In early January I attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference, along with 799 other delegates.
Traditionally, this conference, which is held over two days, has been the domain of those interested in small scale and family farming, whereas the Oxford Farming Conference, which is held at the exactly the same time just down the road, is seen as the conference of ‘the establishment’ (with some justification, having been held in the city since 1936) with larger farm businesses in attendance. It could be said that each conference represents a fundamentally opposed world view when it comes to the question of which direction agriculture should move: ‘sustainable intensification’ at Oxford Farming against ‘ecological farming’ at the Oxford Real. Many continue to see a need for both conferences. The argument goes that the voices of smaller scale producers would be drowned out if the conferences merged. Rivalry is not the point.
However, running two conferences simultaneously means that farmers who use fundamentally different approaches cannot debate openly together, unless delegates attend a day at each conference; perhaps unlikely for many. There are signs of increasing common ground between the conferences, for example when it comes to discussions over using cover crops to improve soil health. However, we discuss these common issues apart from each other.
Signs for optimism however came from a fringe session that I attended, organised by Abby Rose from the Farmerama Podcast and Megan Perry from the Sustainable Food Trust. This session brought young farmers from both conferences together to discuss common ground and common issues. Abby’s vision is that in twenty years’ time there will be no need for two conferences but a single event embracing all issues and approaches and encouraging debate.
However, there is a long way to go before her vision becomes reality. On several occasions I heard delegates at the Oxford Real refer to the other conference as ‘that niche conference down the road’. Language of division such as this perpetuates feelings of animosity between each ‘side’ (even mentioning ‘sides’ doesn’t help). My argument is that all approaches should be debated alongside each other, so that farmers can generate a system that works for them. We need to debate together, rather than continuing to turn our backs on each other. I don’t expect this to happen for several years but I hope to see it eventually.
Ben Eagle is a writer and commentator on environmental and agricultural issues and blogs regularly at www.thinkingcountry.com
He produces and presents the Meet the Farmers podcast, available on his blog. You can follow him on twitter at @benjy_eagle.
— Ben Eagle (@benjy_eagle) January 13, 2017