After three dark, sodden months, the sun is out and the fields are draining. The main casualties of the waterlogged ground have been winter wheat and barley, and, for veg growers, the Brassica family – particularly cauliflowers, which hate having wet feet. There is still plenty of winter ahead, but with buds swelling, the first snowdrops emerging, and afternoons already drawing out, hope is rising in the breasts of many who work in the soil.
My mood has also been buoyed by attending the fifteenth annual Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC); a two-day gathering of several thousand farmers, campaigners, and latter-day diggers and levellers, who all dream of shaping a better world by farming, trading, and eating better. This is not to be confused with the older, suit-clad Oxford Farming Conference, which takes place down the road and caters to Big Ag, land agents, bankers, carbon traders, and the agrochemical industry. There has been an encouraging convergence in recent years, with the ‘conventional’ event focusing more on soils and diversity, and attracting a younger, less male, and marginally more challenging audience.
What constitutes ‘good farming’ is far from clear or agreed, but the debate is widening. Influence is being wrenched from the global agribusiness lobby and handed back to farmers, who are pioneering knowledge-intensive, farm-specific, nature-based solutions – guided by soil scientists, ecologists, and, vitally, their own experiments and observations. There will be no silver bullet; the answers will be as diverse as our soils, topographies, and the tastes of our customers.
Since I was old enough to look over the hedge and realise that my world view did not prevail, there have been lonely and despondent days, feeling like a freak on the fringe. For three decades, the ORFC and the earlier Soil Association conferences have brought farmers like me together, shoring up our resolve, and giving us the strength to face another year of challenge and isolation on our farms. This year, a surprising star was the octogenarian Lord Deben, former environment minister. It was also wonderful to see so many Riverford co-owners attending, and being inspired to keep working together for a better farming future.
Many of the sessions were recorded; if you are interested, you can watch them on YouTube.