This week I traveled across the country to Oxford for the 8th annual Oxford Real Farming Conference which is held in the Town Hall in the heart of the city. I arrived on Wednesday for two days of presentations, discussions and networking. It was, as always, superbly organised and I want to congratulate the organising committee for putting on such a brilliant event. Personally, this was my second conference. It’s an opportunity for farmers, retailers, gardeners, journalists and anybody really who has an interest in sustainable food production to meet up, share stories and talk about the challenges and opportunities of the day. It is held at the exactly the same time as the more established Oxford Farming Conference which is traditionally seen as the place for big farming, economists and politicians (compared to the ORFC which is traditionally seen as the domain of small scale, ‘sustainable’ and family farming). However, it seems to me that there is increasingly common ground between the two conferences and this was evident in some of the key discussions that were had at both conferences, such as Brexit, future policy and soils.
I was able to catch up with fellow rural commentator Rob Yorke, who was able to spend time at both events and he agreed that there is little point in finding areas to fight over.
With this idea of common ground in mind, one of the most enjoyable sessions of the whole conference for me was a fringe event held near the end of the first day and organised by fellow podcaster Abby Rose of Farmerama Radio and Megan Perry of the Sustainable Food Trust. In this session Abby and Megan brought together young farmers from both conferences (and a few who weren’t attending either conference) to talk about common ground, the issues faced by young farmers and how members of this newly formed informal group might be able to support each other in the future. I spoke to Abby after the session to ask her how the idea to bring young farmers from both conferences together came about?
This chat was followed by dinner in the main hall at the conference where we feasted on delicious canapes and bowl food from local chef Will Pouget and then some stomping and dancing over the road at St Aldgate’s Tavern.
A few of the many presentations I attended included:
- A session on storytelling (which was a returning theme on people’s lips throughout the conference) by Graham Harvey, a farming journalist probably best known for his role as the agricultural advisor to The Archers, and Philip Lymbery, co-author of Farmageddon. They made it clear that good storytelling will be vital for forging a positive future for farming and influencing the way people think about farming and the type of farming they wish to see on the land. I was also introduced to the writing of AG Street during this presentation.
- A session called ‘Nurturing Nature within Farming’, which brought together Ian Boyd, a hill farmer in the Cotswolds, with Ian Dillon from the RSPB’s Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire and Jenny Phelps from FWAG. This session brought home to me the myriad ways available to improve the state of nature on individual farms but that nothing happens over night and farmers and landowners have to be mighty determined and motivated to take the actions required. Jenny Phelps placed soil at the heart of good conservation and farming and argued the case that it needs to be at the heart of any 25 year environment or farming plan. I particularly enjoyed Ian B’s talk which championed his skills as a wildlife photographer as well as a farmer. He has noticed a huge difference in his stock (and particularly the live weight gain capacity) having introduced herbal leys to the farm. He can also capitalise on his wildflower meadows through bringing people on to the farm and making the most of the marketing opportunities. He raised an important point in that most farmers are not brought up as salespeople – which will likely be an important skill in the future.
- Another memorable session was on companion cropping, led by Jonty Brunyee of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and the speakers included Andy Howard, an arable farmer from Kent and a Nuffield scholar, and Ian Wilkinson from Cotswold Seeds. It is not always at conferences that you learn things but my goodness I learnt a lot from these guys. Andy particularly was a mind of information and there is no doubt that he knows this subject backwards. He provided examples from around the world of how two or sometimes even three crops were being harvested each year from a single field by using intercropping and companion cropping. He particularly saw great opportunity for growing peas alongside wheat, oats or barley and presented the opportunity to undersow maize with other crops so as to prevent the erosion issues that are common with the crop. He explained how he believes the issue is that we continue to think of farming and productivity in terms of monocultures. He argued we should open our eyes and think of the potential for intercropping. Benefits include fewer weeds, fewer inputs and ultimately greater profits.
More than anything, the conference was an opportunity to meet new people, to talk about the issues they are facing and to think about where I am personally heading. There is a great amount of uncertainty out there. However, there is also opportunity. It’s a question of either waiting to see how things pan out or preparing ourselves as we head into an unknown future.
I took along the Meet The Farmers microphone and a podcast will be out shortly. Watch this space!
To watch videos from the Oxford Farming Conference, including Andrea Leadsom’s speech, click here.
And as this is the first post (at least from me) of 2017, I wish you all a very happy new year!
Also, I was very excited to have been announced as a finalist in this year’s UK Blog Awards, which means I’ll be off to London for the ceremony in April.