2015-01-09  

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The Oxford Real Farming Conference Comes of Age

As it entered its 6th year, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) brought together 650 farmers, growers, scientists and economists from across the globe for two days of talks, debates and hands on workshops, demonstrating a growing demand to challenge the status quo in agriculture.

Over recent years, the Oxford Real Farming Conference has steadily been gaining a reputation amongst the farming community for its strong practical, grassroots focus, but this year represented a real “coming of age” for the event. With science playing such a key role in every aspect of today’s food production, each of the major farming themes was underpinned by presentations by research experts from both the UK and abroad.

Mark Eisler (Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University)

Mark Eisler
Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University

Dr. Elaine Ingham, world renowned microbiologist and soil scientist, opened the conference by highlighting the vital importance of the life of the soil. She demonstrated how, through paying careful attention to key factors that influence “good” soil biology, farmers can reap the benefits of healthy plants by reducing both their fertilizer and crop protection bills.

Livestock took centre stage on the second day of the conference, with Mark Eisler; Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University presenting a fascinating analysis of key reports such as “Foresight” and the UN’s “Livestock’s long shadow” which have been so influential in shaping the government’s “Sustainable Intensification” policy. Eisler highlighted the role that pasture plays in sequestering carbon concluding that there is a strong case for supporting extensive livestock systems such as Pasture-based ruminant production as one of the foundations of sustainable land and resource use.

A lively debate took place between George Monbiot, journalist and author, and The Sustainable Food Trust over the role of sheep farming in modern agriculture, whilst leading dairy farmers and Nuffield scholars Robert Craig (Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year) and Rob Richmond debated the production of milk from grass and bag nitrogen versus herbal leys and mob grazing.

There was also an exciting session looking at farm diversification and showing how farmers can increase their income without increasing acres or stressing their soils, plants or animals.

On Tuesday The Landworkers’ Alliance who organised the New Generation, New ideas strand of the ORFC, held a press launch of their policy manifesto which sets out their key policy recommendations to be considered by the main political parties in the run-up to the 2015 general election including; the need for a progressive national food policy, a more equal distribution of CAP resources and support for new entrants. The manifesto is the result of personal meetings with Conservative and shadow farming ministers over the past 12 months as well as wider consultation of the LWA membership.

“This manifesto gives a voice to a growing number of UK farmers who feel their views are not represented by established farming unions” says Ed Hamer from the LWA, “Every single one of the recommendations we are calling for in this document can be achieved within the existing framework of the Common Agricultural Policy. All that is lacking is the political will within the UK government to support small-scale producers and ensure their livelihoods are not undermined by political bias.”

On Wednesday the main hall stage was graced by five women – three of them farmers and two of those from the US – showing how they had kicked the grain habit in raising their livestock. This session, at which the Pasture-fed Livestock Association launched its new certification mark, was chaired by Caroline Drummond, CEO of LEAF.

A final session discussed whether milk was really worth less than bottled water – which the current price would suggest – and the need to differentiate quality milk from the price-sensitive commodity that is known as white water.

Sessions from the 'Digging Deep' strand saw the New Economics Foundation present their critical new report; 'Re-defining Success in Food and Agriculture', whilst Friends of the Earth linked up with two farmers, Peter Lundgren and James Taylor as well as Professor of Ecology Bill Kunin, to examine why farmers need bees and bees need farmers. Meanwhile hands-on sessions in the 'Nuts and Bolts' strand saw a packed out Visual Evaluation of Soil Quality workshop with Dr Bruce Ball whilst Alison Teare from Simple Marketing guided delegates through how to start selling their produce directly.

On Tuesday night three Good Food Oxford chefs cooked up local, organic and seasonal ingredients into a local food feast for 200 delegates and local residents. Showcasing the region’s finest produce, the three chefs have all signed Oxford’s Good Food Charter, and were from The Vaults & Garden, Turl Street Kitchen and The Late Chef.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference was launched In January 2010, as an affordable and inclusive alternative to the long established Oxford Farming Conference. Over the last six years it has created a space for discussion, as well as bringing hundreds of farmers together to share best practice. This year the conference sold out for the first time in it's history, with over 650 delegates coming through the doors of Oxford Town Hall over the two days.

Dr John Meadley, agricultural scientist, chair of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and organiser of the Farming Outside the Box stream said

“In organizing the farmers’ days we focused on good science, working with nature, the bottom line and offering something practical to take home. Of the 22 speakers more than half were farmers sharing their practical experience with their peers”.

Colin Tudge, author of Good Food For Everyone Forever and co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference said

“The point of the ORFC is bring about a cross-the-board shift in farming how it’s done, what it’s for, and who’s in charge of it. We need to raise the status and security of farmers and to get everyone else involved as well. We're not out simply to attack the status quo we show-case farmers and communities who already showing that there are much better ways of doing things. But we also dig deep, exploring economic models and the kind of science that really can support the food chains that we need, and are good for the biosphere. At the heart of all the world’s affairs – social, political, economic, environmental – sits agriculture. It’s the thing we absolutely have to get right, but we have to do things differently.”

Oxford Real Farming Conference

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