More to oxford than academics

The Oxford Farming Conference is viewed by many grassroots farmers as a bit of an old boys’ club with little relevance for modern agriculture. Far-fetched or fair criticism?

There are two issues there, one relating to age and one relating to content.

As far as the age profile is concerned, the reality is somewhat different from the perception.

The average age of a delegate is certainly less than the average age of the British farmer.

Last year we had over 60 young scholars who were sponsored to be in Oxford.

But we are certainly keen to get more young faces into the audience – both young farmers and younger members of the residual rural industry. I believe they add something to the conference and they enjoy it.

We want to make sure they come along in future years.

And the content? Isn’t it always a bit high-brow?

We have a choice to make.

Should the conference be primarily about strategic direction or should it have a greater technical content?

My firm belief is that Oxford should continue to be about strategic thinking.

Farmers can get what they need in terms of technical advice from gatherings like the Cereals Event and the Dairy Event.

Oxford offers something different and is the one opportunity delegates have to take a broader view of the issues that are affecting farm businesses.

How can you encourage younger people to come?

Well, we certainly want to build on the current system of patronage and scholarships.

We’re also undertaking some extensive market research to find out what young people want from the conference.

And we are looking at maybe lowering the cost for younger farmers, though we have to be careful about cross-subsidisation.

It’s not necessarily the case that people can afford to go to Oxford just because they are older.

We need the conference to be attractive to a range of age groups in its own right.

Is it affordable?

The total package for the full two days, plus all the dinners and accommodation in the colleges is around £400.

It’s possible to trim that back by opting out of certain parts of the programme, but overall I believe it’s good value for money.
Certainly that’s cheap compared to equivalent conferences in other sectors.

And if a delegate takes back some nugget of information that changes his business, it can yield far greater returns.

We are looking to get more sponsorship.

For example, this year the dinner on the second evening is being sponsored though the Country Land and Business Association on the occasion of its centenary.

We are encouraging younger people to attend that heavily subsidised event.

Why not move out of Oxford altogether? The dreaming spires are all very well, but wouldn’t a purpose-built hotel in a different location be cheaper?

The committee has considered this.

But I believe the conference should stay in Oxford.

OK, it might be a bit cheaper if we went to a hotel in Birmingham or London, but I believe the very fabric of Oxford provides a more stimulating environment that encourages strategic debate.

Another criticism of the Oxford Farming Conference is that it is for land agents and bankers, not real farmers. How do you respond to that?

At last year’s event just over 40% of delegates were farmers.

If we could get to 50%, especially with more young farmers, it would be a very well-balanced conference.

But it would be a mistake to think that the non-farmers are not an important part of the overall mix.

Agents are farming a lot of land themselves and are often the first people farmers turn to when they have, for example, SFP problems.

We need a broad spectrum at the conference, including the banks, the supply industry and customers.

What’s happening to attendance levels and how much money do you make?

The total capacity for the event is about 450.

Last year we were full and the two years before that we had over 400 delegates.

So we’re not exactly struggling.

On the financial side, the Oxford Farming Conference is in a sound position.

We made a small profit last year, but have enough in reserve to survive at least one disaster, which is sensible.

How would you tempt me to “see you in Oxford” next year?

Mainly through the line-up of speakers.

We started work on the 2007 conference in October 2005 – three months earlier than normal – and have already got DEFRA secretary David Miliband and Conservative leader David Cameron committed to speak.

EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel will address the conference on the second day.

There is also a session on renewable energy, while the Union debate is on the subject of UK food security in the global market.

Throughout, we will be allowing more time for debate from the floor.

We accept criticism that in the past we have not had enough delegate participation.

Moving away from Oxford, you were also involved with the Curry Commission in 2001/02. What has that actually achieved? Many farmers don’t see themselves as being any better off.

I accept progress has been slower than we would have liked.

But the industry was coming from a past in which it was subsidy-led and focused on maximising yield to a present where it has to be market-focused.

That takes time.

There have been some major successes, particularly on the environmental side with the roll-out of the ELS and HLS and the organic conversion schemes. But on the consumer side the record is less good.

People are becoming more aware of the provenance of food, but have not really changed their shopping or dietary habits.

And there has been little progress in the area of research and development.

The real setback has been the problems the industry has faced with the single farm payment.

It’s been so demanding on farmers’ time and cash-flow they’ve not been able to concentrate on the marketplace.

But what about the food chain? Wasn’t the Curry Commission supposed to strengthen relationships with processors and retailers?

It’s true that the voluntary code of practice has not really changed the way the food chain works, although the Food Chain Centre has done good work in making the commercial tools available.

DEFRA has also been supportive in some areas, such as public procurement, but less so in other areas, like backing the Little Red Tractor, which has enormous potential to differentiate our product.

But farmers also need to get more involved in things like benchmarking.

Knowing and demonstrating your exact costs has a big benefit in terms of negotiating a fairer price.

Do the supermarkets set the level of profitability for the rest of the food chain?

I think supermarkets do a fantastic job for their customers, but they are squeezing the rest of the food chain so much they are in danger of eroding the domestic production base.

You won’t change the supermarkets.

It is therefore up to government to impose a greater degree of control and the retailers to behave more responsibly.

Would a change of government make any difference to farming’s prospects?

I’m not convinced it would make much difference.

David Cameron has been making a lot of the right noises about the balance between the environment, commercial reality and consumer wellbeing.

But David Miliband has also come across as a breath of fresh air at DEFRA and has a much more balanced outlook than his predecessor.

Seeing how the two perform at Oxford next January will be fascinating.

But ultimately farm policy is set in Brussels and the UK is always going to be hamstrung by the restrictions of Margaret Thatcher’s Fontaine-bleau agreement, which costs the UK Treasury extra money every time it seeks to access EU funds.

Would the UK be better off getting out of Europe altogether?

Ultimately our markets are in Europe and so we should be in there too.

The solution is not to get out, but to get more stuck in, so that we get some of the structural money that French and Spanish farmers seem to enjoy.