The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was established 15 years ago as an alternative to the Oxford Farming Conference, which takes place at the same time in the university city.
The ORFC brings together people who want to transform our food and farming system, with sessions that cover a wide range of subjects, including agroecology, regenerative agriculture, organic farming, and indigenous food and farming systems.
Lord Deben, the former chair of the Climate Change Committee, warned of the challenges we face in attempting to stay within the 1.5 degrees target, which is necessary to ensure a liveable world in the future. Business as usual, with deforestation to plant crops, dredging of the ocean floors, and the use of chemicals and pesticides, is not an option.
Farming has a huge impact on the environment and is significantly affected by climate change, but it also needs to be part of the solution. Therefore, many sessions focussed on the environment. Organic farmers discussed their methods of getting the most from their land without the use of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, with field cropping, tunnel propagation, and green manure use. Iain Tolhurst has been farming organically for 40 years and can boast approximately 1,000 earthworms in each square metre of topsoil; that’s an impressive estimated 10 tons of worms in each hectare.
As farming can cause environmental damage, for example through chemical run-off into water courses, it can also bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change. For instance, flooding on farmland can have serious implications for crops, livestock, and wildlife. However, flood prevention methods taken on farmland, especially natural flood management methods, can have a positive impact on the farm, as well as those living down river, and the wider ecosystem. By introducing elements such as ponds, scrapes, beck wiggling, tree planting, earth bunds, and controlling livestock’s access to streams and rivers farmers can create wildlife habitats and stop the washing away of precious topsoil, whilst preventing flooding too. This can take place on individual farms or as catchment-wide projects, which may be more effective but more difficult to enact.
It was argued in several sessions that farming needs protection and should not be left to the mercy of free trade deals signed post-Brexit with countries that don’t necessarily produce food to the same standards as we would wish. During research conducted by the National Conversation About Food, a cross-section of people from Cambridge and Birmingham were asked what they really wanted from their food. People said they wanted access to healthy, nutritious food and for farmers to be paid a decent wage. However, accessing locally produced food in an inner city can be problematic so a systemic approach to food accessibility is required.
Farmers cannot do all this alone, they need support, and a wider conversation about food production and distribution is needed. This is where the ORFC plays its part. Food is vital for our survival and the way in which it’s produced has an impact on us all.