The Oxford Real Farming Conference – get REAL

Feb 29, 2016

Scarlett Penn, WWOOF UK’s Co-ordinator, was one of a number of people at this event with links to WWOOF UK – including Katie Hastings and Nim Kibbler (Directors), Adam Cade (Fundraiser) and Chris Smaje, long-time host and most excellent blogger. Scarlett tells us why there’s such zeal for getting REAL. 

The first week in January is a strange time, plagued with post-indulgence guilt, resolution regrets, all manner of illness and attempts to get the brain back in gear. For the land based, it’s also historically been the time to kick start the new year with the now seven-decade-old Oxford Farming Conference. But as land prices, ownership and trade has changed over the years, this conference increasingly reflected the interests of wealthy land owners, ‘the establishment’, intensification and monoculture, agri-business, global trade deals. There was no place for the small-scale, ecologically-minded farmer.

So, what was the antidote?

The Oxford REAL Farming Conference (ORFC) was launched in 2010 by the multi-faceted Colin Tudge and Ruth West. To quote, the aim is ‘to bring together practising, mud-on-the-boots farmers and growers, with scientists and economists, and activists and lawyers, and everyone else with a serious interest in food and agriculture. The idea was – and is – to ask the really big questions: what kind of farming do we really need and why; but also to focus at least equally on the minutiae of practice – and to see who, right now, in Britain and the world at large, is truly farming and marketing and cooking in ways that the world really needs, and others can emulate.’

So, rather pointedly, these two conferences now take place at exactly the same time, in exactly the same city. The ORFC has grown to the point it’s now selling out a month in advance and fills the ornate Oxford Town Hall to capacity (conflicting reports of what that means, but it’s around 700 people). Given that the average age of the farmer in the UK is 59, it’s notable how many young people are present, and how many women. There is energy, there is authenticity, there is…potency.

the council chamber with Colin Tudge in the chairTo give an idea of the scale of the sessions on offer, I counted 136 speaker biographies at the back of the conference programme. Subjects ranged from ‘Access To Land‘ and ‘Biopesticides Under The Microscope‘ to ‘Wildlife: Why Should We Care?‘ High profile names were in attendance including (at this latter session) George Monbiot, at his articulate, passionate best, raging at how, with sheep farming, we’ve managed to make large areas of our uplands devoid of trees, wildlife and people. Patrick Krause of the Scottish Crofting Federation (a recent WWOOF UK partner) was eloquent in defence: ‘Point the finger at policy and the CAP rather than the upland farmers. It’s an absolute travesty the way the CAP is being used, taking our money to support big business!’

For me, it was a fantastic opportunity to finally meet people I’d heard so much about, to learn about the latest techniques, and to witness 700 people, all in one place, caring so much about the impact their way of farming has on the environment. This is so affirming when often, trying to do the right thing by our earth feels like a minority sport.

reflecting the grandeur of the hallAll this joie de vivre made me want to congratulate George, Patrick, Colin and a few others, on their rousing words and great work. I had some of our first-ever WWOOF UK calendars with me, packed with action images and quotes from people whose lives had been enriched by their exchange. The team are rightly proud of this pilot offering, so I tracked these few speakers down and presented one to each as a small thank you for all they’re doing (yes that’s right, our humble calendar could be gracing George’s Guardian office right now).

The ORFC is the jewel in the crown of the UK sustainable food and farming calendar, where you can get to meet all your farming heroes and heroines in an awe-inspiring setting. If you’ve been in two minds whether to go, do it! You won’t be disappointed. It’s well organised, well worth the effort and well worth booking early.

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