In 1950 the BBC launched a radio series with the aim of helping farmers embrace new farming techniques to increase food production. Today, the Archers is less about farming and much more a rural soap opera, whereas the combination of farming and opera sums up the various farming conferences that come around every year.
The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) – an annual early January fixture – is recognised as the father of farming conferences. Sponsored by charities and corporations alike, farmers dust off their suits to site on straight backed chairs to hear pronouncements from politicians, slick presentations from high profile speakers or just gossip with friends. There is nothing exclusive about farming today - especially an industry so publicly funded via Europe – with the added attraction that many of the subjects appeal to the wider public.
For although agriculture still has, as it always will do, the main objective of producing affordable food, there is an overdue awakening that those farmers that seek just pure agriculture without having to face up to an inconvenient matter called the environment, are having to adjust their sights. Farming must now be undertaken within an increasingly different playing field to when the Archers arrived.
An environment of global urbanised online consumers, diminished biodiversity, increased scrutiny of animal welfare, complex supply chains, higher regulation of pesticides, smarter use of fertilisers and for a business where conservatism is rife, the OFC has a role in challenging and enlightening an industry that both thrives off, and languishes in, continuity, public subsidy and lack of innovation.
By its own turn, the OFC has spawned it's own challenger. The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) arose out of those (including a past script writer for the Archers) that believed there is an alternative way to produce food. Without corporate ownership or high input of agri-chemicals; but with plenty of organic fertiliser, the ORFC attracts a different crowd. Some might call them ‘alternative’. They sit in wellies and hats hoping for more agricultural workers on the land, a return to a more pastoral agro-ecology regime of nurturing and harnessing nature to help feed us.
The ORFC kicked off with ruminants – any cud chewing animal was described as the ‘stomach of humanity’ utilised by ‘higher purpose farmers, stewards of the land’ with the result we needed to ‘put more sheep back and stop oil seed ‘raping’ the land’. One of the panellists didn’t agree. George Monbiot, lambasting (no pun intended) the ridiculous number of livestock in the UK and then slipped across the road to pour scorn, once he’d thanked them for leaving their shotguns at the door, on the National Farmers Union with his usual erudite but conveniently selective prose.
The shadow agriculture minister threw down another gauntlet; was anyone proving that it’s a false argument to say that it’s hard to produce affordable food without an impact on the natural environment? No one seemed willing to pick it up - the politically delicate matter of reducing food banks while increasing wildlife without increasing food prices was given a wide berth.
It was much easier to be distracted at the OFC by Tesco’s agriculture director, the RSPCA talking off-message, calls to reduce meat consumption or a keynote speech from an ornithological zoologist who lead the randomised badger cull and is a member of the government Committee on Climate Change. Perhaps this learned mix of skills from Lord Krebs sums up where farming is today - set between our love of birds and badgers while still blindly ignorant to the serious looming impact of climate change.
Over the road, the ORFC had the New Economics Forum chasing the holy grail of working out the environmental impact of food production. No matter how hard they crunched the figures, the discovery that ‘even though farmland birds were taking a hit…..biodiversity was very hard to measure’. The upshot that the ‘UK food system is affordable. Problem is poverty’ left some people looking quizzical.
I sense that the ORFC, riding high on the buzz of still being the outsiders to the normal rules of play, don’t always worry about the details of how their ideals play out in the real world. The real world can sometimes be a trifle dull. It’s much more exciting to raise the rabble with a tirade against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) rather than focus on a M&S sponsored discussion on whether shorter supply chains actually help UK farmers.
There is much overlap between the two conferences. At the start of 2015’s Year of Soil, a global soil guru scientist held forth evangelically to a rapt audience of ORFC followers (and quite a few ‘suits’ from OFC), whereas the Soil Association lectured the sometimes overly chemically minded farmers at the OFC on the importance of the 'brown stuff'. Of course, we must prepare for a futuristic agriculture that doesn’t even require soil - instead nutrient laden hydroponics under different coloured LED lights might even enable us to make more space for wildlife in our presently manicured overworked countryside.
It could take us time to adjust. But adjust we must. The delicious lamb, beef and vegetables served at the ORFC conference supper was emotionally charged by having the food producers in the room thanked by name. It will take a jump of faith to channel that emotion we have for food and farming towards entomophagy (eating insects) – the offering of Thai green curry flavoured crickets within the OFC’s departure ‘goodie bag’.
These two farming conferences stimulate in different ways. Formal or informal - both the OFC and ORFC have a place at the table of modern food production but without the need to take the moral high grounds in declaring theirs is the only way to farm.
Why not see for yourself by sampling an operatic farming menu next January and tell us what you think?
Rob Yorke, Rural commentator twitter.com/blackgull
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