Mark Walton joined 1000 delegates who left the fug of the festive holidays for the invigorating bustle and debate of the Oxford Real Farming Conference.
The Oxford Real Farming Conference is the vanguard of a successful movement to transform our food system to one that is more locally focused and more sustainable in every sense. In the 10 years since it started, it has grown exponentially, this year attracting 1000 attendees and with a 600 strong waiting list. It now dwarfs the more established ‘industry’ Oxford Farming Conference that it was initially set up to challenge, and has become a ‘must attend’ event for the Secretary of State.
In what has become a new year ritual I joined the delegates and speakers emerging from the fug of the festive holidays for the invigorating bustle and debate, the warm embrace of friends, colleagues and comrades, and some communal singing, dancing and foot stomping.
As the conference has grown so has Shared Assets’ involvement. This year we were involved in more sessions than ever before, covering planning, local food economies, County Farms and access to land data.
Our main sessions this year were hosted by the Landworkers’ Alliance and built on our Local Land Economies work exploring how community food enterprises contribute to the development of more resilient local economies.
- We chaired a panel debate on planning for smallholders that explored the need for changes to the planning system to allow for sustainable development in the countryside, peri urban land and Green Belt akin to the One Planet Development rules in place Wales. The discussion also highlighted the need to have better information on success stories within the current planning system, highlighting examples when permission has been granted for development of small holdings.
- We also facilitated a discussion about the elements required for a successful local food system – not just growing and access to markets but business support, mentoring, research and networks. Dividing participants up by region it was clear that the extent to which these elements were in place is patchy, and even where they do exist more needs to be done to join them up.
Another key session for Shared Assets was a demo and discussion of Land Explorer, our online tool to enable people to access open data about land. The ability to easily access a range of data sources and overlay them on a high quality OS map base, alongside easy to use drawing, saving and sharing tools was welcomed by all those involved in the session. The main recommendation for further development was to provide more search and filter tools that would enable users to combine data sets to create a powerful search function.
The conference also provided an opportunity to engage more people in the campaign to stop the sell off of County Farms. In a session led by Who Owns England and supported by ourselves and Sustain we heard from Stephen Briggs, a County Farm tenant from Cambridgeshire. Unlike many other local authorities Cambridgeshire County Council have recognised the value of their County Farm estate in providing a steady rental income into the public purse, and are starting to explore how these public assets could be delivering a wider range of public benefits such as education and health outcomes. The session explored the research and campaigning priorities needed to protect these public assets and maximise their contribution to a more sustainable agriculture sector and a greener future. It will help inform our work with partners including Who Owns England, New Economics Foundation, Sustain and CPRE on these issues.
Alongside our own work, and the growth of the conference itself, it was inspiring to participate in sessions run by other growing movements and networks that we are involved in. The Land Justice Network hosted lively sessions asking Land For What? and thinking about what a People’s Land Policy might look like, whilst CtrlShift facilitated a session to join up participants who wanted to discuss the challenges of relocalising control over our economy, democracy and resources, and develop shared actions to address them.
Amongst all this it wasn’t easy to attend other sessions but a highlight for me was the Food Journey, hosted by Mama D and Culturally Centered Knowledge, which transported participants on a sensory journey of freedom, enslavement, migration and commodification, and challenged us to consider what we meant by food justice and what choices we were willing to make to deliver it.
This is a journey we would do well to take with respect to land. Conversations between sessions with Mama D and Blackbark Films focused on the question of how we create a broader, deeper and more inclusive land story, one that doesn’t just look back to a bucolic pre-enclosure past, but includes the multitude of stories of dispossession, settlement, power and oppression that are woven into a tapestry that tells a longer, richer, story than just “1066 and all that”.
Like the food movement before it the land movement is growing. I would love to think that our Community Land Summit last December could grow in both the scale and spirit of the Oxford Real Farming Conference. But like the food movement, the land movement faces the challenge of growing in diversity as it grows in numbers, centering a wider range of voices, stories and lived experiences.
This week I heard for the first time a Malcolm X quote about land: “Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” It follows that, no progressive change to the land system – or the food system – can can happen if it is not based on freedom, justice and equality. Moving into the new year the question of how we weave a richer, deeper, more diverse and more inclusive land story is one I look forward to exploring.