The 2020 Oxford Real Farming Conference

by Katy Malone, Conservation Officer (Scotland)

This year marked the 11th ORFC conference, based in Oxford Town Hall and nearby venues in early January. I hadn’t attended before, having assumed (wrongly), that it was relevant to England only and I work in Scotland (agriculture is a devolved matter). However, my colleagues encouraged me to go, and I was very glad that I did. So my co-worker Sam Page and I landed in central Oxford in early January, armed with posters, leaflets, and packets of wildflower seeds.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference was set up as an antidote to the (official) Oxford Farming Conference which is held at the same time, and attracts a large body of international corporates such as Syngenta and Bayer, and emphasises technological advances which enable farmers to intensify to a greater and greater extent. However, some started asking questions around what kind of farming do we actually want and need, and so the ORFC was founded. The focus is very much on bringing together farmers who want to produce good food and keep wildlife on their ground at the same time, with economists, scientists, activists and conservationists. As their website states:

“…the point of ORFC is not to attack the status quo but to look ahead — to ask what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done. Always on the agenda, or thereabouts, is the dream of Agrarian Renaissance: to restore agriculture and all that goes with it to its proper place at the heart of the economy, and indeed of all our lives. …. The thing that matters most for humankind is low on the global agenda.”

The main media partners were the award-winning radio podcast team Farmerama. They wrote this about the conference:

It is absolutely crucial that all of us who believe in sustainable, environmentally-friendly, higher-welfare farming work together as we enter this time of transition. The global wind of change is swinging behind us, with increasing recognition that farming based on intensification and low-quality mass production is an unsustainable option with very dangerous outcomes for climate change and the environment.”

Katy Malone on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stall

This year, for the first time, the Trust had a stall so that we could have a larger presence at the conference. Beside us in the town hall foyer were WWOOF, The Land magazine and Bees for Development. This made for some interesting conversations in the intervals between talks and workshops.

How can I possibly sum up the conference? There were an incredible number of organisations represented, and the conference venue which started off in 2010 with 50 people in a medieval library now attracts over 1000 attendees (and 600 on the waiting list) and spills out over the town hall, St Aldates centre, St Aldates church and a local tavern as well. There were inspirational speakers from the UK, Europe, Africa and the Americas covered a vast range of topics including good pasture management, preserving heirloom seeds, faith and farming, Brexit, regenerative agriculture as part of the solution to climate change and agroforestry. There was some truly memorable food, great entertainment and plenty of stimulating and thought-provoking conversations. Lots of people found us at the stall and wanted to ask about how to encourage bumblebees and other insects on the ground they manage. I attended a very useful session on social crofting. This is a new concept – medical practitioners have started using ‘social prescribing’ rather than (or in addition to) using medications for various conditions, and so some crofts are welcoming regular volunteers who find great personal mental and physical benefits to helping work the land and assisting with livestock. Sam found the sessions on Agroecology and discussion forum on ‘How do we really reduce pesticides’ especially interesting.

These are just a few of the many highlights from the 2020 conference. If you want to attend in 2021, you’d better be quick – tickets sold out in under two weeks last time. Perhaps we’ll see you there? I hope so!

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