Optimism and urgency at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

I just skimmed the surface of what was happening at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Around 4,000 people attended ORFC 2023 altogether, between online attendees and those in Oxford – the largest agroecological gathering in the world. I joined in person this year for the first time (the event returned to Oxford this year for the first time in three years since the pandemic). I need to go next time with about three clones (or three mates willing to share notes) to cover all the sessions I’d have liked to.

I couldn’t afford to attend the Oxford Farming Conference happening at the same time, or I would have needed another couple of clones. The recorded sessions from conferences really come into their own when there’s too much to see, as good as face-to-face contact is.

The highlight for me was a session run by Jenny Phelps of FWAG (Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group) South West along with Theresa Meadows from BASIS and Fiona Galbraith from Ruralink. Farming and Community Advice and Support for our Landscape, Climate and Nature Recovery (quite a mouthful and not even the longest name for a session at the conference) was an intense download of information centred around the Integrated Local Delivery methodology developed by Jenny. Theresa and Fiona presented on how training and accreditation could better support people to work as facilitators delivering ILD and advice to farms and communities. Expressing frustration with the short-sightedness of government and their slowness in addressing the climate crisis, Jenny was quite clear – work is needed right now, and ILD is in a position to work as a catalyst for communities right now. Her closing plea was that the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission factored ILD into their work on the Land Use Framework as it is so well placed to provide the ‘bottom-up’, multifunctional approach needed. That plea was passed on directly by an audience member in a subsequent session attended by the FFCC’s Belinda Gordon.

A conference stage with people sat in discussion
“You can’t eat a flippin’ maths book”

Other sessions included a primer in using systemic mapping led by Jenny Mackewn, a useful summary of soil monitoring (particularly with reference to bioindicators), and a discussion on the dietary changes we all need to make to align with regenerative farming systems chaired by Dan Saladino. A great quote from Darina Allen responding to the recent announcement of Rishi Sunak’s desire to extend mandatory school maths lessons to the age of 18: “You can’t eat a flippin’ maths book… I hope I live to see the day when we have practical cooking, gardening and foraging embedded in the school curriculum.”

I was chuffed to see some great people I know at the conference. So much of the value of the in-person experience is the serendipitous meetings in corridors between sessions. Since moving and feeling a little like a fish out of water while we settle into a new location, seeing friendly and familiar faces was extra special. I really value still feeling like part of an incredible community of people after leaving my last job in farming.

Overall, I felt a feeling I remember from two visits to Groundswell – huge amounts of optimism, goodwill and passion to farm better, to play a pivotal role in not just making better food but in supporting biodiversity, mitigating climate breakdown and building communities. Because for pretty much everyone at the conference I’m sure, not only are these aims not mutually exclusive, they’re indivisible.

I also felt something else. Frustration, restlessness, urgency. Because retailers, corporates, and certainly the government aren’t pulling their fingers out fast enough to support a regenerative agroecological transition at the pace and scale needed. So the final feeling was – let’s just bloody get on with it, or put rather better in the Welsh farming song the conference joined in the closing plenary, “Ymlaen, ymlaen, ymlaen” – forward, forward, forward.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.