Impressions from the 2016 Oxford Farming Conference

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For many in the agri-food industry a New Year starts by attending the Oxford Farming Conference which has been taking place in Oxford since 1936. This year’s conference, with the theme “Bold Agriculture”, took place earlier this month and John Henning, Head of Agricultural Relations at Danske Bank shares his thoughts on this important industry event.

The start of a new year is an ideal time to reflect and look ahead in the face of ongoing industry challenges and opportunities. In this context the timing of the Oxford Farming Conference really does help to inform, challenge and inspire. Oxford provides an invaluable opportunity to listen to, and engage with farmers, media, politicians, processors, retailers and scientists; to hear at first hand from farmers and businessmen who are developing and growing their businesses and to network with others from across the UK and further afield.

This year’s opening political session featured two industry big-hitters with DEFRA Secretary Elizabeth Truss MP taking to the stage with new Shadow Secretary Kerry McCarthy MP.

Both presentations were long on political rhetoric and statistical data but rather short on specifics despite the predictable but probing questions which followed from the floor.

However the passion lacking in that session was definitely evident in a subsequent political head to head on the pros and cons of continued UK membership of the EU featuring Owen Paterson MP and Phil Hogan, EU Commissioner.

Their Brexit presentations were both passionate and robust which surprisingly caused some delegates to reconsider their own stance on this important debate.

The keynote Frank Parkinson lecture then saw Dr Bram Govaerts provide a global perspective to challenge the status quo on the role of science in farm sustainability. He highlighted a ‘take it to the farmer’ approach to knowledge transfer and encouraged ‘technology leaps’ to help ‘make agriculture sexy’.

The next session focused on Step-change Science with presentations from David Fischoff, The Climate Corporation; Haven Baker, Simplot Plant Sciences; Julian Marks, Barfoots of Botley and a particularly farmer-friendly presentation from Nuffield Scholar Neil Perkins looking at ‘unlocking performance with data collection’ in his 2,100 ewe sheep flock in Wales

Conference delegates also heard a presentation by Graham Redman from Andersons on the 2016 Oxford Research Report entitled ‘Entrepreneurship: A kiss of life for the UK farming sector’. This report identified that UK farming is less entrepreneurial than other industries, confirmed that such farms are more profitable and identified scope for the farming industry to learn lessons and improve returns.

The traditional Oxford Union debate then concluded the day by focusing on equality of opportunity by debating the motion ‘This house believes that agriculture is an equal opportunities industry’. The motion was proposed by Michael Blanche (farmer) and opposed by Linda Tinson (solicitor). They were assisted by Aled Jones and Gareth Barlow respectively. The debate was enhanced by the historic debating chamber and robust, sometimes humorous, contributions from the floor before the motion was narrowly carried.

On the final day delegates participated in a session asking ‘Is food the new medicine?’ with a particularly impressive lineup of speakers including Susan Jebb, Oxford University; Judith Batchelar, Sainsbury’s; Pearse Lyons, Alltech and James Withers, Scottish Food & Drink. For me this was by far the most interesting session with four highly informative and entertaining speakers.

The final conference session then looked in more detail at the area of entrepreneurship in particular individual stories with speakers from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

New tools in technology also saw delegates tweeting extensively from Oxford with #ofc16 trending over the two days to further broadcast the valuable messages delivered by the various speakers. But ‘Oxford’ is much more than formal presentations and trending on twitter thanks to the networking opportunities available. Thousands of business cards are still exchanged during coffee breaks, over lunch and dinner and on the fringes of the conference. In the coming weeks many of the relationships established will be strengthened and it is interesting to speculate on the likely extent of actual business which may be written as a result.

There were a number of delegates from Northern Ireland in attendance including representatives from Danske Bank, Devenish, Dunbia, Moypark, UFU and the YFCU.

However it was again disappointing that no local government or political representatives attended this keynote event particularly given the importance of agriculture to the NI economy.

So what were my key impressions coming away from Oxford in 2016:

l The Oxford Farming Conference continues to stimulate learning and debate on the future of agriculture and the opportunities for farmers - driven by increasing food demand, climate change, technical progress and the drive for sustainability.

l The theme ‘Bold Agriculture’ allowed delegates to explore innovation, entrepreneurialism and leadership, along with step-changes in science and food as a medicine

l An exceptional line-up of speakers who without exception, informed, challenged and inspired

l It was encouraging to see so many enthusiastic younger delegates attending and participating knowledgeably in all of the discussion sessions and debates.

l The Brexit debate is well and truly underway in farming but no real detail yet on the alternatives to the CAP and how agriculture might fare if directly governed outside the EU.

l Entrepreneurship is alive in agriculture and provides good business opportunities for the future with plenty of success stories to confirm this.

Oxford quotes:

l ‘Progress can sometimes mean looking to the past’ - McCarthy

l ‘Take it to the farmer’ - Govaerts

l ‘When farmers see the light at the end of the tunnel some order more tunnel’ – Jones

l ‘Keep an open mind about what is possible’ – Baker

l ‘Destiny is not a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice’ – Lyons

Once again the Oxford Farming Conference delivered a high-level view of the agri-food industry and reinforced the need to look positively on the future. As the industry faces another challenging year we do well to remember, in the words of one speaker, that ‘The winds of change are blowing ever harder; some will build a shelter, some will build a windmill’.