6/01/18: The Oxford Real Farming Conference

 

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Third to the right, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about to answer questions at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Still groggy from the blur and overeating that is Christmas and New Year, we headed to Oxford on the 5th of January for the annual Oxford Real Farming Conference.


What’s the Oxford Real Farming Conference?

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was founded in 2010 to give voice to narratives of farming other than the agri-tech, Establishment view that is peddled at the much older Oxford Farming Conference, which takes place at the same time.

In the ORFC’s own words:

“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.”

Well fed on a rich diet of organic veg, pasture fed meat and the excitement of political activism, the conference has grown exponentially in the last eight years and can now boast being larger than its senior, the Oxford Farming Conference.

The appearance this year at the ORFC of the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), seemed something of a rite of passage for the gathering, a sign that the government and civil service are receptive to listening; one can cynically surmise, that they are looking for worthy justifications behind their Brexit induced need to radically redesign, and likely cut, the £3 billion a year which is currently spent on agricultural subsidies under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, chiefly to the benefit of large wealthy landowners .

Cynicism aside, Michael Gove’s address to the conference was astonishingly encouraging, with the sort of rhetoric which many in the environmental sector have dreamed of hearing from the Secretary of State for DEFRA for many years. For the full recording of the session see below.


“public money should reward people who look after our soils…we are facing a planetary emergency on the quality of our soils.” Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs


What were the main conference topics?

The conference usually has three strands to the programme, listed below, with Brexit forming an entire new thread of discussion this year, as the farming world tries to get its head around the opportunities and risks of Brexit and scope out the known unknowns.

Conversations which loom large year on year are: access to land, new business models such as Community Supported Agriculture, food sovereignty, pasture-fed livestock, minimum tillage techniques in organic systems, farming for biodiversity and sustainable arable farming, with growing interest in heritage grains, small scale grain growing and widening genetic diversity in grain crops. For a fuller picture see the conference programme.

Strands of Discussion at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2018

  • Farm Practice – new ideas and best practice in agroecological farming
  • The Big Ideas – what truly needs to be changed to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance
  • Growing and Supporting – the new generation of farmers
  • Brexit – an opportunity to hear from those campaigning for better food and farming policy post-Brexit, and discuss the implications of the negotiations.

 


Talking Grain at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

 

The conference programme confirmed what we at Grown in Totnes already new, that interest in British grain is growing, literally, and we’re not talking about the mountains of cereals in the bland global commodity market, grain is back on the local food scene and regrowing its regional roots.

We were especially pleased to see our dear friend, ally and teacher, archaeobotonist John Letts speak on his passion, heritage grain.

One of the key kernels to come out of John’s talk was that heritage grain was important in this day and age because of the genetic diversity which it contains. This genetic diversity is significantly greater than in the modern varieties and can therefore equip us to cope with, and adapt to, the equally diverse weather and conditions which we face in the context of climate change, and in trying to move away from chemical and oil based agriculture.

But make no mistake, John warns, 1970’s varieties such as Maris Widgeon are not heritage grains. They do not possess the genetic diversity which he sees as the marker of real heritage grains.

When we speak of genuine heritage grains, we go on a journey of lineage that at its oldest roots leads us back to 30,000 years ago, when our ancestors started collecting wild grass grains in the fertile crescent. Subsequently every cultural invasion to our island has brought with it new grain varieties hailing from the homes of the invaders.

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Archaeobotonist John Letts demonstrates the changes to wheat which occurred during the 1960s Green Revolution, when grains were crossed with dwarfing varieties from Japan so that the plants put more energy into the grain ear than the straw.

 

Modern varieties of grain have mostly been bred for high input systems reliant on chemicals and synthetic fertilisers, with higher gluten content to suit quick rising industrial baking systems. Our taste for fluffy white loaves has shaped, and been shaped by, the farming practices and grain varieties in our fields.

I recommend  you listen to the recording of the talk by John Letts below for a more in depth introduction to heritage grain. There are also many more recordings of sessions of relevance on the conference Soundcloud page .

There is a growing group of people who are no longer seeing grains as a commodity, rejecting the model of black box crops devoid of provenance at the point of sale and questioning the wisdom of the major seed companies, that a few grain varieties suit all fields in the UK. Grain is going local, if we can grow genetically diverse grains in our fields we have the resource to adapt to varied local conditions in the face of climate change. If local communities can grow their staple crops and rebuild their grain stores and mills there is a feeling that a part of the conundrum of local food security and food sovereignty will be addressed.

An exciting outcome of the Oxford Real Farming Conference was the founding of the UK Grain Alliance, to bring together interested parties to network and to proliferate more ecologically friendly, nutritious grain growing. Get in touch if you would like to join the group.

The appetite we have developed for sourdough loaves and real bread has led us to ask where the flour to bake it has come from.

 

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Emmer wheat
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Mummy wheat
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The founding meeting of the UK Grain Alliance at the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference, from left baker Michael Hanson, archaeobotonist John Letts and Prof. Martin Wolfe, grain researcher.

 

 

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