I’m a staff writer for Wicked Leeks, and my Dad, Keith, is a fifth generation cereal farmer in Northamptonshire. Let’s just say we sometimes have a differing of opinion on certain matters and we certainly have some lively debates.
In the hope of stimulating a few more animated discussions, I bought him a ticket for the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), an alternative, global farming conference.
In the binary world of organic and conventional (non-organic) farming, most would deem him a conventional farmer, however, he’s not so keen on this label.
A few years ago, he began a journey of reducing his inputs (fertilisers and pesticides) and minimal cultivation to refocus on the health of his soil, an approach often described as regenerative agriculture.
I interviewed him about his impression of the ORFC and how it compares to the more conventional, corporate world of farming, as seen in rival event Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).
How did you find the Oxford Real Farming Conference and meeting the world of alternative farming?
Keith Thompson (KT): It’s quite relaxed, there’s no formality around it. It’s approachable, it’s not about putting barriers up, it’s about spreading the word. I thought that the online platform was fantastic, the attendance blew me away! It surprised me how international it was.
I thought the range of questions was just amazing. There was this huge positivity, I would have loved to go to the Oxford Farming Conference to get a feel for the atmosphere in comparison.
What is your experience of the other Oxford Farming Conference, where the traditional farming industry gathers every year?
To start with it’s quite formal. The ‘great and the good’ of the farming industry are there: the NFU, lobbyists, 60 per cent would be professionals (rural surveyors, farm business consultants) not even 40 per cent farmers.
They get some good speakers in. They always get a minister in, George Eustice (the secretary of state of Defra) was speaking this year.
It’s expensive though, several hundred pounds. When I went, I got sponsored by Yara, the fertiliser company. All the main agrochemical businesses will have representatives there, they all have their messages to put out. Topics of the day will be discussed; there’s probably quite a lot of overlap between the two conferences, each coming from their own direction.
Did you have any expectations of what might be covered at an alternative farming event?
KT: I wanted to keep an open mind, but I was pleasantly surprised (that might suggest he had some negative expectations!). I felt that there was a lot more common ground than I expected, but that’s probably a lack of acknowledgement or understanding of the other side.
There were some mainstream farmers on the panels of experts which suggests that actually there’s the commonality there, and we’re all pushing for the same outcome. Not necessarily all organic or really small scale. In fact, there were quite a few non-organic farmers speaking, but they tend to be the ones quite ahead of the game.
At the OFC you wouldn’t necessarily get the organic movement wanting to come to their grounds, I don’t imagine anyone from any background felt unwelcome at the ORFC.
What were your key takeaways?
KT: I think carbon sequestration is a key theme for me, but equally a lot was said about regenerative practices and the benefits of agroforestry. I would quite like to talk to Stephen Briggs from the agroforestry talk, or perhaps visit, to understand the practicalities of it and find out what type of trees that are feasible.
Was there anything you disagreed with?
KT: Oh, I’m sure (laughs). I don’t want to be negative because you take the positives out of it and a lot of the negatives were that there were some who were a bit too environmentally minded and they don’t see the real-life implications.
You don’t make change happen overnight and being polarising doesn’t help; it’s that divide I was talking about. It’s more about what unites us than divides us. That’s what I still find irritating about Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association is that they just want to hammer home talking about pesticides.
I think conventional and organic farming will both profit from the research and innovation that will go into how to protect plants. It might be breeding, biotech, or bio stimulants, or equally using insects in pest management.
You can understand people’s concern for pesticides, though?
KT: Yes, more now, because you ask a lot more questions than I would probably ask myself because I’m in quite a comfortable position. But as you’ve asked a lot of searching questions, I’ve had to answer them internally.
We have to question what we’re doing all the time, and I don’t think we do enough of that because we have all these corporates and agronomists that work for agro-chem companies, who are basically just selling.
How has traditional farming changed, in your view?
KT: The mission statement is different now. The mission statement for a long time was ‘how do we produce commodities as cheaply as possible, as efficiently as possible?’, and the driver is now changing.
For the 2020s it’s going to be about climate change and how do we sequester carbon and increase biodiversity, and how do we make agriculture the centre of that.