The Oxford Farming Conference and its upstart sibling, the Oxford Real Farming Conference, seem poles apart. But faced with big changes, from Brexit to the future of meat itself, a united front may be the best option.
It’s a brisk five minute stroll up the high street to get from the Oxford Farming Conference to its upstart younger sibling the Oxford Real Farming Conference – but a much longer mental leap.
Stately, careful and well-connected, the OFC has been going for 80 years. Sponsored by Big Agriculture businesses such as chemistry multinational BASF and farm machinery specialists Massey Ferguson, the cloakroom creaks with waxed cotton and quilted Barbours, while the audience is overwhelmingly male, white and upwards of 40.
The great and good – royalty, government ministers, international politicians – come to speak to a polite, attentive audience; this is the thoughtful end of commercial British farming, brought together over bacon baps and craft beer.
The nine-year-old ORFC is a much less tidy, reverential affair: founded in order to talk about radical agricultural ideas – agro-ecology, permaculture, raw milk or community growing, for example – it has grown from 85 people in a library to 980 attendees this year, with more than 250 people turned away.
It has seen some of its more radical ideas move from the fringe to the mainstream in a single decade. Though still mainly white, the audience is far younger with women equally represented; there is blue hair, tattoos, babies in slings and even the odd hipster moustache. As Zac Goldsmith, surveying the scene from the stage as he kicks off a Q&A with environment secretary Michael Gove, comments: “This looks more like a movement. If this is the Real Farming Conference I don’t know what that makes the other one.”
And yet, beneath the surface differences, both conferences are agonising over the same existential threats. Brexit is, of course, top of the agenda. Did farmers want Brexit in the first place? No one can agree. A poll by Farmers Weekly before the referendum suggested that 58% supported leave, but everyone thinks that was flawed. At the ORFC one farmer tells me that by his calculations only about 10% voted leave, while in the live poll at the OFC on the last morning, 71% vote in favour of remain. The lone two farmers who vote in another question that Brexit will be “plain sailing” are amiably ribbed by the entire audience.
Last year, according to one ORFC attendee, all was gloom and doom and anxiety about what would replace the subsidies handed out by the EU. But this year the appointment of Gove and his promises of a new environmentally angled subsidy system have changed everything and progressive farmers express tempered optimism about the promises being made.
Gove presents his own existential dilemma to many ORFC attendees – “I always hated him,” one tells the Guardian, “but now I pray for him not to be reshuffled.” “We’ve been calling for a public goods approach for years,” says ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge, “but I had little hope we’d ever actually see it.” The OFC farmers are relieved about promises around subsidies, but all still fear the trade department will trump Gove, or that he’ll be moved, or that it will all turn out to be an illusion.
And behind the iceberg of Brexit and UK farming policy is lurking the even bigger iceberg of our changing relationship to meat. “This house proposes that by 2100 meat consumption will be a thing of the past,” is the evening OFC debate at the Oxford Union, with George Monbiot telling a packed house of animal farmers they’re a dying breed.
“I imagine I’m about as welcome as a Jehovah’s witness during the world cup final,” he starts off to warm laughter, before laying out his argument that animal protein is the most inefficient way to consume protein in terms of land use and external costs in the form of pollution. The farmers bounce up with counter-arguments and a few jibes at “vegans” – a word that seems for some to be interchangeable with “militant anti-farming activist” – but their verbal missiles are deflected. At the beginning of the evening just 20 people voted for Monbiot’s proposal; by the end Monbiot has persuaded a stunning 120 farmers to vote for him.
Beneath the jokes is a deep pulse of sadness. Certainly some of the farmers are dismissive of environmental and welfare “nonsense”, but there are also many who care passionately about the land and their work. Gareth Wyn Jones, opposing Monbiot, speaks from the depths of his heart about the land his family has farmed for 350 years: “I believe farming and nature can live as one,” he says. And over at the ORFC farmers such as Ian Boyd whose cattle is 100% pasture fed, or Tony Davies of the newly launched Nature Friendly Farming Network, echo his words, arguing that the meat they produce is totally sustainable.
But there is a sense after the debate that the tide of history is turning away from these farmers. One sheep farmer I speak to voted with Monbiot because, as she says, “it feels inevitable. You can’t argue with his figures.”
The farming of the future is exciting in some ways. OFC delegates sit looking both baffled and excited as the Small Robot Company explains how robots could do all the planting and weeding and spraying and save farmers thousands, while elsewhere there are discussions about genomics, peer-to-peer apps and millennial food trends. ORFC delegates contemplate mobile abattoirs, ecological land co-operatives, and incubator farm systems.
But some see the future as terrifying: “a dystopian vision where one huge company provides cultured meat instead of thousands of small farmers,” says one delegate. In a world where farming is now being fingered for environmental disaster and where vegans sprout on every corner, what hope for farmers? In the face of these uncertainties, the two conferences – once very “us and them” as one of the OFC organisers puts it – are inevitably moving closer together.
The issues that once were raised only at the ORFC now make an appearance on the OFC agenda as commercial farmers begin to suspect their scruffy green colleagues may have some ideas that need to be heard. Better, after all, Britain’s farmers seem to be concluding, to face the huge blank of the future as a united front.