Opinion: The pros and cons of virtual farming events

The Sentry Farming Conference should have celebrated its 29th birthday last month. For the past three decades, about 500 delegates from all over the UK have descended on East Anglia on a chilly February day to chat, listen, share and learn.

This conference attracted speakers of the highest calibre. The Princess Royal, Sir Alastair Cook and Michael Eavis, all perhaps better known for their careers away from agriculture, have adorned its stage and recounted tales of why farming is so special to them.

About the author

ian pigottIan Pigott
Columnist, Farmers Weekly

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Linking Environment and Farming demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

Read more articles by Ian Pigott

Its reputation attracted opinions from early-adopting farmers, creative-thinking policymakers and business experts from all over Europe, North America and Australasia.

For the first 21 years, Sentry’s conference was chaired by Farmers Weekly stalwart David Richardson, and when David hung up his boots, he handed me the baton. Those Norfolk brogues, checked shirt and tweed jacket gave way to pink shirts and a navy suit. It was a time of change – and so it is now, as Sentry has made the difficult decision to draw stumps on its annual conference.

See also: Regenerative farming is more than just a buzzword

Conferences are extraordinarily expensive and resource-heavy to host. As we enter the world of the new Agriculture Act, we need to scrutinise every cost and analyse every benefit.

Adaptations due to Covid-19 have shown us all, Sentry included, different ways to reach an audience. Zoom, Teams, clusters, facilitation groups – they are undoubtedly cheaper and arguably have a more targeted effect.

I have reflected on what I enjoyed most and what I will miss least about those February days in Newmarket. I enjoyed the people – be it meeting other delegates, many of whom I would only see once a year, or the privilege of hosting our speakers and sharing stories, friendship and knowledge.

I built a relationship with everyone at Sentry. From the youngest trainee to the most senior manager, I learned how a large agribusiness can operate with the personality of a small family entity. The soft stuff is often where we learn the most.

I won’t miss the fear of letting any of those people down. Sleepless nights hoping the speakers will turn up (and on time), or butterflies that we are taking a day out of people’s busy lives and it needs to be worth their while.

Of course, Teams meetings are easier to attend. But they are also much easier to miss, and an agenda that doesn’t perk interest isn’t always what it seems. How often do the presentations at a conference that we assume will be the least relevant, turn out to be the most stimulating?

Virtual conferences can be enormously successful. Back in January, the Oxford Farming Conference held a virtual event. It was a triumph. Its virtual nature exponentially increased its accessibility. Many who would never normally attend were able to. It was more affordable.

So perhaps it is the less-obvious benefits that we must find a way to substitute. Time away from our farms. Time to step off the hamster wheel. A chance to take stock and reflect. A wellness day, if you will.

We benefit, learn and thrive from diversity – in opinion, in business, in society, in behaviour, in company. Our farms show us this. A healthy farm needs diversity.

A monoculture is neither good for a farm, nor an individual, nor a meeting agenda.

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