Two farming tribes gathered in Oxford last week: the mainstream Oxford Farming Conference, sponsored by pesticide and machinery suppliers and accountants, and, provocatively on the same two days, the Oxford Real Farming Conference; the radical challenger with no suits, more hair and jumpers, more women and no commercial sponsors – just a lot of people determined to change the direction UK farming has followed towards scale and intensification.
I spoke at both conferences, but felt more at home with the hair and jumpers. The suits were more open-minded than I expected; they invited and listened to environmental journalist George Monbiot who with cool, well-informed and devastating logic questioned the moral and political acceptability of paying £3bn to farmers in subsidies, with precious little in return. There seemed to be an acceptance that, post-Brexit, farmers will instead only be paid for what they deliver, whether it is food or “public goods” (flood prevention, public access, etc). Even more heartening was the acceptance that we cannot continue to abuse our soils, and better still that knowledge combined with ‘biological’ farming offered a genuine alternative to blindly following the agrochemical and GM industry.
Down the road at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the feeling was of a movement that has found its time in agricultural history. There was talk of beliefs and justice with an acceptance that, while farming decisions must not be based only on profit, profit was still vital. These were not the starry-eyed idealists that have driven me to distraction over the last 30 years; they were human and imaginative but above all, intensely practical in their search for ways to grow nutritious food with social and environmental justice. Like the 14th century Peasants’ Revolt and the 17th century Diggers and Levellers, they lack the land, power and capital to match their determination and independence, but let’s hope they don’t get hanged this time. In an industry depressingly subservient to the needs of its suppliers, these people bring hope and deserve support. Surely now, as the UK shapes its new post-Brexit agricultural policy, it should look to serve farmer, consumer and the environment with equity and to support new entrants, rather than predominantly to perpetuate the privilege of the rich and powerful.