The Oxford Farming Conference has over 80 years of “Informing, challenging and inspiring”, as was the theme of this year. The conference started in 1936 as a force for positive change throughout the agriculture industry.

This year I was fortunate enough to be awarded an OFC Bursary to attend. Here are some of my highlights from day one.

OFC was off to a great start with the Innovative Farmers’ Great Beer Debate on the Wednesday night. We were presented with seven beers (which we readily sampled) and a talk-through from an expert panel of hop and barely growers. As well as highlighting the beers in the tasting, the panel discussed the different varieties of hops, the struggles of profitability within the market and the importance of supporting UK-based beers. My favourite (and the majority’s favourite) was the Oaty Ale, a pale ale with oats, very drinkable…

Getting off to a good start

However, there was no time for a hangover because the breakfast sessions started at 7:30! After a quick breakfast bap, it was straight into the UK Agri-Tech Centres’ talk describing the work the four agritech centres (CHAP, CIEL, AGRIEPICENTRE and Agrimetrics) undertake to create networks and provide innovation to agriculture-technology to help farmers make data-based decisions. There was an emphasis on life cycle assessments of the product and the environment it is used in to ensure relevance and real value to the farmer.

One of the themes I picked up from the OFC conference was data, data, data; the need for more relevant, accurate and far-reaching data to create baselines and help farmers make the most efficient, sustainable and profitable decisions.

First session

OFC Chair Emily Norton opened the first session of #OFC23 in Oxford University’s beautiful examination halls, with day one focusing on regenerative economies: political and trade systems for healthy, vibrant farming and communities.

There were a variety of opinions on how this could be achieved, with a representative of USDA focusing on the free market, suggesting that we ‘encourage not bully’. With no subsidies or strict regulations, there was an assumption that the market will reward ‘virtuous adoption’. Whereas, others on the panel had a strong focus on stopping ecocide, with the opinion that voluntary rules are not enough, and that people and governments won’t comply without regulation. There was also a call to extend tenancy contracts to incentivize investing. Currently, contracts do not provide enough security to allow farmers to invest in their farm both financially and sustainably.

Mark Spencer – Minister of State for Food, Farming and Fisheries tried his best to lay out the changes to UK agricultural policy, however, the confusion and uncertainty around ELMs persisted.

Farming innovations included dung beetles and beavers, both providing key ecosystem services; from introducing nutrients into the earth to creating flood-preventing wetland spaces.

VIP Guests

There was also a VIP present; HRH Princess Anne delivered a short talk on the significance of remembering our past when moving forwards. She emphasised the importance of fairness to farmers, sustainability “Waste less and use better”, and targeted investment. When addressing the challenges ahead she was firmly in the farmers’ corner “The cost of food cannot be solely borne by the producers.”

A highlight, I’m sure, of the majority of delegates was the passionate talk from Sir Tim Smit, Executive Vice-Chair and Co-founder of the Eden Project.

He called on us to encourage our representatives to be politically brave, quoting a Politicians Remorse: “I know the right thing to do, I don’t know how to get elected after I do it”; and to take swift and real action. He pointed to his own work with providing energy to the Eden project, as he became obsessed with “digging a hole to the centre of the earth”. Sir Tim recalled asking for support with his geothermal projects but was told that that is only something that can be achieved in places like Iceland. After building his own 4.8km deep borehole, the Eden project is now entirely heated on geothermal energy as well as supplying heat to thousands of homes around it.

The great debate

The first day ended in the famous halls of the Oxford debate union, the topic being: “This house believes that humans will not be needed on farms in a generation”.

There were passionate and thoughtful arguments on both sides, the yes party focused on the trend of innovation and how much robotics has improved over the last generation, quoting labour shortages and the view that agriculture is no longer a good career choice for younger generations.

“Robotics is the simplest solution requiring the least assumptions. One good test is worth 1000 expert opinions – will they be the naysayers?”.

The naysayers focused on how humans are essential to the purpose of agriculture “We will always need people when our technology inevitably goes wrong. People are at the heart of our rural communities, and we should instead be focusing on upskilling our labour to ensure they can support our industry to thrive this generation.”

The house voted that humans will be needed in a generation, which perhaps speaks more of the deep connection we feel to the land, not the reality of quickly developing robotics and AI.

Stay tuned for the highlights from my second day at the OFC!