In the spirit of the immensity of the number of people, views, backgrounds, and ideas represented at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), we thought to bring you a smorgasbord of impressions of the conference from our team. Here are a few veins of thought they shared.
The scale and diversity represented at this year’s conference.
Leon Ballin, the Sustainable Food Places (SFP) Programme Manager stated, “ORFC 2024 was just the right way to start the year and reminded us that real people produce our food. It’s great to see the event mature into a diverse and powerful movement, though maybe it’s time to start engaging with the ‘other’ farming conference across the road?”
Mara Galeano Carraro, the SFP Comms lead, said, “The first time that I went to ORFC was in 2013, when there were less than 100 in attendance. Since then, each year I’ve been blown away by how many people, topics, ideas, and sources of inspiration this event gathers each year. It has become so big that it feels more like a festival than a conference, where during any one slot you had 12-15 sessions to choose from any many friendly faces to bump into.”
Andrea Gibbons, the SFP Network Coordinator, shared, “My first visit to the ORFC was both overwhelming and inspiring. I learned an immense amount from all the sessions I went to and appreciated the chance to support our food partnerships on panels about local action to transform food systems.”
Sofia Parente, Local Action Project Manager at Sustain and SFP Policy lead, said, “I wish that more farmers had taken part in the panels. I had so many insightful conversations with farmers after sessions I wish I heard more from farmers during some of the sessions themselves. Despite the variety, there seems to be real agreement among the movement.”
When asked “What surprised you most?”, she stated, “The lack of national policy makers in the room. I can’t say that surprises me, but their absence was notable, especially in the policy-focused sessions. We need to get better at cultivating policy makers and have them on our side to put in place the policy solutions that will unlock growth in agroecological production. Another thing that did not surprise me was the number of food partnerships participating. It makes me feel that our mission as a programme to continue to grow and strengthen the movement is more needed than ever.”
Growing a diversity of foods in the UK: a focus on culturally appropriate foods and changing minds and hearts about what can be grown.
Leon Ballin said, “The ‘Growing without Borders’ session showed us that food for diverse communities can be grown in the UK – just get the seeds right! - and at that session the My Food Community graduates demonstrated the power of a food activist academy and what ripple effects are possible at an individual level on a local scale.”
Andrea Gibbons shared, “The second (session that really stuck with me) was a collaboration emerging from the Soil Association’s My Food Community programme and a wonderful chef from Omved Gardens speaking about growing and cooking global heritage veg. It started with a project supporting and building community through learning to grow callaloo and okra and other greens on windowsills and back gardens in Wales. It continued through to growing and celebrating the many cultures that bring new riches, whether by seed transported in hair through war zones or the recipes shared with Birmingham’s food scene through the community around Kushinga Community Garden. Finally, the extraordinary amount of fruit and veg from around the world thriving in a London community garden, and the many ways it can be prepared, both fresh and with all the added bass notes and melodies that fermenting adds to food. All left my heart very full of the joy that growing and preparing food brings, and the extraordinary eco-systems and communities that grow around that. Which is ultimately what it is all about.”
Who is on the land and how.
Mara Galeano Carraro stated, “The highlight for me this year was the ‘Justice Hub’ that focused on land stories, how reparations might look in the UK, and who is on the land and how, I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest, even a curiosity, to look more deeply into the topic and more deeply inwards about one’s own assumptions and ideas.”
Jenny Rouquette, the coordinator for the Shropshire Sustainable Food Partnership, shared, “I really enjoyed the session on 'Belonging to Places', this is so important, and it was a joy to hear Sandra Salazar share her insights and what she is doing with GoGrowWithLove and SOILSISTARS. Transforming our food and farming system starts with our relationship to the land, ourselves, and others and the ORFC has always had a rich programme in this area. I hope that will continue as it plays a valuable role in opening conversations about regenerative mindsets and different ways of relating.”
Vera Zakharov, local action coordinator at Sustain and SFP, said, “I was so moved by the plenary speakers, including Dee Woods of Landworkers’ Alliance and Land In Our Names (LION), and Paula Gioia, German peasant farmer and food sovereignty advocate, highlighting the journey to make the sustainable food and farming movement more diverse and more inclusive to the many communities who effectively feel locked out of land work as a rewarding vocation – due to racism, sexism and LGBTQ+ discrimination. I think this can be felt and seen in the programming of the conference, with land work bringing belonging, sovereignty and power, self-restoration alongside nature restoration, not just food on plates."
She continued, “I really hope this journey of diversifying the food growing and land work movement continues. There’s much to do – I’d love to see more sessions on diverse perspectives and land knowledge and decolonialising farming in the main spaces of the conference – these sessions were often in small rooms and oversubscribed. That’s a clear sign we need a bigger space to gather and connect! I’d like to see more queer-led spaces at ORFC in the future and more effort around accessibility and spatial inclusion.”
The persevering human spirit and tales of people navigating their way through change.
Victoria Williams, Director of Food Matters, said, “I was struck by the perseverance and ingenuity of the family farmers talking about their journeys transitioning to regenerative farming. The highs and lows of moving from a system of farming they had been practising for generations, acknowledging how detrimental this system has become to the land they love, and the optimism they have for being part of a brighter farming future.”
According to Sofia Parente, “Two speakers who really stood out were: Doug Wanstall, a regenerative farmer from Kent who has been on a journey of conversion to regenerative methods and trying innovative solutions and new partnerships, and Holly Tomlinson who co-runs the small veg farm Blas Gwent in Wales and is supplying veg to schools across several local authorities in Wales were both outstanding.”
Bringing food to the table
Andrea Gibbons shared, “Cooking seasonally means that chefs are cooking with new foods. In the panel on ‘Farmers and Chefs as Agroecological Allies’, there was a splendid discussion about the surprising appearance of radicchio, like a knobbly meteorite until you peel off the outer leaves and reveal the glowing jewel within perfect for winter dishes. It inspired everyone to think differently about how chefs connect with those growing the local produce they serve, and examples from the audience included visits back and forth between growers and kitchen staff or bringing produce in through the restaurant rather than the back door, so the connection between fruit and veg and soil and grower becomes part of the dining experience for the lucky.”
Vera Zakharov said, “This was my first ORFC experience and it did not disappoint. While it often feels that agroecological food production and land management is up against powerful forces moving in the opposite direction, the sense of determination, unity, knowledge, and creativity in our movement fills me with the sense that we will persevere.”
Catch up on our session at ORFC 2024: Realising the potential of public procurement for supporting local, agroecological farmers | Sustainable Food Places
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