There is growing momentum for a coming together next year of the two high-profile farming conferences which took place in Oxford last week.
About 1,100 people descended on the historic university city in the first week of January for the conferences which, although underpinned by two different farming philosophies – and dress codes, covered much common ground.
The long-running Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) has endured an uneasy relationship with the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) since it was established in 2010 as an ‘antidote’ to the ‘establishment’ of OFC’s recurrent themes of agri-science and technology and maximising profit in agriculture.
ORFC, which champions the agro-ecological approach to farming and attracted more than 700 delegates last week, has become firmly established as an important event in its own right but is no less restrained in its criticism of OFC.
There was limited crossover at the events, which took place just a few hundred metres apart on the same days.
For example, four delegates from ORFC attended the annual OFC debate at the Oxford Union, contributing passionately on this year’s subject of equality, while NFU vice-president Guy Smith debated the merits of mixed farming with the Sustainable Food Trust’s Richard Young at ORFC.
But there was a clear desire from delegates at both events to make much more of the fact so many people with an interest in agriculture were drawn to Oxford at the same time.
The conference organisers were cautiously open to the idea of some sort of joint event to debate the farming philosophies during the 2017 conferences.
Martin Davies, chairman of OFC 2017, said the OFC council recognised there was a lot of ‘common ground’ between the events, and would continue to make efforts to ‘reach out’ to ORFC.
“I would be delighted if we could do something on a sensible basis where we could exchange information and knowledge,” he said.
“We are willing to try and find common ground but this must be reciprocated by ORFC. Let us just get away from the perpetuation of ‘them and us’ and of OFC being the ‘dark side’.”
ORFC founder Colin Tudge, the writer behind the Campaign For Real Farming, tentatively welcomed the idea of a link up.
“If we had a joint session it would have to be properly arranged and chaired and we would have to find the venue.
“But anything which leads to clarification of ideas has to be good. If one could arrange the format, then it would be a useful thing to do.”
First held: 1936
Delegates: About 450 delegates in 2016 (sold out). About 35 per cent farmers.
Dress code: Formal, regulation blue/grey suit and tie for the men.
2016 themes: ‘Bold Agriculture’ covering politics, science, entrepreneurship, Europe.
What they say about closer links
“There needs to be recognition the industry is diversified and there is room for co-existence between all the different sorts of production, from subsistence smallholders selling things locally to the marketplace which requires broad-acre producers.
“There is room for co-existence (between the two conferences) whether you are talking about soil, pasture or cover crops. But profit is not a dirty word. It is not fundamentally immoral to make a profit out of farming.”
OFC 2017 chairman Martin Davies
First held: 2010
Delegates: About 750. More than half ‘mud-on-boots farmers’.
Dress code: Relaxed, occasionally colourful. Anything goes (except ties).
2016 themes: Many, including jobs, soil, pasture, cover crops, a rural manifesto, low input dairying, wildlife on farms, pesticides, the case against intensive livestock.
What they said about closer links
“The two events have very different ambitions of the two events. In a nutshell, we follow the idea of real farming or enlightened agriculture – providing good food for everybody without wrecking the rest of the world.
"You treat farming as an exercise in ecology.
“The logic behind the OFC is agriculture is a business like any other and this business is defined as a competition to make as much money as possible in the shortest time.
“We talk about money as well, but our focus is on how you farm better.”
ORFC founder Colin Tudge