CCRI researchers in attendance at Oxford farming conferences

Last week, CCRI researchers Aimee Morse and Charlotte Chivers attended two key farming conferences: the ‘Oxford Farming Conference‘ and the ‘Oxford Real Farming Conference‘ respectively. These conferences take place simultaneously and position themselves in slightly different arenas within the agricultural sector. 

The Oxford Farming Conference, which began in 1936, attracts a wide range of international delegates, politicians, royalty and landowners, and is often considered more ‘traditional’ of the two conferences. Meanwhile, the ‘Oxford Real Farming Conference’ took place for the first time in 2010, offering an alternative arena presented as “an innovative environment for some radical discussions”. Since its inception, this conference has grown extensively, with over 1800 in-person delegates and 2500 online delegates in attendance this year. Rather than being a competitor to the ‘original’ conference, it is seen as complementary, with many delegates, including ministers, attending both. Although each event is typically more attractive to a particular demographic within the farming and agricultural sector, they both aim to further the sustainability of the industry. 

You can read more about each event from Charlotte Chivers and Aimee Morse below, including a reflection on the increasingly converging paths of both conferences.  

ORFC Entrance (Photo – Hugh Warwick)

Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) – Charlotte Chivers 

As ever, the ORFC was inspiring from the outset. During the opening plenary, several speakers gave moving speeches, with a shared message about the importance of coming together and mobilising to build an agroecological, equitable farming system. The overarching feeling here was one of positivity  – as aptly put by Kath Dalmeny of Sustain, campaigns for a better future must be driven by optimism, not despair.  

The conference was then underway, with several parallel sessions running throughout. After much deliberation, I circled my choices and headed to my first session, on farmer-led research. Here, we heard from farmers who are working with practitioners and academics to carry out research that is relevant to their needs, including a blackcurrant farmer working to reduce waste, and an Innovative Farmers trial which has dispelled a longstanding fear that grazing sheep on red clover has adverse effects on fertility.  

Next, Vicki Hird and Dave Goulson discussed the insect apocalypse during a lunchtime session. Having previously researched ectoparasites, I enjoyed the opportunity to further consider the impacts of our declining invertebrate populations. The discussants covered many topics, from the online abuse experienced by Dave Goulson whilst researching the impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on bumblebee health, to the shifting baseline effect, whereby new generations, having no memory of car windscreens covered in insects, don’t realise the extent to which populations have declined. There was, however, some hope, with an audience member sharing that they are growing wildflowers across agricultural fields as well as on margins whilst finding little to no impact on crop yields.  

After lunch, I attended a session entitled ‘Should the UK grow more food?’, chaired by Prof Tim Lang, with presentations from the likes of Tim Benton, Anna Taylor, and Dee Woods. A dynamic discussion with the audience ensued, with themes including food availability, affordability, equitability, resilience, imports, and ways of becoming more self-reliant. The final session I attended on day 1 provided sound advice on ways of experimenting with herbal leys, which are becoming increasingly popular due to their recognised benefits for flooding, carbon storage, and soil health.  

Having enjoyed a networking dinner the evening before, I was looking forward to another jam-packed day, beginning with a session on soil science. Again, the need for farmer-led research dominated. The final session I attended was on how farmers are achieving food system change. We heard from several active farmers, including @farmingGeorge, about how they navigated their journeys into agroecological farming. These stories aligned well with our recent report into rural agricultural microbusinesses, where we found that those operating under short supply chains have the potential to become a great success, providing local communities with food.  

Overall, a great conference to start a new year – I came away feeling optimistic, a feeling which has become increasingly rare in recent months and years!

Opening Session of the OFC (Photo – Oxford Farming)

The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) – Aimee Morse

This year’s conference theme was ‘Farming a New Future’. Although there was recognition of the challenges faced by the sector, there was an air of optimism throughout each session regarding the potential to deliver an environmentally sustainable, economically viable, and socially just future. A substantial victory for the opposition at this year’s OFC debate, against the motion ‘this house believes that humans will not be needed on farms in a generation’, suggests that this future, and that of the rural communities of which our farms are a part, will certainly continue to have people at its heart.   

With presentations from the soil to space, each speaker inspired. Talks on trade and policy were interspersed with those on personal experience and evidence that with enthusiasm, ambition, appropriate funding and, crucially, support, change is possible. To paraphrase several speakers, this will also require all those involved in the sector to be brave and look to take future opportunities with both hands. Overall, the Conference certainly delivered on its mission to inform, challenge and inspire and I know many, including myself, left Oxford feeling motivated to take positive action in the year ahead. 

Final thoughts… 

This year, there was a sense that the two Oxford conferences are on a converging road. As Sir Charles Godfray noted at OFC, ‘there is a real opportunity to find common ground among all those who care about farming and the environment’. Now is the time for action based on our common beliefs, and we found that this year, more than ever, the two conferences shared a common focus on the change required to ensure farming has a viable future which is sustainable and just. As social scientists, we look forward to continuing to work with those across the sector as we move into this new year to understand how this change happens, and how it can best be supported.