In 2009 the agricultural writer Graham Harvey (now of Pasture Promise TV) invited Colin Tudge and Ruth West (founders of the Campaign for Real Farming) to help establish a new kind of farming conference.
It was to bring together practising, mud-on-the-boots farmers and growers with scientists and economists, and activists and lawyers, and everyone else with a serious interest in food and agriculture. The idea was and is to ask the really big questions – like what kind of farming do we really need and why; but also to focus at least equally on the minutiae of practice – and to see who, right now, in Britain and the world at large, is truly farming and marketing and cooking in ways that the world really needs, and others can emulate.
So in January 2010, the Oxford Real Farming Conference was launched in the late mediaeval library attached to the University Church of St Mary’s in Oxford’s High Street. In part we conceived the ORFC as the antidote to the official, Oxford Farming Conference, which for the past 60 years has presented the Establishment view and of late has encouraged farmers to focus on high tech, and trust to the global market.
But the point of the ORFC is not to attack the status quo but to look ahead — to ask what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done. Always on the agenda, or thereabouts, is the dream of Agrarian Renaissance: to restore agriculture and all that goes with it to its proper place at the heart of the economy, and indeed of all our lives. Agriculture at present, and farmers, are marginalised. The thing that matters most for humankind is low on the global agenda.
From the outset, the ORFC had a buzz. Farmers and scientists and activists and all the rest really did come together, and in several cases known to us and doubtless many more that we don’t know about, they established new working relationships and began new initiatives. So we knew we had to do it all again – and the 2016 ORFC will be our 7th. Sessions over the years have ranged from the intricacies of soil microbiology to new kinds of marketing, micro-dairies, mob grazing and agroforestry; from the joys and tribulations of crofting, to the kind of economic structure we need to support the kind of farming and marketing that we need, to the underlying morality of farming – why some ways of doing things are better than others; and many more.
We are also exploring new ways of structuring farms – with groups of like-minded people running various quasi-independent but linked farming and related enterprises in the same space, to form a cooperative or a partnership that is more efficient biologically, more robust economically, and more convivial, than any one person can achieve alone.
The ORFC has grown year by year. In 2016 we expect 650 delegates, and we hope that half of them are farmers (which in Britain, is a very good turn-out). 2016 also sees us settle for the second year into our new home at Oxford’s splendid Town Hall.