The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

IssueFebruary - March 2017
Feature by Abby Nicol

At the beginning of January, I joined farmers, growers, crofters, economists, policymakers, lawyers, scientists, researchers, journalists and community activists in Oxford town hall for the eighth annual Oxford ‘Real Farming’ Conference (ORFC).

First held in 2010, the ORFC was co-founded by Ruth West and Colin Tudge. It aims to explore ‘what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done’ to make our food and farming system more just. These questions underpin the three strands of the conference: ‘Farming Practice’ (science and technology); ‘New Entrants, New Ideas’ (reshaping agriculture for the future); and ‘Digging Deep’ (politics, policy and philosophy).

Organic and agro-ecological farming methods are at the heart of the conference. (Agro-ecological farming aims to create stable food production systems by treating farmland as a complex ecosystem. In the Global South, it includes social justice and values the knowledge of indigenous peoples.)

“Food democracy needs to be achieved through civil society demanding and creating change in our communities.”

Colin Tudge favours the term ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ to describe where we need to get to: a system where food is produced that is good for people, for future generations and for the biosphere. With over 24 sessions each day, a huge range of subjects are covered. Handily, they are all recorded and will be accessible via the ORFC website.

I should mention that around the corner, held at the very same time, is the Oxford Farming Conference (the OFC). This is frequented by agribusiness, large landowners and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)... enough said. The Oxford Real Farming Conference (you can see what they did there...) was set up in part as an antidote to the OFC and the corporate takeover of agriculture. While the politics of the two conferences diverge, delegates do cross over which is important for progress. The ORFC has, however, gone from being a fringe event to overtaking the OFC in terms of size (and, of course, scope and content!). This year the town hall was full to the brim with buzzing delegates.

Former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, opened the ORFC. He spoke of the need to develop a people’s food policy and cited the progressive Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in October 2015 which was signed by 133 cities worldwide, calling for food systems to be based on the principles of social justice and sustainability.

De Schutter noted how policy has been indifferent to public preferences, instead time and again favouring corporate interests. Food democracy, he urged, is crucial, but needs to be achieved through civil society demanding and creating change in our communities.

The way that you do it

I am an organic vegetable producer so the sessions that attracted me most were on farming practice. On day one, I went to brilliant talks on:

  •  ‘Min-till without glyphosate’, looking at cover crops and how to use minimum tillage techniques effectively in organic systems;
  • ‘Biofertilisers’, taking compost tea-making to new extremes;
  • ‘Open-pollinated seed’, looking at seed security, the launch of the Seed Co-operative, a new business specialising in developing and selling open-pollinated seed, and critiquing new technologies of corporate seed production and ownership.

I also attended a session co-hosted by the Kindling Trust, the Ecological Land Co-operative, Organiclea and Shared Assets, who are working together on a project called, ‘Better land-based economies’, learning from each other’s experiences and from case studies around the UK to create more livelihoods in farming and food production. These organisations use funding in progressive ways to connect people with local food and farming (Kindling Trust, Organiclea), helping new generations of farmers to access land (Ecological Land Co-op) and, invaluably, sharing what they’ve learned along the way.

Day two included sessions on:

  •  ‘Do you dig it?’ with Charles Dowding (no-dig market gardener) and Iain Tolhurst (organic veg farmer and green manure specialist) exploring the techniques these experienced growers use on their farms with a focus on maintaining soil life and structure;
  • ‘Heritage cereals’ focused on the importance of keeping genetic diversity alive in cereal crops for seed security and nutritional value, featuring a farmer, a sixth-generation miller, a baker and distiller (who plans to turn locally-grown heritage cereals into flavour-rich spirits). Transition Totnes even brought along their own-brewed Einkorn ale!
  • ‘Tech and tools on farms’ opened my usually tech-wary mind to the world of apps (On-the-spot weed and pest identification? Yes please!) and podcasts (‘Farmerama’ is one I’ll be tuning into regularly);
  • ‘The politics of food prices’ touched on the contradiction of it being hard to make a living producing food for people in a society that has never had food so cheap, yet still has many households depending on food banks for survival. We delved into history looking at the corn laws and then sped forward to look at what leaving the EU could mean for UK agriculture and food prices.

Power from the people

In that last session, geographer Naomi Millner echoed Oliver de Schutter, calling for solutions to come from civil society and community organising. This seemed to be the resonating point at this year’s conference. 2017 is the year when we’ll get more clarification on leaving the EU and that man enters the White House. Progressive decisions are not going to come from the people in power.

“On-the-spot weed and pest identification? Yes please!”

UK farming could be used as a bartering chip to enable access to the EU or US markets (hormone-treated beef anyone?). An active civil society is required now more than ever (time to befriend your local farmers!).

For me, the best part of the ORFC is the community of people who attend it. The conversations had during the breaks are as interesting as the sessions. It’s a place where people ‘get it’ and that is so reassuring when you spend most of the year in a field, rain or shine.

Being able to re-connect with the importance of why you do what you do, along with the opportunity to learn from others is incredibly inspiring. To close, Dee Butterly of the Landworkers’ Alliance quoted the anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ The Oxford Real Farming Conference is inspiring us all to do just that.

Topics: Food