If ideas where food then the 2015 Oxford Real Farming (ORFC) conference was a veritable cornucopia of nourishment.
A project of the Real Farming Trust, the 2015 ORFC was the sixth annual instalment of a hugely successful two days of ideas and debates. Presentations and discussions ranged from the dairy industry, flooding, permaculture research, soil fertility and the looming idiocy that is the TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).
Colin Tudge (www.colintudge.com), biologist, author, and co-founder of the ORFC (alongside his wife Ruth and author Graham Harvey), said: “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.”
Writing about food and farming for the past 40 years, Tudge - avuncular, articulate and eminently sensible - explained to me the origins of the ORFC. Both a response and invitation, the ORFC was borne from the idea of “Enlightened Agriculture”, and as a challenge to the voice of the agricultural establishment currently led by corporates and chasing the neo-liberal line. In a world of suits and ties farming no longer appears to be about good food, but the maximisation of wealth (see the Oxford Farming Conference website).
The ORFC is very much the embodiment of Tudge’s phrase 'Enlightened Agriculture' which, he explained, “can be defined loosely as agriculture that is expressly designed to provide good food for everyone forever without wrecking the rest of the world.”
The ORFC is both a direct challenge and an invitation to those seeking to create sane and sustainable alternatives. For an excellent overview of Colin's ideas and the spirit behind the ORFC, read Tudge's piece for The Ecologist.
Over 600 people came together under the roof of the august Oxford Town Hall, an historic building from the Victorian period. The seat of local government, the ostentatious building was adorned with huge oil paintings. The high ceilinged Main Hall, where proceeding began, furnished in ornate modelled plaster, with a series of Arms, lent an indubitable presence to the felt excitement.
Perhaps it was the start of the new year and the idea of alternative possibilities, but there was certainly a buzz that magnified by the busy tweeting (with the ORFC reporting that the conference hashtag - #ORFC15 - reached over one million people during the event).
Over 40 sessions across four strands - ‘farming outside the box’, ‘digging deep’, ‘new generation, new ideas’ and ‘nuts & bolts’ - brought together farmers, growers, activists, academics, permaculture people, NGOs and campaigners to ask what is it that we want farming to do for us.
International soil expert and key note speaker, Dr. Elaine Ingham opened the conference with characteristic warmth and wit delivering a brilliant lecture ‘The Roots of Your Profits.’ Making the distinction between ‘soil’ and ‘dirt’ Ingham stressed that farmers (and growers) are well served to understand life in the soil and make sure it is present. By putting biology back into soil (and getting off chemicals) we can redress the soil food web. As she reminded us all, “We [humans] are the gardeners of the planet - that is our charge.”
With sessions titled ‘Soil, stomachs & Livestock’, ‘Radical Retail’, ‘Food, farming & the TIPP’ and featuring speakers such as Gill Barron ( the Land Magazine), George Monbiot, Vicki Hird (Friends of the Earth), Patrick Holden (Sustainable Food Trust) and Kate McEvoy (the Real Seed Catalogue) it was hard to decide where to be.
It would be well worth taking a look at the full programme and speaker biographies online as well as the official YouTube videos here.
The energetic and hungry (for change!) The Landworkers’ Alliance (LWA) had a large presence at the gathering. Launching their policy manifesto - Feeding the Future: The Landworkers’ Alliance - the declaration set out four key policy recommendations for the main political parties. These include: A National Food Policy (this currently doesn’t exist in the UK - imagine what a joined up strategy linking farming, health & the environment would look like); A Level Playing Field (redressing farm subsidies); Supporting New Entrants (who is going to farm in the future?); and Land Access (measures to limit the concentration of land ownership and increase opportunities for affordable access to land).
Ed Hamer, grower and LWA organiser, said: “This manifesto gives a voice to a growing number of UK farmers who feel their views are not represented by established farming unions. 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.”
The manifesto, and the presence of the LWA, are a vital part in the conversation about the challenges facing UK agriculture. Take a look at the manifesto here.
Over two sessions (both with full audiences) the Permaculture Association delivered work and progress on research in the UK. The first session, ‘Initiating Permaculture & Integrating Research’ saw Andy Goldring, Permaculture Association CEO, comment on how people, rightly, are sceptical about the lack of evidence from permaculture plots and the need to address this “data gap.” One such response has been the creation of citizen scientists (with the aid of the Permaculture Research Handbook). Goldring then went on to introduce introduce two vibrant permaculture projects and LAND centres: The Inkpot in south Lincolnshire and the Apricot Centre in north Essex.
Hannah Thorogood, teacher, designer and diploma tutor, of the Inkpot smallholding whizzed the audience through an excellent presentation of how to approach a piece of land using ecological design, wisely reminding us that, as an approach, permaculture “doesn’t have all the answers, but gets you asking the right questions.”
Marina Brown-O’Connell spoke about her background as an horticulturist and how she has worked to combine permaculture design with Biodynamics both at the Apricot Centre and the Huxham's Cross Farm and Wellbeing Project in south Devon.
The afternoon session, ‘Permaculture Research in the UK’, continued the theme of “the journey to build our [Permaculture Association] empirical base.” Teaming up with The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Senior Research Fellow at CAWR, Julia Wright gave an overview of the Centre’s work in transdisciplinary research on understanding, and developing, resilient food and water systems internationally and working more closely with the Association.
The panel presentations from Federico Fillipi, an independent researcher and farmer at New Gokul farm in Hertfordshire and Dr. Immo Fiebrig, a qualified pharmacist, professional permaculture communicator and co-author of Edible Cities, gave us examples of large scale permaculture in practice and the beginnings of more concrete research aiming to close the gaps between assumptions, experiences and actual measurements. Interestingly - as Fillipi reminded us - permaculture is an alternative and as such is as much a way of living as it is a method of measuring.
Depending on what your rubric is, the science of permaculture doesn’t necessarily have to be the world of graphs, charts and percentages but is actually a very good example of a common sense approach to science: employ a method of practice, observe the results, and if not tenable or working, start again and long the way be open to revising your conjectures and sharing any knowledge you may have gleaned.
A hugely successful conference and as one key organiser told me, by far the most busy, the Oxford Real Farming Conference was an excellent event all involved in food, farming and growing need to attend.
For more info: http://www.oxfordrealfarmingconference.org and @ORFC
Phil Moore is one half of Permaculture People @permapeople
Lead picture: Marina O'Connell, Andy Goldring and Hannah Thorogood courtesy of Robin Grey of Three Acres and a Cow.
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