A fantastic opportunity to meet with dozens of farmers and growers and talk about promoting herbal cultivation. The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) 2018 was held in Oxford Town Hall, an amazing building full of gilded rooms and decorative ceilings. There were a number of conference themes ranging from what happens to farming after Brexit to innovative farming practices. This conference was much bigger than I had expected, I estimated that well over 800 name badges were at the registration desk, and discovered that some 350 people were on a waiting list for places. Throughout the two days there was a heady buzz of conversation. In addition to many informative workshops there were lots of stalls including the Permaculture Association, Woodland Trust, various seed firms, WWOOF, Soil Association, Land Workers Trust and more. For a while I took on the job of handing out free copies of the Permaculture magazine, and chatted to a wide breadth of people attending, from farmers and growers to researchers and writers.
It was in autumn 2017 that I had noticed a call for session proposals for the ORFC to be held 4-5 January 2018. With the development of herbal cultivation in mind, an outline for a session was drafted with herbal grower colleagues, and was subsequently accepted! The session was entitled ‘Developing healthy and sustainable herb cultivation’ and we hoped to draw attention to the potential of the herbal market along with discussion of realistic suggestions for enabling more growers. We attracted over 70 people to the hour-long session. Our panel line-up was impressive, with Alice Bettany of Sacred Seeds and Helen Kearney from Elder Farm explaining about medicinal herbs which can be grown or wild-harvested and marketed in various ways. Jo Smith of the Organic Research Centre spoke of how agroforestry might be considered as a way of producing herbs, and I talked about the Holt Wood project of transforming a conifer plantation with medicinal trees. Mark Rumbell of Lush Handmade Cosmetics and Jim Twine of the Organic Herb Trading Company outlined a variety of developing opportunities for growing herbs and some of the issues that would need to be faced. Subsequent discussion ranged from ways in which cultivation could be scaled up to meet demand, how growing projects might include herbs, suggestions for co-operative working, the need for investment in technology such as dryers, to matters such as herb quality and regulation. The overall message was that there is a market of herbal opportunities, even though there are plenty of challenges in getting herbal cultivation established. We also gathered names and emails of people interested, and we plan to contact everyone for brief details about their location and size of land available – it is hoped people can be put in touch regionally. The possibility of some pilot projects to develop growing expertise and drying methods will be further explored.
One highlight of the conference was the visit of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Michael Gove, had just visited the mainstream Oxford farming conference (OFC), and gave an upbeat speech about linking future farm support to environmental measures. He mentioned forestry and woodland at least three times, and expressed willingness to reconsider a range of possibilities on criteria for funding and support. The conference delegates treated him with generous spirit, making our many concerns heard without rancour. Other highlights were the numerous enticing workshop sessions (ours was not till the second day). I managed to get to fascinating sessions on developing marketing for vegetable produce, reintroducing key animal species, using trees for healthier stock and forage, what has happened to the insect population, varieties of ancient wheat, and more. I learnt so much. For example, in the session on ancient wheat, we were treated by John Letts to a detailed explanation of the domestication of wild grasses, leading to the development of modern bread wheat with loss of genetic diversity. Little had I realised before this event that ‘spelt’ is not a truly ancient wheat, but a combination of modern and old varieties!
The ORFC has grown over the last decade from being a side event at the same time as the mainstream Oxford farming conference, initially a kind of fringe opportunity for organic farmers and others keen to promote environmentally friendly agriculture. As speakers said at the closing plenary, ORFC has now outgrown the mainstream event and has come to represent a substantial movement of small to middle farmers, land workers, environmentalists and others who are keen to challenge the dominant model of industrialised agriculture which focuses on monocropping and inputs that do not benefit soil health. The ORFC was just the place to start a conversation about building the market for herbs and enabling herbal cultivation. It was certainly a most inspiring conference, parts of the closing plenary drew us through poetry and song to reflect on our appreciation for the soil and the land available to us. As with all conference sessions, the herbal cultivation session was recorded so we are looking forward to having the recording available online through the ORFC website soon!