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A new vision for farming

Now in its eighth year, the Oxford Real Farming Conference is a unique opportunity for farming and environmental communities to share ideas and innovative solutions for a sustainable future for farming and food production.

January 2017

I was glad to be able to attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) in the first week of January with colleagues from the RSPB, other Link members and 800 or so farmers, environmentalists, academics and anyone interested in food or farming. It had particular resonance for me as this time last year, before taking up my current job, I had been helping organise the event so it was great to return as a delegate, able to enjoy the fruits of others’ labour.

The ORFC coincides with the older and more established Oxford Farming Conference, and was conceived as an unofficial fringe where a wider variety of farming discussions can take place. Now in its eighth year, the conference brings over 50 workshops, panel discussions and seminars to Oxford Town Hall. The broad themes of the conference are practical information for farmers; new and innovative thinking; and a focus on the big picture, looking at the social, economic and political context within which farming takes place.

This means there is something for everyone, from sessions on animal handling and companion cropping, to discussions of post-Brexit farm policy, resilience, diets and even farming and metaphysics! Although the conference certainly includes the more alternative end of the farming spectrum, with strong representations among small-scale and organic farming, it is also attended by many larger and more conventional farmers interested in some of the ideas and solutions on offer.

Link, supported by CPRE and the Woodland Trust, convened a panel debate on the report – Farming Fit for the Future. The session gathered three farmers to comment on the thinking within the report, which makes the case for farming to be good for people, nature, land and livestock while also prepared to face the future. Having heard WWT’s Hannah Freeman outline the report, the farmers were asked by chair Shaun Spiers to give their thoughts on the threats and opportunities presented by Brexit; what they would like to see in a future farming system; and any key barriers to achieving this.

The farmers came from diverse backgrounds: David Brass runs the Lakes Free Range Egg Co, Stephen Briggs farms organically in Cambridgeshire with a particular focus on agroforestry – planting crops between fruit trees; and Peter Lundgren is a conventional arable farmer from Lincolnshire. While all three farmers drew on their experience of farming profitably while also delivering environmental benefits, their diversity resulted in variations of emphasis in the farmers’ responses to the questions.

David, for example, reminded us that poultry farming receives little or no subsidy from the Common Agricultural Policy and benefits from what he described as “almost perfect” European legislation on egg marketing. On the other hand many of his input costs are in dollars or Euros so the volatility of currency markets post-Brexit is having an impact on his business. Stephen wanted to see public money and policy encouraging soil health (soil being something of a recurring theme across the conference). He also underlined the importance of encouraging multi-functional land use, for example with crops, trees and animals co-existing on the same land. Peter Lundgren, meanwhile, thought the key was to find ways to encourage the majority of conventional farmers to move in a more agroecological direction, something he believed would require a change of mindset.

The audience joined the discussion which ranged from the importance of building strong alliances for a better food system to the need to move from good principles to the more difficult task of detailed policy and ways of monitoring and measuring public benefits from farming.

Overall the ORFC showcased the huge range of people interested in food and farming and the great variety of possible approaches to agriculture. Where there appeared to be broad consensus was in the potential opportunity that Brexit offered to develop, popularise and put into practice some of the thinking demonstrated at the conference, whether this is government support for the public goods farming provides or thinking about new retail platforms and markets. Some of this consensus-building has of course begun already, such as the joint principles for a countryside policy developed by a group of NGOs. The other aspect I took away from the event was the good-will from all attendees and the sincere aim to build alliances, including between groups that may not always be obvious bedfellows. This was a good way to start the year and hopefully this desire for people to work together, think creatively and put ideas into practice will be vital to face the challenges we face this year.

Harry Greenfield

Land use policy officer, RSPB

Find Harry on Twitter @HarryGreenTweet

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.