Realising that housing and farming cannot be separated. This is a theme that kept coming up during the two days. The low prices paid to food producers just can't keep up with ever-increasing rents, and several growers commented that this could be what forces them out of business at some point in the future. It's more than just a 'market failure' - it systematically undermines the ability of small farmers and growers to carry on with their work on the land, leaving the field to profit-driven agribusiness.
Personally, I took some solace from realising this connection. I had been frustrated with our co-op's lack of time for looking after the land while we are sorting out the buildings. From this perspective, what we are doing now will create the conditions that actually make it possible for us to look after the land in the future. And to be honest, apart from the occasional bit of woodland and orchard management, the land is quite happy to get on with things by itself for the time being.
My favourite moment was the intervention that a few women created at the 'other' farming conference (the Oxford Farming Conference), when they managed to get admission to the debate titled, 'This house believes that agriculture is an equal opportunities industry.' Our three representatives from the Land Workers Alliance managed to make themselves heard, and so impressed the audience that the winner of the prize for best contribution to the debate handed their celebratory bottle of champagne to the Real Farming team!
The Real Farming Conference was populated by a fascinating mix of farmers and growers, researchers and NGO people, with occasional representatives of state agencies like DEFRA and Natural England. I found it pleasantly undogmatic with a lot of scope for debate on all sorts of land, food and farming related subjects. I filled my boots with information on cover crops, land access strategies, agroforestry and community supported agriculture.
Tomas Remiarz is a permaculture trainer and researcher, currently living on a co-operatively run rural housing project in North Herefordshire. He is writing a book for Permanent Publications about 'Real Life Forest Gardens'.
The Oxford Real Farming Conferece is an unmissable annual event in early January.