Just ahead of the new season, farmers’ attention focuses on the Oxford farming conferences. So is it just the landscape that’s going green? asks Tim Field
The new season is upon us and, as tradition dictates, it opens with the Oxford farming conferences. Tim Field wonders if we could be seeing the emergence of a new era of farming subsidies.
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OXFORD FARMING CONFERENCES
The torpor of a sleeping countryside is broken and the new growing season dawning. Green tinges appear as the hawthorn leaves unfurl, while the white highlights of a frosty morning are replaced by unmistakable puffs of cottonwool as the blackthorn bravely bursts into flower; beneath the hedgerows snowdrops are superseded by primroses.
The winter crops of oil seed rape, wheat, beans, oats or barley have all provided the terrestrial dwellers with a green blanket for the harsher winter months and now attention turns to the spring crops. Cover crops are destroyed with chemistry, machinery, hungry livestock or a combination of any of the above, in preparation for a seedbed and the new season’s drillings. For some, calving and lambing is already underway and the new-born livestock will soon benefit from the flush of grass growth as daylight gets longer, more intense and a sunny day rewards us with a hint of warmth in the air.
As tradition dictates, the year was kicked off at Oxford University with the annual Oxford Farming Conference. Now in its 80th year, it is the farming calendar’s greatest gathering of policy-makers, sharp-suited agri-industrialists and old-school agronomists. Simultaneously, up the road at the Town Hall the Oxford “Real” Farming Conference convened. This was founded more recently in rebellion to its input-driven, intensive-farming cousin and is distinguishable by the eclectic attire of hemp, sandals and beards. Historically, there has been division and antagonism between the two parties, however, this year the lines were somewhat blurred.
In a bid to unite farmers, Agricology opened both conferences with a farm tour entitled “Mixing it up”. Six farmers from both sides of the organic/conventional fence presented their methods for integrating livestock, cover crops and arable to diversify rotations. While this kind of collaboration was a first for the Oxford conferences – the theme of which was “Embracing Change” – it was not the only sign of progress. The Secretary of State at Defra often takes to the rostrum at the older of the conferences but The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP stunned the ecologically minded farmers up the road at the Town Hall by accepting an invitation to be quizzed on stage at the Real Farming Conference, too. A notable first and an encouraging sign that future farming will not simply look at yield and high tech but also consider ecological principles and environmental outcomes.
In a wildly distorted global market our farmers do need a helping hand if they are to maintain resilient businesses. However, this needs to go further so we start valuing the natural capital upon which we depend, rather than watch these assets depreciate at the cost of future food production and the countryside as we know it. Repeatedly we hear Gove’s intentions to channel public money for the delivery of public goods. Never has there been a better opportunity to replace our outdated structure of subsidies, which offers little more than a social-security payment.
Convened in 2016 by Patrick Holden and the Sustainable Food Trust, we were part of a working group that Gove alluded to in his speech. He is listening. We asked for future agriculture policy to reward the farmer on the basis of a suite of sustainability indicators. Productivity is first and foremost but to sustain yields there needs to be an incentive to improve soils, water, air, livestock and crop husbandry, energy management, and social and cultural landscapes. We believe this complements existing certification schemes and, indeed – as also pledged by Gove – a simplification of the laborious paperwork.
It is essential that this effort isn’t reserved for the National Parks and isolated corners of our shores with nothing but green deserts in between. However, it is equally as important to retain a fund for the more precious farmland landscapes, species and habitats that require a little more consideration than simply good farming practice.
Ducking between both conferences, this message was resonating far beyond Gove’s podium. Of course, there was the token idealism that could only be achieved at Hogwarts but, as must have been felt by the generations of pioneers to walk those corridors before us, we are in sight of a revolution.
With the emergence of new life on-farm we are greeted with a sense of wellbeing. Dark wintery days are replaced with renewed positivity; livestock start to bloom and the green of crops intensifies. However, this season comes with an even greater sense of optimism. Born in the city of dreaming spires, we might be seeing the emergence of an exciting new era in farming subsidies that we can all benefit from.
Follow Tim and Agricology @agricology