in demand as hospitality and out of home eating ceased (33% of UK food spend happens out of home). I think all this reflection could lead to something of a renaissance in shorter supply chains with a much greater focus not just on price but also on how that supply chain delivers for nature, health and climate.
What role does the Soil Association play in connecting people with food?
The Soil Association plays many roles in connecting people with food. Through our Food for Life programmes we work across the majority of settings helping people of all ages to have a more positive engagement with their food and where it comes from and supporting a move to healthier diets, with more fresh, local and organic food. Through organic certification we promote food produced to organic standards and support farmers to convert to organic farming systems.
You are hosting a webinar as part of a new digital Oxford Farming Conference offering, what will your session address?
The session I am hosting will focus on the UK’s future food security and the extent to which our future food security is dependent on reducing climate and nature risks – can we have our cake and eat it. The session has been inspired by the 1958 session which took as its theme “Towards Greater Self -Sufficiency”. Back then as we came out of food rationing and the austerity caused by war, being able to produce more of the food the UK consumed was an important contribution to UK finances.
How do you maintain work/life balance?
My husband would say I am lousy at it. I think it is vital to be enthusiastic about what you do, no matter what that is. If you lose that enthusiasm it is time to move on. I am very lucky I am endlessly absorbed by farming. And getting out on the farm actually helps me to maintain a balance that works for me.
What is your guilty pleasure – book, film, TV programme?
Got to be watching Rom Coms