Strong PFLA profile at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

This year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was the biggest yet. Tickets sold out quickly with more than 500 people sitting unsuccessfully on the waiting list.

The topics covered over two days were wide-ranging, from Farm-scale rewilding, Opportunities and challenges for building regenerative supply chains and Genome editing, to Picking Europe’s tomatoes in Morocco, Nitrogen pollution and how to reduce it, and The Magic Money Tree – the economics of agroforestry.

The PFLA featured predominantly in the ‘Farming in Practice’ room alongside the Soil Association and Agricology, where farmers shared their experiences on key topics. The PFLA ran two sessions: Drought Resilience – lessons learned from 2018 and Silvopasture – planting for shelter and forage.

Day One

On Day One, Rob Havard from Phepson Farm, Worcestershire, chaired a session which featured Sam Parsons from the Balcaskie Estate in Scotland and John Cherry from Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire.  The session started with a reflection on the challenging weather of 2018, with a late spring and very dry summer.

All speakers concluded that using mob or holistic planned grazing had been essential in helping them through the year without recourse to supplementary feeding with grains, but that they had had to remain flexible and vigilant with their grazing plans.

John coined the phrase ‘resilience is fertile’ and Sam reflected that the same principles of building resilience were applicable to any weather extreme, and he is now feeling much more prepared for a changing climate since adopting mob grazing.

To conclude the session a video made by Clem Sandison of Soil Association Scotland was shown, which shares the experiences of farmers in the UK who have adopted holistic planned grazing – and features several PFLA members.

Each of the main sessions in the ‘Farming in Practice’ room were followed by smaller break- out sessions where the speakers went into further detail and took more questions from those interested in making changes on their own farms.

Day Two

On Day Two of the conference, Naomi Oakley, a Pasture for Life farmer from Dartmoor, chaired a fascinating session on Silvopasture with Andrew Barbour from Fincastle, Scotland, Chris Jones from Woodland Valley, Cornwall and Dr Lindsay Whistance from the Organic Research Centre.

Lindsay gave an overview of the most relevant research relating to the palatability of tree fodder, how much animals will eat given the choice, and the economic gains for including trees as shelter.

Andrew shared his experience so far and how, with support from the Woodland Trust, he has brought trees back onto his farm in stages by trialling different planting regimes.  He shared his observations and noted in particular how trees have warmed the ground and subsequently provide an early bite of spring grass.

Chris is at an even earlier stage of re-introducing trees on his farm and talked about the theory and justification for doing so. In 2017 he made his first planting of native species trees in rows within his pasture.  Last year was a tough year for establishing trees due to the drought and fencing and tree protection had been insufficient.  However, despite losses and with new fencing the trees are now off to a better start.

The following Silvopasture break-out session was another packed meeting, and this time Steve Gabriel, Silvopasture expert from the USA, who had given an earlier talk at the conference, joined the panel, along with Nicola and Paul Renison who farm in Cumbria and Pete Leeson from the Woodland Trust.

Pete and the Renisons spoke about the work they had done together to integrate trees on a Cumbrian farm. Nic and Paul admitted they had been reluctant at first, but that after a few years the new trees on their farm were already proving beneficial in terms of shelter and fodder.

There were many questions from the floor about how farmers should get started.  Nic suggested farmers should not worry about the theory and just “get out there and plant some bloody trees!”

There was also much talk about the need for more trees in Britain generally. It was thought that Silvopasture could be an excellent means to achieve this without mass land use change.  Every farm planting a few trees could have a massive impact on the landscape and environment, and go a long way to fulfilling government targets for afforestation.

PFLA praised

Both PFLA sessions were roundly praised at the event, on social media and mentioned in the final plenary session for the conference.

PFLA members contributed to other sessions too, including on labelling, local food networks, local abattoirs, sustainable soil management, meadow restoration and so on – the list is endless.

The conference was another great opportunity for members to meet up and also to encourage new members to register – with seven farmers joining the PFLA over the two days. Some of these have already contributed to the member’s forum – they obviously could not wait to have their say and find out more!

Also, Pasture for Life certified milk from Challons Combe Organics in Devon was on offer for delegates during the tea and coffee breaks – the quality and delicious taste was much remarked upon.

We are already planning for the event in 2020, but we shall need to be at our best to top the 2019 event!

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