The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a major event in the calendar for people interested in breaking away from industrial farming models to produce real food. It only started in 2010 and quickly outgrew its home in the Oxford Town Hall with the 1400 tickets selling out well in advance.
We have attended three times and it is such a motivational start to the year with rooms overflowing with people who are passionate about how farming needs to change for the future and what we in the room can do to make it happen.
You meet so many fascinating people and the socialising goes on into the evening during the dinner. There are always contacts made that can help you progress your thinking or practical knowledge.
It was obvious that the 2021 had to be different and the organisers have pulled off a major achievement in organising a virtual global conference. Instead of a 2 day conference the programme covers a full week, and almost 5,000 tickets have been sold.
They had the foresight to have a conferencing platform that not only allowed the audience to ask questions but also enabled translations so that the conference could be truly global.
I spoke at one of the events on Friday ‘The Organic Market – Building Resilience’ alongside Finn Cottle from the Soil Association and Rob Haward, MD of Riverford. It was the first time that I had been a speaker at the ORFC. It was odd not seeing people’s faces and I was a little worried that there would be virtually no feedback. But questions and encouragement via Twitter and emails carried on long after our session finished.
So did the format work for us?
The major advantage is obvious – you don’t have to leave your home to attend and you can pick and choose more events to join over the 7 days while still carrying on with your day to day work.
We will be watching several events covering topics such as soil health, gut health, carbon sequestration, farming for 1.5oC and influencing policy change.
But do we think we are achieving as much this year?
One of our current ‘projects’ is to highlight carbon sequestration in soils and we certainly got lots of feedback and contact details on that. We are also concerned about the relentless reporting of the harmful environmental effects of all types of livestock farming, with any positive stories being ignored. So it was reassuring to hear about the actions being undertaken by other individuals and organisations to try to address this.
The disadvantage of the virtual format is also obvious – there are no chance conversations over a cup of coffee and you don’t bump into folk you haven’t seen for 3 years and have a friendly catch up. The motivational boost is still there, but not the elation we have felt before.
There is no doubt that expanding a conference from 1400 to 5000 people is a major achievement. Should the ORFC stay virtual? Well they may have to for 2022, as we are already being warned that there may need to be another lockdown next winter, but even if there isn’t how many of us will want to be crammed into a room with people from all over the UK any time soon?
My experience of being a speaker for the first time was very positive, and David and I would certainly be keen to be involved again. Perhaps the biggest positive from the online format this year has been the expansion of the programme and the sheer number of speakers that are participating in events. It provides an opportunity to hear a breadth of experience and knowledge from a very wide range of people.
If we are to navigate the oncoming challenges in climate, food production, biodiversity and farming successfully, then having access to those less heard voices is welcome and, arguably, essential.