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10th January 2015

As it entered its 6th year this week, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) brought together 650 farmers, growers, scientists and economists from across the globe for two days of talks, debates and hands on workshops, demonstrating a growing demand to challenge the status quo in agriculture.

Over recent years, the conference has steadily been gaining a reputation amongst the farming community for its strong practical, grassroots focus, but this year represented a real “coming of age” for the event. With science playing such a key role in every aspect of today’s food production, each of the major farming themes was underpinned by the presentations of research experts from both the UK and abroad.

Dr. Elaine Ingham, world renowned microbiologist and soil scientist, opened the conference by highlighting the vital importance of the life of the soil. She demonstrated how, through paying careful attention to key factors that influence “good” soil biology, farmers can reap the benefits of healthy plants by reducing their fertilizer and crop protection bills.

She made explicit the distinction between farming soil and farming dirt. The difference being that soil is a complex web of micro-organisms that protect plants from disease by maintaining aerobic bacteria and alkaline pH. The presence of living organisms keeps nutrients in the soil and builds structure. Farming dirt means that the chemicals are doing all the work; the pesticides are killing all the beneficial bacteria, and the soil quickly becomes compacted.  “It’s about getting the biology back into the soil,” she said.

Livestock took centre stage on the second day of the conference, with Mark Eisler (Professor of Global Farm Animal Health at Bristol University) presenting a fascinating analysis of key reports such as “Foresight” and the UN’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” which have strongly influenced the Government’s Sustainable Intensification policy. Eisler highlighted the role that pasture plays in sequestering carbon concluding that there is a good case for supporting extensive livestock systems such as pasture-based ruminant production as one of the foundations of sustainable land and resource use.

A lively debate between George Monbiot, journalist and author, and The Sustainable Food Trust’s began with its Director Patrick Holden asking humanity’s ultimate question, “What is our higher purpose on this planet?” He answered from an organic farmers’ perspective by saying we must replace chemical farming and preserve biodiversity by producing food through mixed farming, crop rotation and ruminants to build the soil, which he described as “a vast organ of digestion.”

Patrick Holden recommended reducing the amount of grain fed to cattle for red meat production and asserted their essential role is digesting cellulose in the grass phase of crop rotation. Beef and lamb are the most sustainable livestock using the Alan Savory method, he said and mooted putting the cow at the fulcrum of farming, a suggestion suited to the city of Oxford, which has the Ox at the centre of its’ coat of arms.

Next up was Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust who went further with his soil analogy by calling it “the stomach of humanity,” and tying it to collapse of civilizations. He said that soils are degraded everywhere and in 160 countries 52% of all soils have moderate to severe degradation and one third of topsoil is already washed away. Every minute 23 hectares of soil are lost to crop production, much of it taken by large corporations for short term profit.

Richard Young warned that we may only have enough soil for between 60-100 harvests in the UK unless we radically re-think our use of oilseed rape (the spuriously sunny looking yellow fields at the side of the motorway) which is eroding soil and insect populations. In a proper crop rotation there should be grass instead of oilseed rape. He prescribed two fields of wheat and one of grass, not two fields of wheat and one of oilseed rape.

Scientists have overestimated the carbon in our top soil. Only grass can put carbon back into the soil and only compost and deep root systems can stabilize it, Young explained. We rely on ancient humus for healthy soils: one gram of humus can hold twenty grams of water. Therefore, a no-till system dependent on genetically modified crops and herbicides that depletes soil humus is a false hope for production.

George Monbiot, campaigner and author, brought up the rear with an eloquent attack on the multiple crises in agriculture exacerbated he said by the ridiculous number of livestock. He cited the uplands of Wales as an area being shagged to within an inch of its life by the white plague of sheep, and supported by Government subsidies. I do not believe that our entire uplands should be reduced to a monoculture of sheep especially when Wales imports seven times more meat than is exported, he said.  

Referencing radical re-wilding ideas from his latest book Feral, the former Oxford Zoology student suggested that there are places where farming is not appropriate. For example, in the Cameron Mountains and Snowdonia, where the sound of insects and birds is no longer heard. It is in empty ecosystems like these that wolves, lynx, wolverine, bison, brown bears and beavers could be re-introduced.  Monbiot rightly bemoans our poor animal conservation record in comparison to our ambitious European neighbours and even suggested the return of the elephant to these shores!

In the lowlands, Monbiot said, we need to put aside two and half millennia of cultural preconceptions and  employ people to learn and look at systems as a whole. We need a diversity of land uses, some of it away from farming. During question time a spokesperson from the Landworkers Alliance (LWA) secured Monbiot’s support to come up with a holistic plan to radically change farming in the UK.

The LWA were responsible for the New Generation, New ideas strand of the ORFC and held a press launch of their policy manifesto. This set out their key policy recommendations to be considered by the main political parties in the run-up to the 2015 general election including; the need for a progressive national food policy, a more equal distribution of CAP resources and support for new entrants.

The LWA manifesto is the result of personal meetings with Conservative and shadow farming ministers over the past 12 months as well as wider consultation of their own membership. “This manifesto gives a voice to a growing number of UK farmers who feel their views are not represented by established farming unions” says Ed Hamer from the LWA, “Every single one of the recommendations we are calling for in this document can be achieved within the existing framework of the Common Agricultural Policy. All that is lacking is the political will within the UK government to support small-scale producers and ensure their livelihoods are not undermined by political bias.”

On the second day, the main hall stage was graced by five women – three of them farmers and two of those from the US – showing how they had kicked the grain habit in raising their livestock. This session, at which the Pasture-fed Livestock Association launched its new certification mark, was chaired by Caroline Drummond, CEO of LEAF.  Another session discussed whether milk was really worth less than bottled water – which the current price would suggest – and the need to differentiate quality milk from the price-sensitive commodity that is known as “white water.” And in another workshop leading dairy farmers and Nuffield scholars Robert Craig (Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year) and Rob Richmond debated the production of milk from grass and bag nitrogen versus herbal leys and mob grazing.

Sessions from the 'Digging Deep' strand saw the New Economics Foundation ( NEF) present their critical new report; 'Re-defining Success in Food and Agriculture', whilst Friends of the Earth linked up with two farmers, Peter Lundgren and James Taylor as well as Ecology Professir Bill Kunin, to examine why farmers need bees and bees need farmers. Meanwhile hands-on sessions in the 'Nuts and Bolts' strand saw a packed out Visual Evaluation of Soil Quality workshop with Dr Bruce Ball whilst Alison Teare from Simple Marketing guided delegates through how to start selling their produce directly.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference was launched In January 2010, as an affordable and inclusive alternative to the long established Oxford Farming Conference. It has created a space for discussion, as well as bringing hundreds of farmers together to share best practice. This years’ sell out conference saw 650 delegates coming through the doors of Oxford Town Hall over the two days.

Colin Tudge, author of Good Food For Everyone Forever and co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference said, “The point of the ORFC is bring about a cross-the-board shift in  farming - how it’s done, what it’s for, and who’s in charge of it. We need to raise the status and security of farmers and to get everyone else involved as well. We ‘re not out simply to attack the status quo, we showcase  farmers and communities who already showing that there are much better ways of doing things. But we also dig deep, exploring economic models and the kind of science that really can support the food chains that we need, and are good for the biosphere.  At the heart of all the world’s affairs – social, political, economic, environmental – sits agriculture. It’s the thing we absolutely have to get right, but we have to do things differently.”

The full programme, and a history of the ORFC, can be found at
A video summary of the conference featuring Tom Heap, Dr Elaine Ingham, Stephen Devlin, Colin Tudge, Vicki Hird and Patrick Holden can be found on the Oxford Real Farming YouTube channel: