With delayed Basic Payment, pitiful profits, environmental pressures and uncertainty over our future in Europe the stresses faced by farmers are broad and significant. It was therefore brilliant to see such optimism and pragmatism by delegates at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) where I spent my Wednesday and Thursday this week.
There are two farming conferences that take place in Oxford in January each year. The first – the ‘Oxford Farming Conference’ – attended this year by 490 delegates – takes place at the university and is generally heralded as the establishment conference, dominated by big business and the corridors of power. The second – the ‘Oxford Real Farming Conference’ – attended by 650 delegates – focuses on environmentally sustainable agriculture and is all in all far less formal and much more relaxed in constitution. However, the issues at both conferences are highly serious. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will hopefully understand that I am somebody who looks for a middle way, for consensus and tries to take as broad a spectrum as possible before honing in on an answer to a problem. It therefore frustrates me in principle that there are two conferences in the first place. However, sadly, I believe it is necessary to have a separate conference as otherwise it is highly unlikely that many of the issues discussed at the ORFC would be covered at all. Broadly, my interests lie more in the camp of the ORFC than the OFC although as an agricultural student at one of the most establishment agricultural institutions in the world – the Royal Agricultural University – I must say that I had sympathies down the road at the OFC. My hope is that, eventually, farming will have reached more of a consensus and all farming will be ‘sustainable farming’. However, that is wishful thinking at present.
Across the two days of the ORFC there were a plethora of presentations, debates and discussions and there is not enough time now to go in to all of it. Indeed, if I wrote about all of it now you would probably turn off well before the end! Nonetheless, I have probably gleaned enough material to provide blog posts for the next month. The conference sessions included: ‘soil health without breaking the bank’, ‘managing cover crops’, ‘the corruption of agricultural science’, ‘true cost accounting in food and farming’, ‘care farming’, ‘biopesticides’, ‘funding real farming’, ‘life without neonicotinoids’, ‘agroforestry: what is it and why is it needed?’, ‘low input dairying’, ‘wildlife on farms’, ‘home grown protein’…the list goes on and on…
My mind has been opened yet again to a huge variety of ideas. It is encouraging that whilst many of the delegates who attended were campaigners or environmentalists, there were also a very large number of professional farmers, some of whom could have been expected to usually be up the road at the (in the words of George Monbiot) ‘unreal’ Oxford Farming Conference. The broad church found at the ORFC is refreshing and necessary. It is clear that delegates were outward reaching and not afraid to take risks. Personally I would still have liked some of the voices and establishment nature of the OFC to have been heard in the room (it was good to see NFU Vice-President Guy Smith speaking at a debate on the second day – although unfortunately for me I only managed to see the final 10 minutes of this particular session) as there was a general feeling that everything being discussed up the road was not innovative or refreshing (which is simply not true – look at the development of alternative crops and innovations in technology, much of which comes from ‘conventional’ farms).
I went to the ORFC as a listener. I still very much feel that I am at the beginning of a life-long process of learning about the subtle interactions between environmental, agricultural and socio-cultural issues. Now, is not really the time to speak. It was exciting and inspiring to see people like George Monbiot, Colin Tudge, Caroline Drummond, Patrick Holden and Jake Freestone debate the issues and set out the current agenda. However, there is still a long way to go and, although there were many ‘young’ people at the ORFC – certainly more than there were at the OFC – the room remained dominated by white, middle class men. There were many occasions when the questions from the floor were dominated by men to such an extent that a couple of token questions from women had to be ‘squeezed in’ at the end to ‘allow for balance’. This might be an unfair comment but it was certainly an observation and one that the conference needs to be careful to address. We need to maintain and build upon diversity to allow for the largest possible diversity in views.
My favourite session of the conference was undoubtedly the Thursday morning debate entitled ‘Wildlife on Farms: why should we care?’ It brought together George Monbiot, Colin Tudge, Devon farmer Rebecca Hosking (who is brilliant!) and Bob Cowley from the Mammal Society and it was chaired by the wonderful Lucy Ford from Oxford Brookes University. I won’t say much about it now as I look forward to writing a dedicated post about it but I will say that it was inspiring to see so many people passionately engaged by the issues of wildlife on farmland – something that is so critical and yet not often put at the centre of the debate by conservationists or conventional farmers alike. More debates like this need to take place and they need to draw together people who will and can actually act for change. Policies to safeguard wildlife on farmland have clearly failed over the past decades. We have seen abundance of species plummet over the last few decades and continue to see extinctions year on year. Policy quite simply has to change. Rewilding must be an option in certain parts of Britain but likewise farmers (particularly livestock farmers) should not be sidelined in the debate and we must have a frank national discussion about the problems and the potential solutions. A Focus on Nature, the UK youth nature network that I am proud to be a part, is a great example of an organisation that is engaging with all of these issues in a democratic and all-inclusive way. I hope that the established institutions and organisations can learn from AFON’s example!
My take home message of the ORFC was that in order to move forward we need to look to address ALL the issues. We need to be inclusive and outward looking. We need to vastly increase research in to agroecology. We need to take a landscape scale approach to land planning (and land planning must not just mean urban planning but land use planning in its pure sense). We need to be open minded. We need to be determined. We need to rethink economics. We need to rethink our ‘zeitgeist’ (a favourite word of Colin Tudge). However, at the same time we mustn’t lose track of the importance of engaging with the farmers, politicians and businesses who decided to attend the Oxford Farming Conference instead of the ORFC. There is a lot of good stuff happening across the industry and we should learn from each other regarding these projects. We should also fight against corruption and bad practice that lead to phenomena such as soil erosion and soil washing into rivers post maize harvest, declines in abundance of biodiversity and the pollution of water courses. We need to continue to search for consensus but critically we need to generate a food and farming system that is sustainable in the long term, enables people to live the lives they want to live, enables wildlife to not just survive but thrive and creates a landscape that we are proud of. We must not alienate farmers, conservationists or anyone who wants to take part in the debate to envision our future landscape and farming systems. I look forward to the day when there can be a single Oxford Farming Conference encompassing all interests but it is vital that there are two conferences until we reach the time when consensus is possible.
On a side note, it was brilliant to finally meet rural commentator and ‘hunter naturalist’ Rob Yorke of the Black Mountains (tweets at @blackgull) who I bumped in to by chance at the end of the first day!
Apologies if you were expecting more reflection on individual themes of the conference in this post. That will come in time.
I wish you all a very happy new year.
P.s. a big thank you to Tony Powell for plugging thinkingcountry in a recent post on his blog – naturestimeline. I seriously suggest you visit his website if you haven’t already done so. Lots of thought provoking entries.