Every year the Oxford Real Farming Conference is a meeting place for innovation, inspiration, and practical advice for the agroecological movement. It attracts growers, farmers, policymakers, researchers and changemakers in food and farming to come together for three days of discussions, reflections and visioning. After two years of meeting online, this year’s in-person conference did not disappoint and while there was no shortage of innovative farmers present, here's a few that I found particularly inspiring this year.
Matthew farms with his dad on Priory Farm in the Cotswolds. When they couldn’t afford to keep adding expensive fertiliser to their fields, they sought out other alternatives and became involved in the No-till with living mulches field lab. This research aims to investigate the potential for establishing no-till organic/low input arable farming systems using a permanent living mulch understory. Matthew has also expanded cover crops across his farm as part of a field lab with Thames Water.
Speaking at ORFC, Matthew mentioned that initially they struggled with the concept of sowing multi-species clover underneath their wheat but found that their soil structure greatly improved. He added that “what I didn’t understand when we first began is that we need to build fertility without bringing things in from outside. Why am I going out and buying nutrients that are available in the field already? As farmers we need to be thinking more about the microbes in the soil than the inputs - the microbes are free.”
Amelia co-founded Real Food Garden in Cornwall in 2016, a two-acre market garden with an onsite farm shop and veg box scheme. They also rear rare breed pigs on the farm that help close the fertility loop as their manure enables the farm to produce their own fertility for vegetable cultivation. They sow clover and rye grass for a nitrogen lift, the left-over vegetable matter is then turned into manure by the animals and the cultivated crop residue becomes a new crop area that is grown on for two years.
“We’ve improved our yields massively by building resilience and what our land is able to give since we started,” Amelia shared at her ORFC session. “We use principles of soil care and look at the land holistically – we’re working to build organic matter in the soil through plant growth as opposed to just putting compost on it”.
She explained that they are currently locking in 31 tonnes of carbon annually and their soil is sequestering 19 tonnes – “the stats back up why we put our success down to our soil.”
Real Food Garden is taking part in the Optimised compost management field lab in collaboration with Farm Net Zero, a project run by Farm Carbon Toolkit. Through the field lab they hope to support the biological activity in their Green Waste Compost which currently improves pH and soil structure on the farm. They aim to have improved material with better results from the same volume of compost.
In 2020 beer was poured down the drain as pubs were forced to close due to the covid-19 pandemic. The 2021/22 season further hampered growth, to the point where some hop growers may now be forced to stop growing hops altogether. Ali Capper grows hops at Stocks Farm on the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border. While her and her husband are some of the best hop growers in the UK, unless something changes within the industry they too may soon have to give it up.
Camilla grows hemp on her family farm in Kent. While it has long been misunderstood for its relation to marijuana, as more research around hemp is conducted, we are beginning to understand its many uses and nature friendly benefits.
At ORFC Camilla spoke about her involvement in the field lab exploring the impact of hemp cultivation on biodiversity and soil health in collaboration with the British Hemp Alliance. The field lab aims to produce more data on the positive impact hemp cultivation has on soil health, carbon sequestration and biodiversity. Camilla is currently undertaking a Nuffield Scholarship investigating how UK farmers can capitalise on the properties of hemp and plans on travelling to the USA, China, France, Germany, and the Netherlands to conduct this research.
Tom and Sophie Gregory turned to agroecological farming practices when they stopped seeing overall grass growth and a decline in NPK on their conventional dairy operation between 2014-2018. After a few years of learning, they are now starting to understand the food web in an in-depth way and applying that understanding to the way they farm. They have integrated a whole range of practices, including herbal leys for fertility building, mob grazing to kickstart grass production on under-performing fields and no-till to capture carbon.
Tom and Sophie are taking part in the mob grazing for dairy field lab which is researching whether tall grass grazing - sometimes known as mob grazing - can boost forage fields while maintaining milk production and supporting nature and soil health. At ORFC Tom commented that “we always need to question what research is happening, who is funding it, for what reason, and who stands to benefit from it. If we want research for farmers, then we need research from farmers."
Rosie grows blackcurrants at Gorgate in mid-norfolk, where her family have been farming for over 24 years. Faced with degraded soils and unpredictable weather, Rosie was led in search of innovative ways to make the farm more resilient. She became involved in the Innovative Farmers field lab exploring waste on blackcurrant farms in collaboration with WRAP UK and discovered surprising ways in which to limit on-farm waste. She’s now looking at moving away from artificial inputs on-farm in a move to farm more sustainably for the long-term.
Speaking at ORFC, Rosie commented that "it's important to find out how we galvanise bigger change. We need to help the industry move with us. It's not just about our farm. So working together across lots of farmers - all learning from each other - is vital."