Earlier this month I spoke to delegates at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), recording the latest episode of my podcast Meet the Farmers. This is a new podcast which aims to raise awareness of the real lives, hopes and concerns of farmers and give consumers a unique insight into farming life. Past episodes can be found on my website, thinkingcountry.com.
Over 800 people crammed into the Oxford Town Hall for the ORFC this year, and the energy and enthusiasm was tangible. The event has grown rapidly over the years – this was its eighth season – and its success is a credit to the organising committee, especially Nessie Reid, the Conference Manager, and Colin Tudge, who founded it eight years ago.
There are, of course, two conferences that take place in the city at the same time in early January. Down the road from the ORFC is the more established Oxford Farming Conference (founded in 1936) which is traditionally the place where the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs addresses the farming sector each year.
I understand the need for two conferences: the existence of the ORFC means that some of the issues, particularly in relation to the sustainability of farming, that might not be covered in such depth at the Oxford Farming Conference can be profiled and debated in depth in this alternate conference. When I asked Colin Tudge why there remains a need for two conferences, eight years down the line from the founding of the ORFC, he maintained that each conference represents fundamentally different world views: one ‘enlightened’, the other ‘neo-liberal’- and they engender different approaches to farming and food production.
However, by continuing with the two separate conferences, polarisation is positively encouraged and debate between delegates of opposing views is avoided. Speakers at the ORFC are mostly preaching to the converted. Several people spoke to me of the need to build stronger bridges between the conferences. Abby Rose of the Farmerama Podcast and Megan Perry at the Sustainable Food Trust went further and organised a fringe event for young farmers from both conferences to come together, socialise and speak about common ground. Perhaps this is a sign that in the future, we might see more joint sessions or even, eventually, the two conferences becoming one?
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