The Oxford Farming Conferences - what happened at this years conferences?

Can we finally see a time when the oxford farming conferences align in visions for the future of farming?

No longer the exclusive domain of what ‘Inspiring Farmer 2023’ Mary Quicke called ‘the men in sh*t-coloured suits’, this year’s Oxford Farming Conference wore its heart on its sleeve in a way I found surprising and disarming. Conference Chair Emily Norton and incoming Chair Will Evans proved comfortable with tears, and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house as double paralympic medalist Samantha Kinghorn MBE recounted her astonishing feats of resilience after her tragic farm accident.

‘Farming a New Future’ was the 2023 Conference theme, and the programme was values-led and nature-based as never before. Farming Minister Mark Spencer waited his turn on the heels of Jo-Jo Mehta, Director of ‘Stop Ecocide International’, making a powerful case for Ecocide to be recognised as a crime in international criminal law.

With 42% of farms at risk of insolvency without Basic Payment (BPS), and the clock ticking on our Net Zero and Biodiversity legal targets, farmers and environmentalists alike were hoping for a bold, decisive announcement from the Minister, following Defra’s Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) review. We didn’t get it. What we got were tweaks to payment rates, welcome but nowhere near the clear vision and incentive structure needed to spark a mainstream farming transition.

Most worrying was the Minister’s dismissal of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy as one among many strategies and “not the only source of knowledge and guidance out there.” By contrast, shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner opened and closed with a reference to Henry Dimbleby’s Plan and accused the Government of having no plan to rescue a broken food system beyond ‘leaving it to the market’.

Daniel Zeichner promised that a Labour Government would be willing to tackle imbalances of power in supply chains and ensure public bodies source 50% of food locally. Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon, shared how Scotland is promoting resilient, local food systems via their Good Food Nation Act and backing for the Soil Association’s Food for Life scheme to achieve local, organic and healthy menus across schools and healthcare settings. Across at ORFC, as part of a Food Ethics Council workshop, dairy farmer Bryce Cunningham spoke powerfully about how his Mossgiel Farm avoided bankruptcy by converting to organic and supplying milk to Food for Life schools across East Ayrshire.

Wales took centre stage at OFC with a powerful presentation about the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act from former Climate Minister Jane Davidson, and the far-reaching influence this is having on their forthcoming Agriculture Bill and Sustainable Farming Scheme.

A recurring source of Conference unease was those ‘men in grey suits’ in HM Treasury, seen to be waiting in the wings to claw back the £3bn farm budget, only guaranteed for this Parliament. “Does anyone still seriously believe,” challenged Daniel Zeichner, “that all the money withdrawn from BPS will find its way back in environmental payments?” Professor Sir Charles Godfray, author of a soon-to-be-published Royal Society report on Multifunctional Landscapes, called for farmers and environmentalists to stand together in defence of ‘public money for public goods’ as the strongest justification for maintaining the farm budget into the next Parliament.

Sir Charles called for an end to unhelpful ‘land sharing’ versus ‘land sparing’ terminology in favour of “a continuum, helpfully summarised in three parts” as set out in the National Food Strategy. Crucially, he cautioned that even highly productive land managed chiefly for food production must be agroecological and not just technological if it is to be sustainable. Controversially, perhaps, he said he believed the role of biofuels in Net Zero is “probably exaggerated” and that lab-grown meat would displace processed meat – though not fillet steak - within the decade.

Across at ORFC, we, the Soil Association, chaired a session looking at the Economics of Agroecological Farm Businesses and how farmers can find a resilient, profitable pathway to agroecological farming. A special thanks to George Chanarin of Cumulus Consultants, and our Farmer Ambassadors George Young, Nikki Yoxall and CAFOD's Ruth Segal for being panellists. Back at OFC, it was pleasing to see many threads of this pathway were woven through the programme: from the need for trade policy safeguards to domestic regulatory baselines; from public money for public goods to the private market for nature-based solutions; and from input savings to investment in data and analytics platforms – like our new venture Soil Association Exchange - to validate impact.

Sir Charles Godfray called out what many farmers must be feeling – that what it means to be a farmer has changed: from food producer alone to steward of multi-functional landscapes for climate, nature and health. Some – not least the entrepreneurial organic and agroecological pioneers pounding the corridors of ORFC - will be energised by that prospect. Many others will be daunted. They are not helped by the failure of our political leaders to build the compelling vision we ‘story-telling apes’ need, concluded Sir Tim Smit, in a self-proclaimed ‘rant’. Sir Charles pushed that challenge back to the farming audience: “We need political bravery but all of us here need to legitimise that; to give Government the confidence to make those brave decisions.”

So does this new ‘heart on sleeve’ version of the Oxford Farming Conference still leave a role for the Oxford Real Farming Conference to challenge from the fringe? ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge makes a compelling case that it remains as relevant as ever, championing prevention over techno-fix, and environmental and social diversity over corporate capture and monoculture. With next year’s Oxford Farming Conference theme already announced as “The Power of Diversity”, I for one hope that soon we will struggle to see the gaps for the common ground.