People in garden

Keeping it Real: Reflections on the Oxford Real Farming Conference January 6-7th 2014

People in garden

Back in 1944, Walter Goldschmidt conducted research which showed a causal relation between industrial agricultural structures and deteriorating community conditions. “As you sow, so you shall reap”, he counselled. Food, and its production, has the potential to make or break connections between people.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference is now in its fifth year, and as my first time attending, I was curious: why ‘real’ farming? The conference was initially set up as a one room, one day event as an alternative to the agricultural establishment’s Oxford Farming Conference. It has now grown to a 2 programme, ten venue event spread across two days with over 400 in attendance. All aspects of farming were addressed, from the big picture thinking of land reform to access issues for entrants, as well as research findings on practical aspects of farming.  Discussions sprung up on the street corners of Oxford on the principles of agro-ecology, the specifics of mob grazing, successful land cooperatives and how to set up community interest companies.

Real Farming is alive, buzzing with ideas, and initiating change to defy the monolithic face of industrial agriculture. Part of my learning at the conference was acknowledging there is already a strong real farming movement across the UK and beyond.  This is the critical mass exploring how to produce effectively the best food from the land.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming, founder of the Greenhorns young farmer network in the USA, shared her experiences from the States with us. She compelled the conference to consider the need for a cultural rhetoric to elevate the issues around land and farming into public consciousness. A cultural narrative would take farming issues out of the often technical language which surrounds them into a more accessible form.

We need to find a rhetoric which taps into our need to reconnect to our food and land.

This new narrative is about language as much as substance: we need an alliance of the artistic and the agrarian. These spheres often appear distant to each other, yet AgriCULTURE itself calls for the creative within farming. Whether it is milking cows or weeding, every task on the farm has its time and method, to which the animals, plants and soil respond. Within a conscious agriculture there is a constant interchange of creativity between people and landscape.

In this way agriculture itself is an art; the art of people forming and responding to the land to produce food, growing animals, plants and soils. Humans too are grown by agriculture; quality food is the product of people connecting creatively to their landscape and to each other.

The culture of vibrant communities connected with small scale farms that Walter Goldschmidt admired is the culture which agriculture nurtures. And, we see that this narrative is already being cultivated in the UK. It is the narrative of community connected farming and the relationships nurtured in agriculture supported communities and community supported agriculture. The Real Farming Conference is a testament to this flourishing movement.

If it is to remain a real farming movement however, its narrative must go beyond the divides of privilege so we really are serving and embracing everyone.


The Oxford Real Farming Conference gathers farmers, activisits, researchers and consmers to discuss the future of food and farming, every January. For more info, check out their site here.

Ella Hashemi

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