Under 30s Scholar reviews Oxford

Farmers Club Under 30s Oxford Farming Conference Scholar Anna Bowen takes a considered look at some of the core messages at this year’s event, including food packaging/labelling, the future of land tenure, how to promote ag more effectively, farming post-Brexit, Rotterdam’s floating dairy, the circular economy and venison diversification.

Earlier this year I was very lucky to attend the Oxford Farming Conference as a Scholar sponsored by the Farmers Club, writes Anna Bowen, a member of the Farmers Club Under 30s.

Day to day I work for AHDB Dairy, managing a herd health project in South West Wales which is funded by the Rural Development Programme (not the statutory levy). I also work freelance as a farm consultant, journalist, and private tutor, and spend a lot of time doing practical work on the spring calving dairy farm where my boyfriend is contract farming, or sorting out management accounts for my father and brother’s high yielding Holstein system.

I graduated in 2014 from the Royal Agricultural College with a First Class Honours degree in International Equine and Agricultural Management, and then completed an MSc in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security.

Having read lots about previous conference I was really looking forward to experiencing my first OFC, especially as the list of speakers looked so interesting.

The Scholars – a mix of university students and recent graduates – came from a range of sectors from all over the country. After a brief introduction, during which we were shown how to download the conference app (which proved very useful for interactive polls and sharing information), we were assigned our first task.

The group was asked to think about the concept of “local vs global” and we were split into smaller teams and sent out into the city of Oxford to find lunch sourced from specific locations e.g. “Oxfordshire” or “England” or asked to find food free from plastic packaging.

This really highlighted the difficulties of labelling food; is a pie “local” if its filling is from game shot within the county, but the pastry has been made with ingredients purchased from a generic national wholesaler?

Plastic-free was very interesting, as that group spoke to shopkeepers and café owners who said that their customers had no interest in environmentally sustainable produce. However, pretty much every coffee shop I walked past was selling reusable hot drink cups!

The afternoon saw delegates arrive as the first of the fringe meetings started. I attended the NFU meeting on the future of land tenure. The panel contained tenant and contract farmers as well as Malcolm Burns from the Crown Estate. The NFU vice-president Stuart Roberts gave some advice on working with landlords and the panel speculated about how tenancies would develop. The take home message was to prepare to be unprepared, and to maintain excellent communication between parties.

The conference itself was intense, with early starts for the breakfast talks and few breaks. As Scholars we were seated in a side room with the Emerging Leaders group. This was supposed to make asking questions less intimidating, but the main perk was actually having greater leg space and a table to write notes.

My favourite talk of the conference was Julie Borlaug’s Frank Parkinson Lecture, which was about innovation and disruptive communication in agriculture. Her advice was to steer away from buzzwords like “sustainability” and “transparency.” She suggested that the industry should look to tell a story and should avoid stereotypical stock images of generic tractors etc.

As someone who uses social media she also mentioned her policy of not responding to trolls or unkind comments, other than to state facts; she thought it was important not to start debates. Well-meaning people in the industry get into heated arguments on social media every day and I can definitely see her point; not all of these discussions actually help our cause.

A case study of how she has developed the website and marketing for the company she works for was particularly interesting, as it had been done to be as non-traditionally ag as possible, without falling into the trap of trying too hard to be relevant or modern.

A politics session featuring Michael Gove and Minette Batters was eagerly anticipated. With so much uncertainty about the UK’s post-Brexit future it was unsurprising that no clear answers came from the panel. Gove spoke about the dangers of a no-deal situation and gave an overview of the proposed Farm Bill and how he saw that fitting in with a fourth agricultural revolution. Batters spoke of the consequences of turning off the “tap of food production.”

Like so much around the topic the take away message seemed to be that nobody knows what will happen, and everyone working in the industry needs to be prepared for that uncertainty.

I would think that building resilient farming businesses, monitoring costs, benchmarking, record keeping, and maintaining the highest levels of animal health and welfare would all be key for being ready to face the challenges (and indeed opportunities) that may arise over the next few years.

Interestingly a poll of the OFC audience showed that, given a second referendum, 59% said they would vote to stay in the EU, 31% would support Theresa May’s deal, and 10% would opt for a no-deal. Other polls at the conference showed the majority of delegates had voted remain in the 2016 referendum, and although most people thought Brexit would be bad news for farming in the short-term, most saw long-term benefits.

Minke van Wingerden’s talk on setting up the floating dairy farm in Rotterdam was one of the most relevant to me, given my interest in the industry. The use of waste products from the city as feed, and the utilisation of water in the face of rising sea levels and anticipated coastal flooding, was revolutionary.

I really like the circular economy that the concept fosters, as well as the educational opportunities of a city farm. The fact that the cows would have outdoor space (a field on the land accessed via a bridge) as a loafing area was also great. While I can’t see floating farms displacing family farms and businesses in my client base any time soon, innovations like this show what is possible within our industry, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this idea develops over the next decade or so.

Given that so many of the concepts addressed at the conference are either policies that may or may not come to pass, or new developments that will take a while (if ever) to pass down to the majority of primary producers, it was good to hear Matt Smith speak about his farm diversification. As a world record setting shearer and a Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the Year he is definitely within the upper echelons of the industry, but the venison unit that he and his wife Pippa have set up on what was her family farm is within achievable reach of other proactive farmers.

Of the venison eaten in the UK only around 5% is farmed, the remainder is either wild venison from Scotland or imported from Matt’s native New Zealand. Seeing a gap in the market the Smiths had capitalised on venison’s status as a healthy meat and its growing demand and had invested in the infrastructure to rear deer.

Matt was honest about the support of their bank and how they were now building an on- site abattoir with the help of a LEADER grant. Farming deer has some very specific challenges; most of the genetics available are for attributes that appeal to trophy hunters (big antlers) rather than meat and temperament, few drugs are licensed so they have to be used off- label, and as venison is classified as a game meat they have to slaughter animals (currently an eight-hour round trip away) under times covered by the game licence rather than when animals are ready. It was an inspiring session showing what can be achieved by looking at supply and demand, using initiative, and working to make an idea reality.

My goal for 2020 is to apply for a Nuffield Scholarship, looking at an aspect of dairy health. I hoped that the OFC would give me the opportunity to meet people who had already completed theirs, and to develop ideas on what I want to learn and where I want to do that.

While none of the sessions were directly related to my planned project, the breadth of speakers and their experiences definitely helped broaden my mind and encourage me to see agriculture from a more global perspective. I hope that the creativity and courage I saw from speakers working on diverse ideas and businesses will help me with seeking out innovation and resilience from across the international farming industry.

My sincere thanks to the Farmer’s Club for offering me this opportunity, and I wish the best of luck to the 2020 Scholar!

Find out more about the Farmers Club Under 30s here.