While the conference, with 450 delegates and a large media following, was fully subscribed, it remains an expensive three days for farmers. Efforts have been made by the organisers and sponsors to see that hands-on farmers and young farmers from the agricultural colleges may attend, watering down the plethora of specialist bankers, solicitors, accountants and land agents, but it is an immensely costly venue and understandably the conference wants to break even financially.
When it first started it was held in a theatre in Oxford, which, presumably, was cheaper. Though I am not advocating a return, something should be done to make the conference more accessible – and go some way to meeting the needs of those who feel excluded, including the organisers of the (somewhat provocatively named) Real Oxford Conference, taking place concurrently on the opposite side of The High. It is all too easy to dismiss its attendees as bald-headed, bearded zealots, with gig-lamp specs and permanently outdoor front teeth, oodles of attitude and an interest in organic yak manure for the cultivation of triticale . . . but they are palpably not, as anyone who has attended their sessions will testify.
Surely a major slot could be found for them at the Examination Schools, if not on the first day of the conference, then on the second?
Heads need banging together.
Lord Henry Plumb, the best-known figure in British agriculture, delivered easily the top after-dinner speech at the Pre-Conference Dinner that I have ever heard. Clear, concise, good-humoured and above all positive, he told a packed dinner audience there was a great future for agriculture and a new generation of farmers. "There's no boundary to human endeavour," he said. "The years ahead have to be positive for the whole farming industry – because we know we can do it."
He spoke about the challenges he had seen since 1945, the 1948 Agriculture Act, his presidency of the NFU, which began in 1970, and his work in the EU. "My ambition is to leave a legacy to young people who have a passion for farming, both here and abroad. I want to encourage young entrepreneurs to make the difference and show courage and conviction in what they are doing," he said. The colleges, Fresh Start, various diverse training schemes, the Nuffield Scholarships and the activities of the YFC movement all needed our maximum support. Answering questions, Lord Plumb said the industry was "geared to go" – if it were allowed to by EU regulation. But a lot of work had to be done before the CAP reform was acceptable. And the challenge of diseases and the burden of bureaucracy needed to be addressed.
To a question from YFC national chairman Milly Wastie he said a system of monitoring and support was needed for people entering the industry; and to a question about ongoing membership of the EU from NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond, he said it was vital to retain a say in developments – and that wouldn't happen if the UK was not there. "It's a long-term business, with 27 countries involved," he stressed.
The annual farming debate in the Oxford Union, for long a highlight of the conference, saw the motion: "This house believes economies of scale in agriculture are overstated – size is not important" soundly defeated, by 122 votes to 225.
That was despite a sterling performance by the charismatic proposer, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, the Black Farmer, who made an impassioned (if theatrical) case against the centralisation of food production.
But he made few friends by comparing large-scale production units with wartime concentration camps.
Opposing the motion was John Cameron, a former president of NFU Scotland, who pointed out the trend towards bigger units had happened ever since the Enclosures Act, because of simple economics. Smaller farmers clubbing together in co-ops, machinery and labour-sharing rings did not mean a loss of product quality, he insisted.
The report on farming's value to society, commissioned by the Oxford Farming Conference, received a decidedly mixed reception from delegates.
"Realising the Opportunity" was part-authored by Professor Michael Winter, of the University of Exeter. The 82-page report did much the same job and came to similar conclusions as an NFU report of last spring, said many in the audience.
However Tom Heap, of BBC's Countryfile, described the report as "impressive and bold" and Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, told the audience it "mapped out the high road to farming".