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An Update From The Oxford Real Farming Conference

By Sara Venn

It’s fair to say at Incredible Edible, and in Incredible Edible groups, few people profess to be farmers, but whilst of course the Oxford Real Farming Conference is about farming it’s also about food citizenship, about the ethics of food, growing, cooking and eating and a great space in which to start the year.

Over the last 11 years the conference has gone from a small, fringe affair, happening at the same time as the Oxford Farming Conference, to a space where lots of people gather to discuss the issues facing agroecological growing, and learn from each other. There are both practical and discussion led workshops, run by a variety of people, but all seated in the agroecological sector, and many of which can be really challenging and also intensely inspiring.

Obviously this year’s conference was somewhat overshadowed by the conversation about lab grown food, which having been at the event seems somewhat unfortunate as it was just a very small piece of an extremely busy two days that is beginning to interact with the Farming Conference itself, with lots of people speaking at both, but for us there were some highlights to share.

The first was a talk by Leah Penniman, a black activist farmer in upstate New York, who founded Soul Fire Farm and who is working to make access into farming for a people of colour an easier path. Leah has done many talks that are online and we would really encourage everyone to watch them and listen to this powerful, wise and kind woman speaking the truth of her ancestors. It’s very hard to hear much of what she talks about, but she speaks in the most extraordinary, inclusive way, that you cannot help but empathise and do more research into the subjects. It’s the kindest way to have your privilege checked for sure! This is a great introduction to her work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVZq3jITD2g

The whole event felt very wrapped up in talk about environmental responsibility and how farming and restoration of landscape and biodiversity need to go hand in hand. With the news yesterday from DEFRA that the new Agriculture Bill will support farmers to do more rewilding, work closer with the need to repair our planet, and make us more resilient in light of the climate emergency. In fact at one point someone did say that farmers are “at the coal face” of the fight for nature, and therefore of course are invested in making the change we so desperately need. This came across particularly in a panel discussion titled The Circular Farm, where 4 farmers, all of whom had farmed conventionally in the past, discussed their move to more agroecological systems, and how they were measuring positive impacts not just in biodiversity, but also in being a more cost effective way of farming and allowing the farm to dramatically cut tractor use and therefore having effect on it’s overall footprint. In particular was Ken Hill in Norfolk, who’s manager talked about how he had farmed conventionally for many years, because that’s how he was taught, and how changing to agroecological methods, including creating an area of rewilding, had absolutely opened his eyes to what the future could look like.  You can find out more about Ken Hill here

What also came from this panel was the need for change in agricultural education. Whilst change is happening in positive and exciting ways, farming students are still being taught the conventional, chemical led ways, and this needs to change in order for this change to happen efficiently and well and is definitely something that as good food citizens we all need to address when and where we can!