OXFORD’S WINDS OF CHANGE

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com in January 2018

It has been fascinating following proceedings from Oxford this week, albeit from a distance. Until a decade ago we only had the Oxford Farming Conference but, apparently, a segment of the farming community felt that they were not well represented by such a ‘mainstream’ farming event. Hence, they launched the Oxford Real Farming Conference. This year, it is reported that there were twice as many delegates at the ORFC with many more unable to obtain tickets. Would this suggest that it is now time to reflect on what we perceive as ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ farming?

When it started, the ORFC was about ‘alternative’ farming methods. It was for those who were unable to embrace the green revolution of the later half of the 20th Century. One could only sympathise with their predicament and allow them to get on and do their own thing and to set up their own fringe conference in Oxford. After all they presented no threat to anyone who understood that serious farmers were conventional farmers. A decade on and should we be asking ‘who is mainstream now’? True, one swallow does not make a summer, but is something afoot?

How to describe the difference between the two. Both conferences presented dynamic programmes focused on change, innovation and seeking new approaches to feed society. The difference I would say, and highlight is one of control, as obscure as that may sound.

In recent decades the farming community has lost control of the food supply chains. Ignoring the loss of the ‘Boards’ in the UK, supermarket and thereafter processing has become increasingly consolidated with post-farm-gate supply-chain power polarizing into a few hands. It is little better pre-farm-gate if one considers the provision of the ‘cides’ and fertilizers. If you are willing to farm conventionally, there is little room to manoeuvre and others control your destiny. I would suggest that typical ORFC delegates are unwilling to accept such strictures on their farming and/or food businesses. And they are now turning their minds to starting a 21st Century farming revolution so that they can create a trading and farming environment that suites their objectives better.

For those at the ORFC, it is about using farming systems that emphasis ‘husbandry’. It is all about utilizing the resources available within the farm gate. It is not about ‘buying in’ production. It is about farming in a fashion that is less reliant on others. Remove the dependence on others and you inevitably develop a totally different approach to farming. It is positively retro but scratch the surface and you will realize that this is no retro, backwards, movement. At its core is the desire to understand our soils and to manage farms as the complete ecosystems that they should be. It is the farming of the 21st Century notwithstanding that it has not gone mainstream, yet. And in urbanized, wealthy countries where food production is and will be increasingly scrutinized, it will.

The ORFC is not just about, for example, regenerative agriculture, it is about instigating change beyond the farm gate. It is about regaining some, albeit only a little in the beginning, control over the supply chain. There have been sessions on micro-dairies and the presentation of a new report on the availability of small-scale abattoirs; a part of the rural economy that is vital to farmers who wish to develop 100% pasture-fed, heritage breed, or just local, meat products. If food is going to go local again, it needs a certain infrastructure and its needs advocates for its creation. The Minister from DEFRA highlighted the importance of premium products to a post-Brexit UK farming community and, thankfully, some are pointing out that their creation needs route-to-market investment.

Brexit is providing a momentum change. It is about ‘taking back control’ and this will occur with the farming sector more than any other. Leaving a Common Agricultural Policy, often seen as disliked by the UK public, was what much of the UK farming community voted for. That doing so is an opportunity for change has, however, been seized upon by everyone else who has an interest in food, farming, the environment, animal welfare, the countryside… Oddly enough, many of their views will sit comfortably with those who attended the ORFC. And one suspects that a few delegates at ORFC represented ‘green’ organisations that see Brexit as their game-changing opportunity.

Further, momentum in a new direction is also coming from within the political establishment itself. Michael Gove has been making ‘interesting’ noises for a while but at the ORFC he was sharing the platform with Zak Goldsmith, a Tory Member of Parliament who at one time edited the Ecologist, a publication that was founded by his Uncle.  Achieving a Green Brexit will be high on his agenda. And it will not be a difficult sell within Westminster, the parliamentary house of an urbanized democracy.

A Green Brexit, so long as it accompanied by some food-sector free-trade to placate the Tory Right, will largely gain a cross-party consensus. A policy for a two-tier agriculture is also beginning to look increasingly likely. The UK farmer will be encouraged to focus upon the top end of the home and export markets whilst comparative-advantage-based trade of suitably quality-assured commodities will function at the lower end; the aim being to support UK rural and farming communities to thrive via market sales of high-value produce [and public goods provision like water catchment and landscape management] while allowing the consumer to benefit from free trade. For historic trading partners like Ireland, it indicates how the land will lie post-Brexit. All UK market segments will be open for business; if you have the products to compete with domestic farmers at the top or low-cost global producers at the bottom. It will be Ireland’s choice.

As to the UK farming community it needs to sail with and not into the wind. It needs to ensure that post-Brexit farming policy delivers a framework that provides UK farmers with the best opportunity to earn a fair living [something many have failed to achieve in recent years]. Seeing farming and food policy reform in terms of taking back control of some of the food chain and the profits that it generates is where one focus must be. The other will be the creation of a framework that enables UK farms to deliver to the market premium products that meet the multiple specifications that a modern, premium foods market demands. Ultimately, it is about delivering farm incomes and for the environment, the two are highly compatible, and it is time that we all accepted that to achieve such will require another revolution, in our thoughts and in our actions.

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