Real and Radical: starting 2019 at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

In its 10th year the Oxford Real Farming Conference had 1000 delegates (it had 80 in its first year) and filled Oxford Town Hall.

In its 10th year the Oxford Real Farming Conference had 1000 delegates (it had 80 in its first year) and filled Oxford Town Hall.

In keeping with tradition, 2019 began with a hangover in the company of bleary-eyed friends. A day or so later, surrounded by farmers in the middle of Oxford, I commenced my second New Year’s tradition. Attending the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is a grand way to get up to speed on the latest food & farming news, while re-engaging with the world after the stodgy excesses of Christmastime.

 

The ORFC was started in 2010 by writer Colin Tudge and his wife Ruth West. It’s not the only farming conference in town, there also being the well-established ‘Oxford Farming Conference’ (OFC) which was established in 1936 and typically brings together 500 or so professionals from across the UK agricultural industry. That the ORFC has the audacity to call itself the ‘Real’ conference should indicate something about the relationship between the two.

 

The ORFC is intentionally planned for the same dates as the OFC as a pointed comment that the OFC does not necessarily represent the voice of UK agriculture in its entirety. The high and mighty of the well-monied OFC, which is sponsored by the likes of Bayer and is held in an imposing Oxford university building, must have initially been quite amused by this rag-tag bunch of upstarts meeting in a community café. The OFC’s list of speakers consistently boasts MPs and some of the agricultural industry’s biggest names, whereas the ORFC programme features small-scale (and by inference, small-time) farmers whose commitment to organic, biodynamic or agroecological methods of farming is a sure indication they are less productive and therefore not worthy of serious consideration.

 

Rebellious speeches in the pub, ORFC 2014

Rebellious speeches in the pub, ORFC 2014

The first time I attended the ORFC, I remember trying to squeeze into packed, overheated meeting rooms at the Turl St Kitchen, or crouching on the floor amidst a tangle of legs and muddy boots to listen to the likes of Helen Browning. In the evenings, folk would meet in the pub for heated discussions about soil and politics, and one year I listened in on a rallying cry from one particularly radical group who were planning on storming the OFC the next day. I’m not sure they ever actually did, and seeing as the ORFC has significantly exceeded the OFC in size, and easily matches its political clout and presence in the mainstream media, is such an attitude still needed?

 

Around 1000 people attended the 10th ORFC this year, indicating that ‘alternative’ farming isn’t quite so fringe as it once was. It’s hardly surprising that more and more people are seeking alternatives. Agriculture is both cause and cure of some of the biggest issues facing the UK (and the rest of the world). Rising economic instability & inequality, stark environmental degradation, and shocking diet-related ill-health, tell us that when it comes to how we treat land and feed people ‘business as usual’ is simply not working.

 

Watching a fascinating presentation on silvopasture at ORFC 2019

Watching a fascinating presentation on silvopasture at ORFC 2019

For me, one of the most attractive aspects of the ORFC is that it approaches the question of how we should farm in an expansive and truly radical way, by stepping back from the productivist paradigm that has come to dominate agricultural discourse and allowing us to critically consider first principles. The conference programme covers everything from soil science to spirituality, pest control to permaculture, agricultural economics to farmer well-being. Such diversity of topics communicates the far-reaching impact of agriculture, that quality of human life is not irrelevant in how we produce food, and that a truly sustainable food system must be governed by an acknowledgment of our inextricable connection to and reliance upon nature and one another. You might think this last point an obvious one, but for at least a century we have been conducting agriculture, politics and business as though it had become outdated.

 

In today’s agricultural context it is a radical thing indeed to publicly re-connect these dots. But the one thing that undermines the credibility of the ORFC’s stance, is the persistent ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude; an opposition to the views of the ‘other’ which is, sadly, upheld at both conferences.

 

This year, while waiting for Michael Gove to address the crowd, I got chatting to a gentleman who works for a big agricultural property management company. As a regular attendee ‘over the road’ at the OFC, he began hopping between conferences a few years ago (a practice which is becoming pretty common) preferring, as he put it, to ‘learn something new, rather than see the same people and hear the same messages’.

 

We discussed, as I have with many other attendees over the years, whether there is an argument for combining the two conferences. Is there still benefit in maintaining the radical nature of the ORFC when what its attendees want is for agroecology etc. to become more mainstream? Does performing such opposition help or hinder constructive conversation?

 

In recent years there have been various attempts to run joint sessions and foster links between the two conferences, but I was sad to learn from multiple sources this year that animosity has been rekindled. The ‘other conference’ and its attendees were referred to in a disappointingly dismissive fashion by some, which when the ORFC was younger and less experienced, might have been amusing. But now, in such divisive times when collaborative attempts at serious change are so sorely needed in the food system, I can’t help but feel the ORFC needs to use its growing influence to do the truly radical thing and cultivate a constructive conversation, showing that whether ‘conventional’ or ‘alternative’, we are all people who rely on the same planet for our food, shelter and community.

 

#orfc #orfc2019 #realfarming