The Oxford Real Farming Conference happened for the 11th year this January at Oxford Town Hall. The gathering is a thrilling opportunity for food producers and anyone who cares passionately about a better food system to learn, get inspired and share ideas.

All talks from ORFC 2020 are available online. #ORFC20

Good farming in Oxfordshire

At the onset of the conference, Good Food Oxford hosted a network meeting for farmers, growers and producers from all over Oxfordshire. Among the hot topics discussed were offers and requests for land in the county that is available for farming, getting more local food into catering and procurement, how to use social prescribing as an opportunity, getting support with running a small food business and ideas for organising a Food Resilience Summit at Oxford Town Hall.

If you’d like to share your thoughts on these topics, or are an Oxforshire producer who would like to join the Good Food Oxford network, please get in touch.

people talking in front of GFO banner
Oxfordshire farmers, sustainable food professionals and food system activists exchanging ideas

For the next two days, we attended talks and workshops at the Oxford Real Farming Conference and got even more inspiration and fresh ideas for projects and collaborations. Read on for some of our highlights from the programme.

Regionalwert AG Freiburg, Germany: Community shares as a model for financing organic enterprises

A team from Freiburg im Breisgau, in the south west of Germany, presented the regional investment model of the Regionalwert AG, a company based on citizen shares which was started in 2006. The main purpose of the company is to make funding available for investment in small organic businesses, while putting social and ecological benefits before financial returns. The number of shareholders has grown steadily to over 750, and its capital assets to an impressive €3.9 million.

Among the members of Regionalwert AG are organic growers, restaurants and a regional wholesale distributor. Lively discussions followed on the details of how the company operates, how it measures sustainability and impact with a comprehensive set of indicators and how to manage shareholder expectations of returns. Christian Hiss, founder of Regionalwert AG, emphasised that shareholders need to understand from the start that financial returns are not the primary objective. While all member businesses have to be financially sound and viable, and there may well be a financial return on investment a generation or two down the line, the primary returns are assets created for society and the region as a whole, such as healthier ecosystems, good food and a resilient regional economy.

The Regionalwert AG model has been replicated successfully in other regions across Germany. If you have ideas on how we could create similar community share and investment models on a regional level in the UK, do get in touch and we will connect you with like-minded businesses and organisations.

Could your local food business be Oxford’s first accredited Better Food Trader?

Better Food Traders from London led a session on “ARMs for Farms!” which emphasised the role of retailers in increasing demand for sustainably grown fruit and veg by providing alternative routes to market (ARMs).

Growing Communities Director Julie Brown explained why food supply chains need to change: “When it comes to major retailers, those narrow margins and the drive for shareholder profits exert pressure to reduce the amount paid to suppliers. Labour is one of the major supplier costs – particularly for horticulture and even more so for agroecological horticulture – so this pressure to cut costs results in this type of supplier finding it increasingly difficult to survive in the mainstream/supermarket system.”

The Better Food Traders initiative aims to reverse this equation and reduce margins for choice and shelf life, instead guaranteeing producers a minimum 50% margin on sales. Read more about the ARMs model and how the Better Food Traders Network is providing the missing piece of the sustainable food puzzle.

Regenerating soils with and without animals

The workshop on “Rotation Rebellion: Can Plants Alone Regenerate Soil?” gave a refreshingly nuanced answer and in-depth insights into the principles of creating healthy soils.

Soil expert and farm adviser Niels Corfield explained the core principles that are needed in order to regenerate soils. There are several levers that affect soil health, and incorporating animals can be a useful element to speed up this process, but is not an indispensable one.

Botanist Lydia Smith works closely with farmers and emphasised the importance of a good and diverse mix of grass seeds. Ian Wilkinson is the Director of Cotswold Seeds, a local supplier of such high diversity seed mixtures. He facilitated the session and emphasised the importance of communicating to people why a farm business does things in a certain way, and to emphasise the values it operates on.

Iain Tolhurst shared his experiences of over 30 years of stockfree or veganic growing that has created the vibrant farm enterprise Tolhurst Organic. Using a combination of techniques including crop diversity and rotation, deep-rooting legumes as green manures and small amounts of woodchip compost to grow organic produce, the farm’s yields, soil health and earthworm counts all demonstrate that while the process of building healthy, abundant soil without animals is different, it is by no means less successful.

Join Good Food Oxford for a group tour to Tolhurst Organic in the Chiltern Hills on 12th May to learn about their stockfree farming methods, business model and extensive experience in selling organic produce locally. Get in touch to find out more and sign up.

Other interesting sessions included a talk on grain diversity and seed sovereignty with lively inputs from The Oxford Artisan Distillery TOAD and a workshop on storytelling as an important way of marketing food.

All talks from ORFC 2020 are available online.

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