Food security and diversity – Alice Arnott’s Oxford experience

In this latest blog post, Future Farmer Alice Arnott, a sheep farmer on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, reports back from Oxford Farming Conference which she attended courtesy of a Future Farmers bursary place.

After kindly receiving sponsorship from the Future Farmers of Yorkshire to attend the Oxford Farming Conference, I readily packed my bags to go to this year’s conference: ‘The Power of Diversity’.

The opening evening started with a panel discussion on interventions to tackle climate change in farming. There was a particular focus on food security and that local food production is more important than ever before.

The discussion talked about ways to reduce the impacts of climate change, and how farming with good water and soil managements and implementing affective crop rotations would all help in ways to adapt to climate change.

Making businesses more resilient in times of change was the general response from the discussion.

This discussion was largely concentrated around arable farming, but some of the final points made were that getting the right crops established in unpredictable weather and maintaining constant living roots all year round helped to act like a water pump.

Where did this leave me as a sheep farmer, farming on permanent pasture on chalk & clay land?

More rain has equalled more grass which has meant fatter lambs, better prices, and a higher fertility scanning rate for 2024.

But the continuing rain has also meant saturated fields, bad feet, less winter grazing, bigger use of winter feeding of hay and replacement gimmer lambs in worse condition than in previous years battling through their first very wet winter.

2024 will see that I do soil samples from every pasture field, continue to put down a herbal and legume overseeding in grass fields, and use an agronomist for advice in getting the maximum efficiency from our fields whilst still maintaining a low input.

Alice Arnott

After the climate change discussion had finished, we had a wonderful mix of canopies and fizz in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, this was a good opportunity for networking. It felt a great privilege to be there.

Political promises

Day one of the conference saw the opening address by Chairman Will Evans, a very positive opening statement: OFC’s mission was to ‘Include, Challenge & Inspire’.

Next, we had speeches from The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rurals Affairs, Steve Barclay, Conservative MP, and then from the Labour Shadow Secretary, Steve Reed MP.

Mr Barclay had a few points to make, some of which seemed valid and some outdated. He rightly mentioned food imports not meeting welfare standards but he also lacked a long-term vision.

Mr Reed had ideas and vision. Much of his ideas were about social renewal in the rural areas and bridging the gap between urban and rural.

He pushed for a progressive swing on food standards in schools, hospitals and prisons using locally produced food, and he mentioned farmers had previously been abandoned by locking export markets through volatile supply chains.

Labour planned to switch on GB Energy, a publicly owned green energy company which would lower farmer’s energy bills and of course, he mentioned reducing flood risk.

However, he did say that Labour did not support the Scottish style ‘Right to Roam’ movement, but instead favoured more responsible access to land. Although he did not give enough detail on public access to land, in my opinion.

How diverse is our industry?

Day two was more centred on diversity of people within the agricultural industries. There were speeches and panel discussions on ‘Diversified Leadership’ and ‘Could Diversity Fix Farming Recruitment?’.

It was mentioned that the outward facing image of the agricultural industry was seen as not particularly progressive, but we heard stories from people working within agriculture demonstrating they’d experienced nothing but inclusivity.

We know there is still so much work to be done.

It’s indisputable that farm leadership must be more diverse, a passionate speech from Minette Batters NFU President pointed out that she had been warned early in her career that, being a woman in a position of leadership in farming, she “would have to work twice as hard and will be judged twice as hard”.

It made me look back on the last seven years of returning to work on the farm and realising just how far I’d come.

It was obvious that retention of farming staff could be difficult and recruiting and rejuvenating farming staff was even harder.

We still need a stronger push for women in farming particularly in recognised leading roles, although it’s certainly making headway, we also need to be looking at recruiting those from non-agricultural backgrounds who have new ideas to bring to the forefront.

They’re not stuck with preconceived ideas and are adaptable to change, although being resilient is a key factor in sticking farming out.

The OFC was very encouraging in driving for a gender diverse agricultural industry, and it was also mentioned in a panel discussion that 60 per cent of workplaces are more productive if people can be their true authentic selves. Food for thought – not just for the agricultural industry.

And so it was obvious to me and had been for a while that we need more women working and helping on our farm. Apart from a select few at lambing, there aren’t many women on our farm.

They just don’t seem to be as readily available, maybe because they haven’t been encouraged in the same manner to push down a possible labour-intensive farming environment, more that they tend to go on to other jobs within the agricultural industry or don’t get the same opportunities that their brothers might do on the farm.

I’m now actively looking to try and get more female farm labour.

It’s also very apparent to me that there is a whole range of people from different backgrounds who are desperate to have a go at farming or working the land, that don’t have the access to land (think city allotments for a kick off) and if we don’t see a change through government policy between people and land access, I believe there will be a far greater cause for concern in the future with regards to land based work.

But this is another topic for another time.

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