Searching for answers at Oxford Real Farming Conference – Zander Metcalfe


In this blog post, Future Farmer Zander Metcalfe reports back from the 2023 Oxford Real Farming Conference. Zander attended the big industry date after successfully applying for a Future Farmers of Yorkshire bursary place.

I farm with my family near Northallerton on a small mixed farm of arable and grassland with sheep and cattle.

My main job as an agronomist allows me to talk to various people in the agricultural industry on all sizes of farms, and this has been useful to develop my knowledge of farming practices.

Coming from a relatively small farm myself, I’m interested in how these farms can be viable for the future, different ways to make arable and livestock farming work on a more compact scale, and other paths to expand the role of smaller farms beyond commodity crop production.

With these issues at the front of my mind, I headed to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), thanks to a bursary from the Future Farmers of Yorkshire, a group supported by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society.

Having been forced online for its previous two iterations, the organisers clearly wanted to show that the conference was back with a bang, literally.

Taiko drummers opened the event and made sure that everyone could hear ORFC was in town.

Search for answers

I came to the conference with key questions to answer. Ideas I had read about and issues that had arisen on my family’s farm were at the forefront of my inquiries.

As hoped for, ORFC was the place to find people with the answers. A fascinating insight into establishing and using herbal leys from Cotswolds Seeds clarified many of the details I had often questioned.

A lively discussion about enterprise stacking on small farms proved to me that it can be done and offered a path to profitability on a relatively small acreage.

Improving the condition and health of our soils is something that my family and I are keen to explore, and a demonstration of ways to measure soil improvements without laboratory equipment has opened new avenues of exploration.

A valuable experience

There really is great value to being up-close and listening to someone speak with conviction about a subject they consider important.

As I read back through my notes, I felt inspired, informed, enthusiastic and cheerful having spent my time in the city mingling with people with all types of connections to agriculture.

This expanded my vision of what agriculture and food production means.

I realise it goes well beyond what I have been limiting myself to in my time farming the land, having heard from authors who write about farming, ecologists studying the natural world we farm in, painters, poets and musicians who interpret their view of the landscape, market gardeners, smallholders and industrial farmers.

The interests and plights of everyone involved in agriculture is something you can grasp at an event like the ORFC.

In my day job as an agronomist, I regularly get asked questions by farmers about ways to improve their soil, reduce inputs and adapt to the times.

Attending events like the ORFC will help me to provide more detailed, technical answers and will also bring opinions and learnings from many of the peripheries that surround these key issues.

I would offer a word of warning to anyone intending to go to an ORFC in the future: I travelled down with three questions I wanted to answer and came back with a dozen more I had not thought to ask.

Be careful when you open your eyes, it might be quite hard to close them again.

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