Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove’s repeat appearance this year for the 10th anniversary of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, makes a bold statement about the conference’s rising profile – like it or not, it is entering the mainstream, carrying its weight against the long-standing Oxford Farming Conference. This year, over 1000 people attended and there was a waiting list of 600 more trying to get in. The conversation around farming and food production is shifting – it’s undeniable – and the divide between sustainable farmers and conventional ones is slowly closing as sustainability is increasingly recognised as the only way forward, especially for small- and mid-size farms.

Gove still seems to be a bit edgy about explicit commitments to agroecological and organic farming, though his belief in its value appears genuine. However, as ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge has pointed out, support for agroecological practices has yet to make their way into the Agriculture Bill and this continues to be concerning to the sustainable food movement. In response to questioning by MP Kerry McCarthy (Labour) about this during the Q&A, Gove’s response that he wasn’t aiming “to dictate what every future government should do in terms of agricultural support”, which begs the question ‘why ever not?’ The UK has perhaps a singular opportunity to make long-lasting, meaningful change in our agriculture systems – is this all to be lost in the next cabinet reshuffle or general election? Many of us fear the possibility.

The SFT had a strong profile at the Conference, with no fewer than four panels – Local abattoirs: Why they are closing and how we can save them, Plastics after Blue Planet II, The harmonisation of on-farm sustainability and Nitrogen pollution and how to reduce it – organised across the Conference, and one jointly with the New Food Entrepreneurs, The Secrets of Success, which offered advice to young farmers and new entrants.

The SFT has been a key player in the Campaign for Local Abattoirs and it continues to bring this issue to the fore. The ORFC session on Local Abattoirs addressed a range of absolutely critical issues in regards to preserving access to local meat and improved animal welfare. Chair Lady Parker noted that “we have to find solutions and we have to find them quick”. The statistics on local abattoirs are devastating. There are only 56 red meat abattoirs left in the UK and nearly half of them are struggling financially. There have been 7 closures in 2018 alone. Government must step in and begin to support small abattoirs. Without them, an animal’s provenance is impossible to distinguish – large abattoirs will not return meat to farmers; further, the animal welfare issues in trucking livestock sometimes hundreds of miles, causes significantly more stress in slaughter. If we can save Britain’s small abattoirs, we can renew rural communities, relocalise our food chain and give animals both ‘a good life and a good death’. Access to small abattoirs across the entirety of the UK must be recognised as a public good.

Nitrogen pollution is another issue coming into focus for the SFT, with a forthcoming report on the topic. The panel, chaired by Honor Eldridge, head of policy, laid out the environmental and public health damage caused by excessive nitrogen and the potential solutions that could be implemented. Use of nitrogen fertiliser has been growing exponentially year on year, and we are now recognising the immense damage this is doing to the environment – degrading soil, increasing air pollution, causing declines in birds, mammals, pollinating insects and invertebrates, eutrophication and acidification of our waterways and oceans, among other impacts. However, there are natural ways to build nitrogen in soils through cover-cropping with nitrogen fixing legumes. Supporting such sustainable practices in soil management could help Government to turn a damaging practice into a public good.

Soil health and wider agroecological farming practice was, inevitably, a major topic of the Conference – over 50% of attendees are “mud on the boots” farmers – and the ORFC had some major hitters with Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm giving a keynote on his own farm’s journey (you can see a Q&A between Eliot and Patrick here), Steve Gabriel spreading the word of silvopasture, and Vivien Sansour talking about the intersection of politics and seed biodiversity in Palestine.

Silvopasture practice, which brings together livestock management with agroforestry, seems to be having a moment with three different sessions during the Conference. The two back-to-back sessions on the Friday were packed to the gills with momentous applause punctuating the discussion and the conversation carrying over into other sessions.

However, there were many panels focused on wider food system issues, including one on ‘Reclaiming research for real food and farming ’, one of the last sessions. Agricultural research is overwhelmingly focused on industrial farming practices and public money for research is spent largely on things to sell. This imbalance and the independence of research that has been eroded by this, must be redressed. One question asked was, ‘Where are the levers of change that would shift research away from industry and towards sustainable agroecological farming?’ There are few answers to this, except the one glaring one: restore the independence of research and stop corporations funding the research programmes of universities. Rupert Dunne on the panel commented that “research should democratise knowledge”. Indeed!

One of the sessions at the Conference was devoted to the question of where the ORFC goes from here, noting that, “there is a growing need for the network to interact and develop outside of the conference – across the seasons and a wider geography.” Food Manifesto Wales is already proposing a ‘Wales Real Farming Conference’ that might link “Welsh farming and growing to public health, education, social justice, environment and culture.” A regional take on the Conference might open more localised discussions of food and farming issues that are better able to engender grassroots change across the country in specific places.

Wherever the ORFC goes from here, it has been, as Patrick noted in the plenary, “a disruptive force for change in the best possible sense!”

Photograph: Hugh Warwick

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