Two events in early January – the Oxford Farming Conference and its alternative Oxford Real Farming Conference on sustainable and organic food and farming – made national headlines as Environment Secretary Michael Gove set out the government’s agenda for food and farming post-Brexit.
But while Brexit dominated, both conferences offered much, much more – from the latest technologies in agriculture and inspiring talks on diversification, to a worldwide union of small farmers producing food sustainably and a movement to reintroduce feeding waste food to pigs.
ECT tenant farmers were at both events after winning tickets to celebrate the Trust’s 65th year. Tom and Suzie Paton of Milton Farm, Fairford, attended the Oxford Farming Conference, and Sam and Helen Wade of Eastleach Downs Farm at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. Here are their reports.
Challenges ahead – and optimism for the future
By Suzie Paton
Tom and I would like to thank ECT sincerely for the opportunity to attend the Oxford Farming Conference 2018. This was a perfect chance to leave behind Christmas festivities and re-focus minds on farming opportunities for our business.
With ‘Embracing Change’ as a theme, the array of inspiring speakers certainly gave cause for thought. Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s speech on farming for the next generation offered some notable hints on government thinking post-Brexit. With inevitable changes in subsidies, British food production should be at the heart of all farming business with a drive towards a sustainable future for our countryside.
The talk by Oxford Economist Prof. Dieter Helm on the importance of Natural Capital, had clear similarities to Mr Gove’s speech and it is obvious that he is to be a major influence on change. Whether Prof. Helm would have food production at the heart of agricultural policy is less clear, but there seems to be a consensus that food production in the UK must continue to lead the world in quality, welfare standards and best environmental practice.
The OFC attracts the great and good in the industry to encourage and promote discussion. For example, a lively evening debate in the historic Oxford Union was controversially titled ‘This house proposes that by 2100, meat consumption will be a thing of the past,’ with political activist George Monbiot telling a packed house of animal farmers that they are a dying breed.
American food writer Eve Turow Paul talked about how the millennial generation’s attitude will make or break the future of food, and how we must carefully consider our food supply chain. Veganism is on the increase in this age group – they also spend more on food as a proportion of earnings than any previous generation.
These emotive discussions continued later over welcome drinks in the University College bars and across tables in the beautiful ‘Harry Potter-esque’ dining halls in Keble and Christ Church Colleges at evening dinner. Promises of ‘dry January’ went on hold!
As well as highlights such as the Royal guest Princess Anne, and environmental, political and science lectures, some of the most interesting sessions targeted digital and technology developments.
This included the ‘hands-free hectare’, drone technology and a company creating a revolution in location finding. www.what3words.com is simply brilliant with its division of the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, assigning each one a unique three-word address. From our point of view, hopefully this will stop parts deliveries to cottages across the road!
Another inspiring talk was from a farmer’s son in Dumfries and Galloway who rented ten acres of hill land and old buildings from his farming brother and father, and turned them into a thriving business of outdoor activities, adrenalin-fuelled action sports with café, accommodation and party/wedding venue.
It was not all serious discussion – we attended a hilarious comedy night with Perthshire mixed farmer Jim Smith.
Networking and meeting people from throughout the UK and worldwide, it’s obvious that our farm businesses all face challenges, but the ideas and positivity apparent at the conference give some cause for optimism for the future. Thank you ECT – we are feeling wiser and better-prepared to face that future.
Food for thought for our small producers
By Helen Wade
The overwhelming feeling there was one of positivity and empowerment of the small producer. We were squeezed in to the beautiful rooms in Oxford Town Hall – standing room only in almost all of them!
With seven sessions running concurrently, we decided to split up and brief each other afterwards. The conference usually has three strands: Farming Practice, The Big Ideas, and Growing and Supporting the new generation of farmers. This year a fourth was added – Brexit.
Sustainability was high on the agenda everywhere, and I often heard it said that small farms are more productive than large ones as each hectare is valued more highly.
I learned so much over the two days. For example, I’d been ignorant of the existence of the Land Workers Alliance (a member of La Via Campesina) – a producer-led union representing 200 million small-scale and family farms worldwide, who produce food with sustainable methods. Their aim among other things, is high-quality, affordable food with good animal welfare and environmental stewardship and they lobby for public policies to support this.
One of my favourite sessions was with conference founder Colin Tudge, telling us in his relaxed manner that it was easy – if we went back two generations to traditional cooking (lots of plants, very little meat and plenty of variety) then the rest would follow, ie farming practices for a sustainable future. “Look at the figures,” he urged – we grow more than enough food to feed the world already. Food for thought indeed.
Meanwhile, Sam had gone off to a talk on mechanical weeding and came back pleased that he seemed to be on the right track.
I was particularly interested in the Pig Idea – a movement to reintroduce feeding waste food to pigs. Feeding grain and imported protein such as soya – which people could be eating – is hard to defend. We discussed how to convince the government that feeding pigs on waste food could be done safely.
On the first day the main buzz was Zac Goldsmith’s interview with Michael Gove, (photo above courtesy of Hugh Warwick) and this was awaited with some trepidation. Actually, he came out of it quite well, and the general mood afterwards was surprisingly positive. Clearly, he was impressed that this nine-year-old conference was bigger than the 80 year-old Oxford Farming Conference up the road!
One delegate asked him why organic producers must pay to be organic, while the “polluters” get away scot-free? This question was met with rapturous applause. Fighting talk, I thought. I’m rather glad I came! That Gove felt it was no longer acceptable to go along with the status quo and that he recognised the hidden costs of cheap food, was exactly what this conference wanted to hear!
Sadly, we couldn’t stay late and enjoy the evening’s entertainment as we had a lorry to load with oats at 6am Friday morning (and of course our pigs to tend to!). But we were back in Oxford again after we had washed the morning’s mud off!
Thank you ECT, it’s been a great start to our year. I feel fired up about all sorts of things and have lots of new ideas – I do hope you won’t come to regret sponsoring us.