I have never before been to a conference where the opening plenary involved Japanese taiko drummers and the closing had The Beatles’ Revolution as a soundtrack. But the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is no ordinary conference.

It’s a conference where master butchers rub shoulders with vegetarians and English estate managers sit down with Scottish crofters; a conference where the concept of farming could stretch from a 20,000-acre estate in Argentina to a pocket-sized brownfield site in Bristol.

I first attended the ORFC in 2019, for just one day and for no good reason beyond curiosity. This year, I came back for both days with something resembling a strategy – a deliberate intention to glean as much expertise and imagination as possible to inform the direction of my own business back at home.

Before my departure for Oxford, I studied the programme like a hardened bookie and worked up an efficient plan for myself (that I wrote on a scrap of paper and forgot to take). As someone who spends much of their time with only sheep and dogs for company, a crowded venue in the centre of a city can feel a little overwhelming and I had learnt last year how easy it is to descend into chaos if you don’t arrive with at least half an idea of what to attend.

It was heartening to find that, despite the never-ending Brexit saga, the focus of the conference was very much on the environment. How to move away from the folly of industrial farming and the grip of agrochemical companies? How to move production towards net-zero carbon, quickly? How to rebuild soils? How to improve biodiversity? How to feed an expanding population with sustainable nutritious food?

Over the course of the two days I worked my way through silvopasture, achieving zero carbon, local food systems, post-Brexit trade deals, the “lean” farm, agroecology, saving small abattoirs and healthy sustainable diets. I had intended to go to the lunchtime talk on, “How insects migrate and influence soil health across continents” but information overload and the need to eat got the better of me.

Squeezy cow

Along with the talks and discussion sessions there was much to be gained from chatting with the well-informed, enthusiastic people at the multitude of stalls and exhibitions around the Town Hall and St. Aldates Church. At the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stand, for instance, some of the poorer aspects of my grazing routines became apparent and solutions began to click into place. I was pleased to see the Farming Community Network represented and was unashamed to admit that I had needed their much-valued advice and support during a past crisis. (Not to mention the stress-busting squeezy cows available for a small donation – an aide to old farmers with arthritic hands apparently!)

I talked to strangers that I happened to be sitting next to and felt a sense of unity in a diverse group of people, each trying to work in different ways towards a sustainable future.

What can only be described as a comic interlude occurred on day two in the main hall when a group of performers took to the stage dressed as the Spice Girls (including the men) and wearing animal masks. Much confusion beset the audience as nobody could work out if they were scheduled entertainment or some sort of protest. The fact that the microphones weren’t on didn’t help, but they were given the benefit of the doubt with polite applause – and despite the fact that they weren’t as good as the taiko drummers!

I’m sure much will continue to be said on George Monbiot’s presentation in the final discussion session in the main hall, Linking Sustainable and Healthy Diets with Farm Outputs. Others will be better qualified than I to comment on the content of the session. As someone who just sat and listened in amazement as he insulted a gathering of some of the most experienced and original food producers, environmentalists and researchers in the field, I wondered what George was trying to achieve. If he was hoping for a serious consideration of his ideas, pitching his delivery somewhere between the Messiah and the Angel of Death was probably not the best approach. While it made for an electrifying session, George’s revelation inevitably scuppered any possibility of a much-needed debate on what the optimum diet for the health of both the population and the planet might look like. There were strong presentations by the other panellists and the SFT’s Patrick Holden managed to regain the positive mood of the conference before the session drew to a close. An interview between Patrick and George which followed the session actually provided a much more balanced discussion and is worth a watch.

While the tribute to Martin Wolfe and the closing plenary were separate sessions, somehow in my mind’s eye, they merged, the moving final comments of a number of delegates overlaying the extraordinary aerial photo of Martin’s farm – a green living oasis in a desert of monoculture.

Towards the close of the conference a short film stitching together clips of the two days and brief words from around the gathering played out to the Beatles singing, “You say you wanna revolution?” And actually, yes, I think we do.

Photograph: Hugh Warwick

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