Two rival farming groups held their annual conferences in Oxford early this January.
The 2014 Oxford Farming Conference was held from the 6th-8th, with events and talks in the Examination Schools, Christ Church, and the Oxford Union, while the Oxford Real Farming Conference was hosted by Magdalen, Jesus, and the Turl Street Kitchen from the 6th to the 7th.
Speakers this year included Dacian Cioloş, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, and featured discussion-sessions including ‘Return on capital: should it matter for UK farmers and landholders?’ led by Barclays Bank.
Jane Craigie from the OFC said: “This year’s conference was very successful. We sold out three weeks in advance, no mean feat for a conference with 450 delegates.” adding, “you know you’ve got the content of a conference right when you welcome over 100 journalists”.
ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge, writing on the online blog Campaign for Real Farming, explains: “We have been told from on high that the human race has out-run its resources and its own native skills and that we need high-capital, hi-tech agriculture on the largest possible scale and controlled from a few epicentres.” Industrial agriculture of this ilk is accused of aiming to “serve the interests of global chemical, trading and investment corporations” rather than “feed the people”.
The ORFC, by contrast, call for “agriculture based on principles of sound biology rather than economic dogma”. This vision, described by Tudge as “polycultural, low-input, and skills intensive”, favours more localised, traditional small-scale methods, and is dubbed by members as “The Agrarian Renaissance”.
Craigie rejects the viability of this vision: “The reality is that the ORFC’s focus on small-scale farming is all very well for those of us who can afford to pay for it; but the only reason large intensive farms exist is because there is consumer demand for them and for cheaper produce.”
“That said, the OFC does not ‘represent’ intensive farming. We always have small producers and organic farmers attending our conference.”
Despite their disagreements, Craigie denies any ill-feeling: “There is no rivalry in reality, at least not from our side.”
“We believe we are better together. Think, for instance, about the calibre of speakers the OFC attract: whatever kind of farmer you are, it is absolutely crucial to be able to engage with these kind of figures. Our doors are always open to the ORFC should they wish to do so, and we have made invitations in the past.”
“But, from their perspective, if you could draw in the media attention by creating a divide, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Commenting on the conferences, Queen’s undergraduate and farm enthusiast Michael Pandya said: “I’d herd on the grapevine that these conferences have been lamb-basting each other since ORFC challenged OFC to raise the bahhh a few years ago, although it seems they’re not at each udders goats as much as I thought. I hope the relationship isn’t too sow-er, even if the OFC feel stabbed in the quack by their fellow farmers.”
“Still, it’s good to know that Oxford is hosting two thought-provoking groups at the vanguard of agricultural reform: I just hope the events weren’t marred by the weather, which was absolutely Friesian”.
The Oxford Real Farming Conference was formed as a breakaway organisation by a small group five years ago. They object to the mainstream focus on marketcompetitiveness and espousal of “hi-tech industrial agriculture”. Its website berates the OFC as “the Establishment…giving the impression that everything is well in hand and that all is for the best”.
The Oxford Farming Conference was first held in 1936, and is now in its 67th year. It annually seeks to bring together leading figures from agriculture, business, academia, and politics to discuss the most salient issues facing Britain’s farming and consumption.
The Oxford Student contacted the ORFC but they were unavailable for comment.