One city, two farming conferences and two very different agendas.
Oxford in the first week of January perfectly encapsulates the battle for hearts and minds over how the farming industry addresses global food and environmental challenges.
For most of its 70 years, the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), held in the ’stunning, historic surroundings’ of the Oxford University colleges, has stood alone, as its website says, ‘as THE way to kick-start the New Year’ for its many regular delegates.
Attracting the so-called industry ‘great and good’ among its 450-500 delegates, it is perceived, with some justification, as the conference of the farming establishment, sitting firmly, but not exclusively, in the sustainable intensification camp when it comes to the leanings of delegates and organisers.
In 2010, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) held its first event in an upstairs Oxford library room big enough to hold 80 delegates.
Taking place in the same week as the OFC, it was established as the ‘antidote’ to OFC’s ‘high-tech and global market focus’, looking instead to champion the agro-ecological alternative farming model,.
It has grown in stature and profile ever since.
The 2016 event at Oxford Town Hall is expected to attract 650 delegates, more than OFC, which will be taking place at exactly the same time, on January 6 and 7.
Both conferences are sold out, both limited by space, rather than demand.
ORFC’s cause is helped by being able to set prices (£50 for two days, £75.50 for both days plus dinner) at a fraction of those charged by OFC.
This is thanks largely to support from the Sheepdrove Trust, the charity set up to promote sustainability, biodiversity and organic farming, which covers approximately half the conference’s costs.
The 2016 conference programmes say it all.
OFC’s 2016 conference is entitled ’Bold Agriculture’. The main programme is kicked off off on Wednesday by a high profile political debate between Defra Secretary Liz Truss and her opposite number Kerry McCarthy, with a strong focus thereafter on science and technology and entrepreneurship and leadership in farming, the subject of the annual OFC report.
Thursday begins with another big-hitting political debate, this time on Europe featuring former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson and EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. It is followed by sessions asking whether ’food is the new medicine’ and showcasing farming entrepreneurs.
Al Brooks, an OFC director and chairman of the 2016 conference, said: “We try and get varied and interesting speakers to be relevant and topical but also slightly leftfield as well."
ORFC’s programme also includes political debate – Ms McCarthy has been invited – and well-known speakers, including environmentalist George Monbiot. There will be a headline debate, for example on ’organic v conventional farming’.
But it has a much more ‘earthy’ feel, reflecting, perhaps the fact more than half its delegates are ‘practising, mud-on-the-boots farmers’.
The first hour alone on Wednesday, for example, will feature breakout sessions on jobs in farming, soil health, raising cattle and sheep on pasture and scaling up for retailers.
There are sessions on bio-pesticides, managing cover crops, migrant workers, urban agriculture, care farming and many more like it over the two days.
ORFC founder, biologist and writer Colin Tudge said: "All our people are there because they want to be here. They are professional farmers or want to get into farming or have some special interest."
Whereas once ORFC might have started as no more than a noisy neighbour, it has rapidly evolved into a strong event in its own right. But are they rivals?
Mr Tudge said: “We are rivals in the sense we are both after hearts and minds but we have the moral high ground without any question.
“But I would use the word ‘antidote’, rather than rivals, as the message which comes across from the OFC is deeply pernicious and misleading. ”
He said ORFC wanted to challenge the OFC over its ’focus on big business and the relentless drive to maximise profit’.
This, for example, was reflected in the championing of Mrs Truss and her predecessor Mr Paterson of exports to China ’as the way forward for British farming’ at recent conferences.
He said ORFC, with its agro-ecological focus, ‘accepts profit is not a dirty word’.
“But we are not talking about maximising of profit, we are talking about businesses being conceived as social enterprises. They must make profit but they must also do good for society and for the biosphere.”
“It is amoral agenda that is totally absent from Oxford Farming Conference.
Mr Brooks described talk of a rivalry between the conferences as a ‘load of rubbish’, insisting they were complementary.
Generally, more than 35 per cent of OFC’s delegates were farmers and its programme was designed to appeal to farmers from all sectors and others with an interest in the industry, he said.
Mr Brooks said: “We are agri-business, agriculture, farming. We are grassroots, but we are also looking at the wider world out there as well by getting people other than pure agriculturalists through the door.”
“This perception of them and us which has been encouraged over the years is really sad. We constantly try to engage with ORFC.
“This rivalry thing is unfounded and largely pointless. I welcome the ORFC as it provides a balance. We do our thing for agriculture, they do theirs.
“We actually complement each other. Between us, it goes from literally grassroots up to policy level and beyond.”
Whether they are rivals or not - a concept ORFC certainly likes to perpetuate but one OFC prefers to play down - is not the important point.
Debate is always a healthy thing and the rise of ORFC only makes Oxford in January a more compelling place to be - when farming, for a short time, takes centre stage in the historic University city.