Oxford Real Farming Conference – first reflections

Jan 8, 2017

The Oxford Real Farming Conference was set up by Colin Tudge and Ruth West seven years ago because they, like others, felt the conventional Oxford Farming Conference was representing the interests of big landowners and agri-business but not the smaller, more organically-minded farmer. WWOOF UK were well represented this year with four reps present. Scarlett Penn, our Co-ordinator / Chief Exec, shares her early thoughts.

Scheduling a two-day event like this in the first week of January is an intense way to get your head into the new year! But there’s little doubt the Oxford Real Farming Conference is the event in the ecological farming calendar, tickets sold out quicker than ever, and 900 enlightened agriculturalists cheerfully crammed themselves into the grandeur of Oxford Town Hall to chew the cud on growing pains and passions.
Colin Tudge, one of the founders of ORFC, speaking on the importance of being radicalAnd #ORFC17 didn’t disappoint. There were 24 sessions on each day, not to mention the lunchtime and after-hours slots. Several of the talks were oversubscribed, with chamber doors being closed ten minutes early as rooms bulged at the seams. Big names appeared, BBC interviews aired, #ORFC17 trended on Twitter.

I think I enjoyed the lengthy breaks between talks as much as I did the sessions themselves. With so many like-minded people in one place it was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with existing friends and seek new ones. Our partners the Landworkers Alliance hosted several talks and organisations we hope to collaborate with (or have already worked with) were all present; Permaculture Association, Scottish Crofting Federation, GMFreeze, Sustain, IndieFarmer, Compassion in World Farming to name a few.Emphasising the importance of storytelling, Graham Harvey  the agricultural adviser for The Archers was a speaker!With pages of notes to go though there’s lots of detail to extract but as a holistic impression, the message which stood out for me is the importance of storytelling if we’re to change the narrative around what is considered normal farming practice. I once heard someone describe organic certification as a tool for globalism. If an ethical farmer shared the story of their beliefs and practices, illustrated how their farm is part of the well-being of the community and the landscape, displayed how welfare is at the heart of their mindset, the people are much more likely to trust, understand and buy. But without the back story, it’s just another lettuce, another egg, another lamb chop, and much easier for a consumer’s focus to be on beating the price down. Small farmers need to educate in order to change minds. It’s only through consumers paying a fair price for ethical produce that we’ll return to a situation where a realistic livelihood can be derived from the land.

Naturally this got me thinking about WWOOF, and the dip we’re seeing in membership. WWOOF is a charity with a strong benevolent focus and 45 years of stories to tell. There are thousands of tales of friendships made and adventures had, yet we know there are many people still sitting behind their desk, or struggling on alone on their farm, because they can’t imagine what WWOOFing is like. So here’s the question I’m asking myself: how do we find our stories; how and where do we best re-tell them; how do we display our uniqueness to reach those that haven’t heard of us, or want to have a go but haven’t found the courage to have a go?

Leave your thoughts and ideas as a comment below or send them to info@wwoof.org.uk

photos: Scarlett Penn
1. Colin Tudge, one of the founders of ORFC, speaking on the importance of being radical
2. Emphasising the importance of storytelling, Graham Harvey the agricultural adviser for The Archers was a speaker!

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