Mark, Kim and Tom reflect on an Oxford Real Farming Conference with a difference …

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) has become an annual ritual for an ever increasing number of people. Every year I arrive at Oxford Town Hall a little bleary eyed and cold, and if I’m honest usually a little bit resentful at having to break the holiday so early in the new year.

But every year those discomforts and resentments quickly dissolve as I step through the doors and am immediately enlivened by the buzz of the attendees, meeting old friends, sharing hugs and catch ups and the anticipation of a varied programme of practical farming, activism and future thinking.

So this year, in the teeth of another Covid lockdown, logging on from my bedroom-turned office it all felt a little distant and very different. And yet…. right from the start that familiar sense of surging excitement and connection returned as the participant numbers climbed to 5000 people and it became apparent that the organisers had succeded in creating a truly global online event. Whilst missing the hugs and catch ups there were plenty of familiar names in the chat box, and a rich mix of speakers and artists from across the globe, including the beautiful Maori taonga pūoro music of Te Kahureremoa Taumata and the awe inspiring Sumei Taiko Drummers from Japan.

With that kind of kick off it was impossible not to be excited about the programme that stretched over a full 7 days. I mainly attended sessions on land financialisation and valuing differently. I gained a deeper understanding of the scale of global corporate land grabs and how the commodification of land has disconnected ownership from stewardship, and the ways that this encourages short termism and unsustainable approaches to management. The sense of the struggle for land rights as global, systemic and ongoing, was overwhelming at times but the fact that our own movement building work has allies globally and is part of something bigger was inspiring and left me considering how we can connect those struggles more effectively to learn from and support one another.

As ever I wasn’t the only member of Shared Assets at the event!

Tom and Kim both share their highlights below.

Kim writes: I mainly attended sessions on spiritual connections to and/or relationships with the land, or the struggles of peasant farmers and workers’ movements around the globe. I particularly enjoyed hearing Lyla June sharing her knowledge of Indigenous food systems across Turtle Island, Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson, Method Gundidza and Appolinaire Oussou Lio speaking about the role of the sacred in farming and Earth jurisprudence in West and Southern Africa, Raj Patel and Rupa Marya illustrating about how philanthropic foundations continue to colonise food and medicine, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers discussing how they took on multinational corporations to secure better pay and conditions for their members. I learned about the long histories and continued impact and ongoing patterns of colonialism in global food, farming and medicine – and how these connect to the land. A clear theme from these sessions was the pervasiveness of and damage caused by the artificial separation between ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ in dominant/colonising cultures such as the one I have grown up in and am part of in the UK. I am still thinking about what this could mean for our work at Shared Assets when we talk about ‘common good land use’ and I am considering how vital it is that we amplify the voices of Indigenous peoples and organisations, in our work to transform the types of land governance and commodified relationships with the land which are prevalent in the UK.

Tom writes: A highlight for me was the opening session – a gathering of the incredible thinkers around the planet all with a similar message, that we have to change the food system to work better for everyone, that was literally and beautifully drummed into us! I was also able to explore sessions looking at the business and investment side of food growing. Building Resilience in the Organic Market demonstrated that the organic market has maintained its level of prevalence in food markets for around 20 years (both globally and in the UK), and during Covid has seen some marginal growth due to links to box schemes. The challenge now is holding on to those who are new to organic farming and eating. Moving Money into Agroecology explored different approaches to getting money to real farmers and several ways farmers are getting comfortable with investment funds. However, the idea of people ‘getting their money back’ or ‘making returns’, at least at this point and in the current system, feels unrealistic and so philanthropy is likely to be the most effective way of making the changes the real farming movement needs in the short term. Overall I was inspired by the skills and knowledge of those farming directly, and was pleased to see that the event had retained a rich range of practical sessions for growers. The opening session featured a song wishing “good health and good luck to the farmers”, which we should all do – these are the people getting good, real, food to our mouths and tummies!

Moving online in a global pandemic must have been a challenge for the organisers of ORFC but one they definitely rose to – and met – using the opportunity to organise and curate a truly global event and bringing home the realisation that, even in our pandemic isolation, we are part of a global movement of connected struggles for land and food sovereignty

The limitations of online platforms meant we missed the ability to properly chat and connect with other delegates – and nothing can recreate the warm fug and the welcoming crush and chatter of St Aldates Tavern at the end of the event – but maybe next year we’ll see you at the bar!

In the meantime you can watch all of the ORFC Global sessions online here.

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