15th January 2018

The Oxford Farming Conference 2018 – embracing change

The conference always starts with the politics session. In recent years it has often struggled to live up to expectations but with the Rt Hon Michael Gove speaking there was every prospect that, for once, the conference would be told something it did not already know. Mr Gove made it clear that he was in favour of an extended transitional period for farmers in relation to subsidies beyond the likely post-2019 period being discussed with Brussels. When pushed, he indicated his preference for it to run until 2024, though inevitably there were no guarantees given that that would fall into the next parliament. He also stressed the need for a ‘Green Brexit’ and that the environment and, in particular, improving it was to be the focus of any new payment scheme.

The conference always starts with the politics session. In recent years it has often struggled to live up to expectations but with the Rt Hon Michael Gove speaking there was every prospect that, for once, the conference would be told something it did not already know. Mr Gove made it clear that he was in favour of an extended transitional period for farmers in relation to subsidies beyond the likely post-2019 period being discussed with Brussels. When pushed, he indicated his preference for it to run until 2024, though inevitably there were no guarantees given that that would fall into the next parliament. He also stressed the need for a ‘Green Brexit’ and that the environment and, in particular, improving it was to be the focus of any new payment scheme.

He criticised the current scheme as being fixated on box ticking without any regard to outcomes. His speech omitted anything on badgers and the extended cull, which certainly vexed some of the delegates from those affected areas. However, overall, he was well received by the conference not least because he is seen as someone with influence within the government who, if he stays at DEFRA long enough, may well be able to make a real difference.

Paulo De Castro MEP Vice-chairman of the EU's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development then conducted a video message. It did not reveal anything of real significance and at times felt quite patronising and disappointingly typical of the message coming out of Brussels.

Things livened up with a session on the Digital Revolution, which included two of the standout talks of the first day. The first was by Chris Sheldrick of What3Words. Chris, along with a mathematician friend, devised an algorithm to name everywhere in the world. It grew out of frustration with finding places by postcode and even coordinates. They discovered that there were enough words in the dictionary to allocate a different combination of three words to each square. That enables far more accurate navigation and directions. Indeed, it has been so well received that it is due to be rolled out in Mercedes cars this year. Do check out the app - you’ll never be lost again.

The other really interesting session involved lecturer Kit Franklin of Harper Adams explaining the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project, which sought to use automated machines to grow the first arable crop remotely without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. This was a fascinating project with a truly inspirational project leader. If only all lecturers were like Kit!

Following lunch on the first day was a session on ‘Inspiring Farmers'. The pick of this session was a talk by Duncan McConchie of Laggan Outdoor, which had seen him develop the family farm in to an outdoor activity centre and, more recently, a truly amazing wedding location. He even designed and personally tested their unique human catapult.   his guy will not be short of bookings!

The final talk of the day saw Professor Chris Elliott, who had previously led the review into the horsemeat scandal give a thought-provoking talk on food safety.

The conference debate then followed at the Oxford Union, an event that Thrings co-sponsored with Savills for the first time this year. This year's motion was ‘This House believes that by 2100 meat eating will be a thing of the past’. Guardian journalist George Monbiot was the proposer ably assisted by Philip Lymbery from Compassion in World Farming. Arguing against the motion was hill farmer Gareth Wynn Jones and Emily Norton of Nortons Dairy. The debate was good-natured, if generally more serious than in previous years, perhaps due to the presence of George and Philip. As always, there were some very funny interventions from the floor. The final vole saw the motion defeated. There then followed a post-debate supper at Christ Church.

Friday saw a change of scenery, with the conference moving from the Examination Schools to the Sheldonian – the principal ceremonial hall for the university. Broadcaster and botanist James Wong opened proceedings with a talk on food trends. Then came Eve Turow, who explained to the delegates about ‘millennials’ and their obsession with food. Her presentation was not only very entertaining but also cleverly went some way to explain the different motivations that ‘millennials’ have to those of older generations.

The conference finished with environmentalist Mark Lynas proposing a draft peace plan on GM crops – on the one hand calling for an acknowledgment by the antis to acknowledge the safety of such technology, whilst also requiring the farmers to be more open and transparent about food production. There was also an acknowledgment that GM technology had got off on the wrong foot and that, as a result, it was trying to win public trust. Not an easy ask for such a polarising subject.

I think it is fair to say that this was one of the best conferences in recent years. The mix of forecasting the future direction of the industry and examples of what the innovators are doing now was really impressive and inspiring. If you do get a chance to attend it next year, take it. You won’t be disappointed. Be sure to check out the videos at https://www.ofc.org.uk/conference/2018/videos


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