Blog: Buzz at Oxford Farming Conference as sector looks to the future

CLA South East Rural Adviser Emily Brown reports from the first in-person conference since the pandemic
Mark Spencer at OFC 2023
Farming Minister Mark Spencer on stage at the Oxford Farming Conference 2023

The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) took place from the 4th to 6th January with the theme of ‘Farming a New Future’. This was the first in-person conference since before the Covid-19 pandemic and you could certainly feel the buzz of everyone in attendance excited to learn and network with those across the industry.

I was lucky enough to attend the event as an OFC scholar, after attending the conference online last year.

The scholars programme helps to support young people to attend the conference and experience pre-conference events, mentoring and materials. I was sponsored by Harper Adams University after spending my year as Harper Adams Students’ Union President last year.

Although the first day was a little daunting to begin with, those in attendance were incredibly friendly and it was fantastic to chat about current issues and challenges in the industry as well as opportunities for the future.

The sessions across the three days covered a variety of topics such as Fieldwork Book Club, sustainable trade, farming innovations (including agroforestry, vertical farming and the use of dung beetles), disrupting global food politics, scaling local food economies, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and a UK Policy session where we heard from Farming Minister Mark Spencer, Baroness Kate Rock and Labour Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner.

However, for me, the standout session was the OFC Oxford Union Debate with the proposal “This house believes that humans will not be needed on farms in a generation”. It was a thought provoking session with strong cases made by both sides of the debate. They considered future challenges the industry faces such as climate change, technology, safety concerns, well-being and loneliness of those in rural areas, as well as potential saved time which could be spent on improving the business management side of the farming enterprise.

To close the conference, Chair Emily Norton, Head of Rural Research at Savills, handed over to Will Evans who will be taking on the position as OFC Chair for 2024 where the theme will focus around diversity. I look forward to seeing what next year brings.

Read the CLA's analysis of Farming Minister Mark Spencer's announcement regarding payment rates under the governmeent's ELM schemes at the conference here.

Takeaway messages
  • Jane Davidson, Author and Pro Vice-Chancellor Emeritus, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, covered the Wellbeing of the Future Generations Act. She said there is going to have to be a whole system change to tackle biodiversity and the climate crisis. Legislation in Wales is the first piece putting regenerative agriculture and wellbeing at its forefront.

  • Dr Cynthia Rosenzweig, Senior Research Scientist and Head of the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, stated that there will be issues with food production caused by climate change if we don’t alter our ways now. She reiterated that food security is key and that a system approach should be taken, reinforcing Jane Davidson's content.

  • There was a lot of discussion around food security, stability, sustainability and supply chains in general at the conference. Labour's Daniel Zeichner did touch on trade too and said that the UK has a lot to learn with trade deals - very few countries have the same standards as us.
How the Oxford Farming Conference is made more accessible

As well as the scholars programme, there are also other opportunities making the conference accessible to more people:

  • The OFC Bursary - looks to support those who may otherwise be unable to attend the conference due to social or financial constraints (available to those over 18).
  • OFC Inspire Programme – enables ambitious candidates from across the rural and agri-food sector to attend the conference for the first time (for those aged between 30 to 45).
  • OFC Breaking Barriers – an opportunity to support a group that is currently under-represented in the industry.
Emily Brown at the Oxford Farming Conference.jpg
CLA South East Rural Adviser Emily Brown (left) at the Oxford Farming Conference