Oxford Real Farming Conference 2018

Farming, Food and Medicine

Over the course of 2017, I thought more and more about the commonalities in the state of farming, our food and our health.  It struck me that all three ‘industries’ (I hate this term - anyone got an alternative suggestion?) are facing huge challenges, in the way we’ve come to:

  • Farm, grow and distribute our food (intensive, monocultures, long-distribution retail chains)
  • Produce our food (industrial manufacturing operations, restaurant chains/cafes, our own kitchens)
  • Practise medicine and deliver healthcare (acute, pharmaceutical, reactive, symptom management)

It struck me that maybe the models for each of the above seem to have developed to be rather self-serving.  It struck me that of course, farmers, growers, nutritionists, doctors and cooks of all kinds need to pay the mortgage (and more) they were not there just because they could be, or because they were educated and smart, or because they were talented and creative.

It struck me that ultimately, each was there (or should be) in service of PEOPLE and increasingly in service of the PLANET.  It struck me that while progress and tech innovation had created a very different world - one with limitless possibilities – we the people and the planet were not doing so very well.

I wanted to start a conversation about how farming, food and medicine (farmers, growers, food retailers, nutritionists, doctors, chefs) could work together to build a new paradigm to serve not only themselves, but in service of people and planet.

So, I had an idea…

THE farming event of the year in the UK is held every January amongst the dreamy spires of Oxford University.  This annual (and rather expensive) event is, largely, aimed to attract and promote conventional farmers and growers; its patrons are ‘big names’ from the agro and food industries.   

This, folks, is the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC).  Its website told me:

"The discussions at Oxford each January shape the industry; problems and opportunities are not just discussed at the conference, but allegiances are formed to get to grips with them.”

Hmm, promising…

But, then I discovered that at the very same time each January, just across the road, in Oxford Town Hall hosts a

unique gathering of the UK's sustainable and organic food and farming movements [offering] a practical mix of on-farm advice, showcasing new techniques for best practice in agroecological farming, as well as broader discussions on what needs to change to create real change in the food system”.

This, folks, is the Oxford REAL Farming Conference (ORFC).  Its website told me:

“ORFC delegates come from across the food and farming sector, with an interest in new agricultural models. Those interested in meeting global food system challenges in innovative, environmentally sustainable ways …. people putting new models of farming into practice … farmers facing their own challenges in producing good food for healthy communities. The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a unique opportunity to connect with new, young and emerging farmers; from those taking over the family farm, to those innovating in unusual urban spaces.”

What?  Come on!

When ORFC put out a call for conference submissions for 2018 – I took a deep breath and submitted:

THE FARMER, THE DOCTOR AND THE CHEF - BIG IDEAS FOR A HEALTHY 'MENAGE A TROIS'!

"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old

 but on building the new" (Socrates)

Let’s start a ‘back to the future’ conversation of how farmers, doctors and chefs could work together to bring about cohesive and sustainable changes in the way we farm, grow and cook food to create better health for people and planet!

The submission was received favourably and the conference organisers asked me if I would consider sharing the session with group with similar interests; following a meeting (on Moor Street Station Café) it was clear that we were on the same page.

Let the planning commence - but who should we ask to Chair our session?

We got Tweeting…  

At the very same time that we were scratching our heads to find just the right Chair, the Royal Society of Arts was launching a major two-year independent inquiry - the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission –  to consider how we can achieve a safe, secure, inclusive food and farming system for the UK, a flourishing rural economy and a sustainable and accessible countryside.

ORFC Sue Pritchard

Sue Pritchard, the Commission’s brand-new director sounded right on the money:

“We urgently need to ask ourselves: what kind of country do we want to be, and what do we, as citizens, really want from our food, farming and countryside?”

We discovered that Sue is also organic livestock farmer in Wales and the farm is also home to a charity, the Silver Birch Foundation, which provides education, training and development for disaffected and disengaged young people, in partnership with local schools.

Perfect? You bet!

 

Team Ménage

On Friday 5 January 2017, well over 100 conference delegates packed themselves into the Long Room at Oxford Town Hall and seven passionate women - ‘Team Ménage’ - broke new ground:

  • An awesome and powerful Chair (Sue Pritchard) supported
  • Two farmers/growers/retailers (Charlotte Hollins, Fordhall Organic Farm and Marina O’Connell, the Apricot Centre)
  • Two public health nutritionists (Anne-Marie Mayer and Elizabeth Westaway)
  • A general practitioner (Dr Sarah Myhill)
  • And a nutritional chef practitioner (yours truly) to ask these questions:  

Where are we?

Where do we need to be?

Where are opportunities to build the new?

And boy, did we rock it!!

ORFC 2018ORFC 2018

As more and more delegates squeezed in to line the walls (and sit on the floor!), the engaged audience listened, participated and scores showed their support by signing up to stay in the conversation and help us going forward!

A highlight for me was to see Darina Allen, Director and Doyenne of Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, where I trained as a chef, take a seat in the front row (as soon as one became available!). Darina’s wisdom and tutelage changed my life, health and career.

After the session, many personally expressed their support and interest (ahem… even in the loos!):

“To see seven strong women delivering the same message from different perspectives was really powerful.  You guys were awesome - you needed more time!!”

Next steps?

Encouraged by the feedback and several requests, we’re looking to put together a one-day event in April this year to continue the conversation, explore the issues in more depth, create an inter-disciplinary team and take action to build a new paradigm for farming, food and medicine… in service of people AND planet.  Watch this space!

If YOU would like to join the conversation, have great ideas, useful connections, or would like to participate in any way, please sign-up below or contact me directly.

Click below to listen to a Soundcloud recording of our session at the conference: