Happy new year to you all (if it’s not to late to say that?!). We were lucky enough to start 2018 with our annual hit of inspiration, thought-provoking discussion and practical farming top tips, from old friends and new at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC).
Workshops ranged from soil health to land access, the winning combination of farming, cooking and health, to robot weeding and heritage grains. Our own workshop, on building a UK network of incubator farms (akin to FarmStart), was actually described to me as the best on the programme and exactly what I came here for (hooray!). We had the amazing Jean-Baptiste from the French network RENETA over to inspire everyone and then had some great discussions and offers of help to make it happen. Watch this space for future development of that and listen to the audio.
There was a bit of a twist to this year’s conference. A Brexit room organised by Sustain tried to bring us all up to date with what’s happened so far in the discussions around food and farming. Depressingly this included the almost-certain loss of the European Charter of Fundamental Human Rights and the Precautionary Principle (among other useful EU Principles which won’t automatically come across in the repeal bill). On the more hopeful side there is the possibility of replacing the current EU’s CAP subsidies (which currently favour large scale farming and big land owners), with targeting payments to support farmers who prioritise soil health, biodiversity and creating rural livelihoods.
More than a little surprisingly for many of us, this cautious optimism was buoyed by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who attended both ORFC and the industrial larger scale farming conference down the road (which had much fewer delegates at it – not that it’s a competition). Gove spoke to both conferences about the need to reward farmers who work for public goods and to use subsidies to support agri-environment schemes, as opposed to the current system where 80% of the £3m subsidy is used to prop up the large scale farming that is driving intensive farming practices. Which was funny thing to hear a head of DEFRA say. Particularly this one! He talked about the externalities of cheap food; the need to go in the direction of organic; to support new entrants; increase animal welfare and so on. Hard to know what to think about it really, he answered good and challenging questions from the floor well and he knew his stuff. But that’s part of being a politician, and whatever he really thinks he is but one in a political party that hasn’t exactly been known for its radical ecology. Let’s hope he does mean it and is up for fighting for it.
But the really great thing is that everyone else at the conference – which had 950 people at it and 250 more on the waiting list – are up for the fight, and are working every day for a better food and farming system. Watch the conference highlights. It is an amazing movement to be part of and at this crazy old time that is a very important thing to remember. So here’s to a great, productive, hopeful and organic veg fuelled 2018 everyone.