by Alan Davies, FUW managing director
MOST of my holidays as a child were spent in Ceredigion on an uncle’s farm, but getting there from London was a bit of a trek. The A40 in those days was not the road or part motorway that it is now, so starting out from London it always felt ‐ in my father’s mind at least ‐ that getting to Oxford was a sign of progress.
I’d not been back there for several decades, that is until earlier this year when I went to the the Oxford farming conference for the first time. It’s a strange event but definitely worth the experience. Accommodated in the temporarily vacated student accommodation of some of the most wonderful old colleges, you really do step into a different world as you pass through the Porter’s Lodge of the college grounds.
Oxford has an air of intellectual peace and serenity that engulfs the visitor and you can’t but help be awed by the surroundings. And not because they are so “grand”, because in reality they are not. They are in many cases in severe need of a make‐over, a refresh, or of just plain old tender loving care.
No, the grandness comes from the scale, the style, the sense of history. And the way that their unique style has been preserved over the centuries, with the modern adaptations being sympathetically introduced with no destructive impact.
But I was there for the conference, not a historical tour. And I left in no doubt that this conference is different. The first thing that stood out for me was the scale of the conference with over 500 delegates attending. It attracted royalty, government ministers, foreign visitors and a global audience.
It was also different in many ways to any I’ve been to before. Things that struck me included: a very strong Scottish presence and influence on the agenda; a focus on big ideas; an audience that owned or managed large ‐ some very large ‐ areas of land, often employing dozens of people, growing produce rarely seen in Wales. And all looking to the future as a positive place to be.
I spoke to many people during my two days there and had an insight to
so many other ways of working, but the abiding memory is that the diversity of farming in England comes from diversifying on the farm and within agriculture rather than diversifying out of agriculture.
But of course the big moment was the speech by the Secretary of State at DEFRA, Michael Gove, who was there to share his vision for the future of agriculture. Whether you like him or not, agree or disagree with what he says, there’s no denying that he is a class act when it comes to performing.
The delivery of his speech was real quality and it was one of those very well written speeches that says all the right things without really saying too much at all. But his delivery made the audience and in particular the English attendees, very happy.
For those of us from Wales and Scotland there were less warm and fuzzy feelings. How can it be that the Secretary of State can be outlining a £10 billion support package for England with no mention of funding for Wales (or Scots)? How can it be that English farmers can be left feeling reasonably positive about a future to 2024 whilst we in Wales are left completely in the dark? How can a UK Government Minister make commitments for only part of the UK? Is he creating a new era of competition?
But there are other questions for the coming year, not least of which is which conference should we attend ‐because there are two farming conferences in Oxford running concurrently: the Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. One was described on Radio 4 as the “jeans and jumpers gang” whilst the other was referred to as the “suited and booted brigade”.
Both are highly valuable events and without doubt it’s vital for us to get out and both engage and listen as we fight the case for clearer support for Wales. It was a good couple of days that left me convinced that Oxford is a great place to be in January each year