Oxford Real Farming Conference Report

Jan 21, 2014

The 5th Oxford Real Farming Conference – ORFC

January 6th and 7th, Magdelene and Jesus College, Oxford.

Where to start. 

In my opinion this event truly deserves all the attention, hype and praise it receives.  It is true that there is simply too much in too shorter time-scale to see even a quarter of all that’s going on, but, having said that I haven’t come away feeling as though I have missed out and indeed I found the days very well thought out, my mind wasn’t spinning by the end of the day and I was still able to take in information right up to the finishing session, which is fortunate because I saw a remarkable man called Michel Pimbert talk about his work on democratising agricultural research.

The entire Conference is split into two parts, ‘Freedom Farming’ which is designed for farmers and growers wishing to move over to more organic and sustainable practices but don’t find the support they need easily accessible.  I attended ‘Building the Renaissance’, a series of talks and debates around the wider issues.
The days were at a pace I enjoyed, four, hour long sessions followed by an hours break in between each one, which gave plenty of time for the meetings I had arranged with people from various organisations and also for unexpected conversations to develop.

After an initial talk form Jeremy Iles of the City Farms and Gardens Federation about opportunities for community growing projects.  I spend the rest of the first day attending the ‘New Generation, New Ideas’ sessions on access to the land, markets and training as these all seemed very relevant to WWOOF.  The news I got from them is very positive in that there seems huge demand all round which is breeding some great ingenuity.  A highlight for me was the work of Ilford Organics, the presenter of which has filled my note book with excellent ideas and quotes including warnings of ‘nice people with loose arms’.

After the last session ended I made my way to the Vaults and Gardens Kitchen where I was one of the lucky few to attend a small gathering toasting the publication of the “Manifesto for Real Farming” written by Colin Tudge and Graham Harvey.  The day ended with a nice meal from the pasture fed livestock association in the restaurant there.

I was up early the next day.  The ORFC identifies itself as a fringe, (and indeed in ecology isn’t the fringe always the most fertile area?) almost a protest conference to the Oxford Farming Conference which happens at the same time just over the road.  On the morning of the second day I was one of a group from the Land Workers Alliance who went to protest at the exclusive cost of attending the conference and also their concerns over the level of leverage some businesses have gained in directing the actions of farmers and politicians alike.  People attending were very courteous at stopping and talking to us, a few people were allowed inside on a press pass.  I think bridges were built that morning.

So after some good crisp (or damp to be more precise) morning air I spent most of my day in the ‘Big Picture Thinking’ sessions.  Starting with ‘research and innovation of commercial small-holders’ led by Phil Sumption from the Organic Research Centre, he started with the sobering news that in his time working for the HDRA (Garden Organic) the number of researchers had gone from 25 in the 1990’s to just 3 and a half today.  Ian Tolhurst soon cheered us all up again though.

Next I went to see the Sustainable Food Trust’s ‘true cost accounting’.  This was led by Patrick Holden and for me was the most inspiring and the most challenging time of the conference.  I say challenging because when I heard the sentence ‘attempt to put a value on nature’, my alarm bells started ringing, but perhaps I misunderstood this.  It seems to me quite elementary when we talk about monetary economy and natural ecology that we are talking about two things which are not very compatible, as nature is a real thing and as such could be perceived as having a real value of some sort whereas the value of money is, in the end, purely fictional.  I did love learning more of the Orwellian confidence trick that is played on people between the cost of food in the supermarket and the money that leaves there pocket and goes towards food in general.

After Lunch I went to see Julie Ingram introduce ‘The Future of Family Farms’, in particular what stood out to me in this session was the information gathered over long periods by the Countryside and Community Research Institute who saw a growing number of small and large farms but a ‘hollowing out’ of medium sized farms.  They declared the average age of a farmer in Britain to be 59 years old.  I was also very interested in the talk given by ‘New Land Owners’ Robert Jeffries.

This leads us back to the beginning of this article and the end of the conference. ORFC, you have amazed and enthused me, count me in again for next year!

James Dennis

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