Jan 31, 2023
HG at the Oxford Real Farming Conference
Read it in 4 minutes
Early in January, and fresh into the new year, a bunch of us at HG Walter traipsed across to Oxford to attend the two-day Oxford Real Farming Conference. For those unaware of the ORFC, it is a two-day conference filled with a plethora of panel discussions, workshops, film screenings, socials and storytelling sessions, with the aim to transform the nation’s food and farming systems by bringing those in the know together. It brought together a diverse crowd of bright minds, both young and old, all with an invested interest in the UK’s farming landscape and pinpoint the main concerns and challenges it faces.
From the moment we stepped through the doors of the Oxford Town Hall, the energy was palpable. The diversity in attendees was something to behold as it ranged from farmers to politicians, students to wise old owls, city dwellers to country bumpkins, and vegans to butchers. With everyone in agreement on a common goal, but some with varying methods to get there, this made for interesting debates and panellist interrogation, ensuring that the initial energy we felt upon arrival permeated into each of the sessions we attended.
Throughout the two days, common themes began to emerge, framing the narrative of the conference. We found the most notable of those to be agroecology, not enough investment in ‘sustainable farming’, and a need for greater education around the issues we’re facing.
During one of the sessions titled How farmers can contribute to meaningful food system change/what’s stopping the transition to more localised agroecological farming systems, we heard George Young, an agroecological farmer based in South Essex champion biodiversity through ruminant farming; ‘If you want to bring in ecology, bring in ruminants.’ This simple statement underlines a key takeaway from the conference – that the future of healthy farming is one of balance and biodiversity. George Young has experienced the effects of bringing back diversity through his own farming methods. During the panel discussions, he spoke of the return to his farm of previously absent species, such as dung beetles and hen harriers, simply by letting nature back in. We’ve seen this with a number of the farms we source from around the UK, with Tom Calver at Westcombe Dairy recently lauding the return of dung beetles to his land at Westcombe Dairy, all through reintroducing a ‘wilder’ way of working.
One topic discussed in detail throughout the course of the conference was the severe lack of government funding, with gaps in current policies that make them difficult for all farmers to get behind. With ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) supposedly moving ahead, and with new schemes announced, certain anxieties are being brought to light. In the words of Stuart Roberts – a livestock farmer in Hertfordshire, who has previously worked for Defra and the Food Standards Agency – ‘ELMS is like one of those jigsaw puzzles with loads of blue-sky pieces that are difficult to do’.
Finally, a topic that was present throughout the conference… education. Or lack thereof. The need for improved education in schools has been a hot topic for years, but often education for those of us who’ve already passed through the education system into normal life gets forgotten about. Education amongst children is a surefire way to ensure our future planet’s caretakers are up to speed with the challenges ahead and well-equipped to find solutions to fit, however, time is not in abundance, and we need to make changes to our habits now. We need to learn about how food gets onto our plates. Learn the processes. Learn through practice. For our final panel of the conference, we had a stellar line-up of the most influential minds in agriculture and sustainable food including Darina Allen (Ballymaloe Cookery School), Simon Fairlie (The Land Magazine) and Patrick Holden (Sustainable Food Trust), all hosted by Dan Saladino (Journalist and broadcaster). Amongst the topics raised by these influential panellists, there was a clear call to action for more education on being a conscious consumer. Arguments for using high-quality, well-reared animal fats in place of vegetable oil were raised and, everyone agreed that food is our medicine and that if we eat well, our diet can help us to avoid the need for medical care. But none of this becomes a habit unless we see reform in our education system.
All in all, our first experience of the Oxford Real Farming Conference was one of listening and learning, and it left us contemplating the key topics raised by the country’s leading voices in farming. We look forward to attending in the years to come and hopefully seeing answers and solutions to the big questions unravel.