SWFC’s Anna Heaton looks back at the successful Oxford Real Farming Conference Global (ORFC) 2021 — this year hosted entirely online
Let me start by applauding the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) team – and everyone behind the scenes – for pulling together an extraordinarily diverse ‘virtual’ event in a truly difficult year.
Running from 7-13 January 2021, the range of workshops and speakers at the ORFC Global 2021 conference was staggering; and the fact that, at times, I was logged on and watching a live session alongside over 5,000 other people from around the world was mind-blowing, to say the least.
No ‘One size fits all’ solution
There were some amazing sessions covering the global ‘big picture’ with several workshops on agroecology, regenerative and organic farming (including one that looked at all three together!), as well as a good number of sessions on all aspects of soil and soil health. One clear message from the conference as a whole was that there is no ‘single farming solution’ that will work for everyone – we can all agree on broad principles for future agriculture, but how this is put into practice will be different for everyone and every farm.
Key ORFC sessions
For my part, I enjoyed some of the more practical and technical sessions. Chaired by our good friends and clients at FarmEd, the ‘Rotation, Rotation, Rotation: Using Diverse Crops to Build Soil Health’ session on the first day covered how the FarmEd site has evolved over the years, and focused on how important and beneficial herbal leys are. Another particularly good session was the ‘Natural Worm Control Without Anthelmintics’ workshop. (Click here to read our separate detailed workshop report). The mix of knowledgeable researchers and farmers resulted in well-rounded presentations and thought-provoking discussion.
Speaking to Anthony Ellis, I know he was inspired by some of the practical discussions and implementations of silvopasture and agroforestry principles covered in several sessions at the conference. He felt the ‘Tooling Up to Tackle Carbon’ session (chaired by Becky Wilson of the Farm Carbon Toolkit was a really good one to help any farmer to understand the role carbon plays in driving soil health, as well as potential mitigation of climate change and carbon trading.
Anna Lappe’s presentation about the food industry’s stealth PR tactics was an eye-opener
Anthony was also particularly impressed with Professor Andrew Neal’s presentation in the ‘Life in the Soil Under Pasture’ session, which revealed an amazing depth of understanding, communicated with great enthusiasm: “It was great to see Professor Neal reinforcing the fact that carbon drives so many aspects of soil health and quality, including porosity, which is so important.”
But Anthony’s real highlight was the session with Charles Massy and Bruce Pascoe in conversation, discussing how Australian First Nations peoples’ land and food management are closely aligned with regenerative agricultural practices: “The possibility that agriculture began 10,000 or 20,000 years before we’d previously thought is just mind-blowing,” he added.
SWFC’s Tom Tolputt was also astonished by the volume of quality talks available to delegates. As an organic beef and arable farmer himself, the session on ‘Organic No-till with Living Mulches: The Holy Grail for Organic Arable?’ was a must-watch and gave Tom much to consider and digest for the future. But the one that made Tom sit up and think was the Anna Lappe presentation about the stealth PR tactics that the food industry uses to shape the story of food. As Tom said, “It made me understand how things like the Eat Lancet report – and the rise of the ultra-processed plant-based food industry – achieved such traction.”
Too much to digest?
Perhaps our only criticism was the sheer breadth of topics covered and the number of concurrent sessions over seven days. Ironically, having the conference spread over seven days while juggling work and family life was a lot more challenging than knowing you’d be away at the conference in Oxford for 2-3 days. We all independently said that were definitely suffering from ‘burn out’ after day five. And while it was great that the conference was happening at all given current circumstances, we sorely missed the in-person networking that is always a great feature of ORFC, although we fully appreciate this is simply impossible to replicate online.
ORFC: Not to be missed
If you missed the conference altogether, don’t despair: The ORFC team has already uploaded several of the key conference workshops and plenary sessions to their YouTube channel (see link below) and we’ve been told they are hoping to upload a recording of every session by February – and all free to view. So click on the link below to visit the ORFC YouTube channel and make the most of this amazing resource. And don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and watch something you’d not normally consider.