Having faith in the farm sector, The Right Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon joins speakers at the Oxford Farming Conference

The Chair of this year's Oxford Farming Conference, Matthew Naylor
The Chair of this year's Oxford Farming Conference, Matthew Naylor
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The Oxford Farming Conference gets underway this week with a strong focus on equality, diversity and being fit to farm both mentally and physically.

The chair for this year’s event, which has the theme, Growing a Healthy Society, is cut flower and potato farmer Matthew Naylor, who said he and his co-directors had worked hard to make sure there was something on the programme for everyone.

He is one of the founders of Agrespect, a network which promotes diversity and inclusion in agriculture, supporting the rural LGBGT+ community. The message of inclusivity comes through the programme for the three-day event.

Starting on Tuesday, January 7, with a fringe event on Diversity and Inclusion hosted by Agrespect; the final day, January 9, starts with the option to join in a Farmer’s Seated Mindfulness and Yoga session or to take part in a run.

Morning prayers have also been given a shake-up with a multi-faith panel discussing Food and Faith.

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The Right Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley will be part of a panel discussing Food and Faith at the Oxford Farming Conference.

The Right Reverend Dr Helen-Ann Hartley will be part of a panel discussing Food and Faith at the Oxford Farming Conference.

One of the speakers on the Thursday morning panel will be the Right Reverand Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon.

Dr Helen-Ann, who is also trustee of the Farming Community Network, said she was surprised and delighted to be asked to take part.

“I am really looking forward to it,” she said. “Faith and farming is a really interesting subject and it is a great panel of speakers.”

Joining Dr Helen-Ann for the discussion will be Revd Claire Maxim, CEO of national Christian charity the Arthur Rank Centre, Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, community educator for Reform Judaism, and Ruby Radwen, who runs the sustainable Willowbrook Farm.

Mr Naylor said that as well as talking about the values and significance of faith, he was pleased the issues around promoting a sustainable countryside would be highlighted.

The conference, which takes place at Oxford University, brings together a wide range of people from all corners of the industry which, Mr Naylor said, provided a great opportunity to meet people with different passions and interests.

As chairman for the 2020 event, Mr Naylor has worked with his co-directors, BBC journalist Anna Hill, and Professor Nigel Scollan of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University, Belfast.

There are nine rolling directors for the Oxford Farming Conference who work on a rotation serving three years at a time, a new chairman from the three in their final year chosen for each event. This not only allows new ideas to come through but also gives the directors, who are all volunteers, to take a breather.

Mr Naylor said one of the issues he wanted to look at during his time as chair, was how farming could be seen as the solution rather than the problem to key issues facing us as a society.

“I am really interested in how farming can contribute to solving problems such as carbon emissions, how to produce food which is healthy and affordable and the benefits of the countryside on mental health.

“For many years we have been thinking about the chemical solutions to problems and the mechanisms needed to support the industry and they were big issues at the time. But now we are looking at different challenges and issues such as re-directing carbon emissions and creating more acres for bio-diversity.”

“A lot of people have invested in good faith into things which are more sustainable.”

Mr Naylor also stressed how important it was for the industry to be able to build these new relationships with society, particularly as we move outside the EU.

“We need to see where farming can link up with society and create new relationships when it comes out of the common market,” Mr Naylor explained.

Part of this will be looking at how we produce food sustainably, particularly with a growing population.

One of the speakers on this subject will be Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the restaurant chain Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Association. Mr Dimbleby is leading the first major review of the UK food system in 75 years and will take part in a panel session chaired by BBC journalist Evan Davis.

Mr Naylor said it would provide a wonderful opportunity for delegates and fellow panellists to probe the findings of Mr Dimbleby’s report.

“It is a hugely significant body of work for farmers and food producers in the UK. During the session we’re expecting to find out, in more detail, about the review’s proposed recommendations.”

Mr Dimbleby will be joined by Denise Bentley, co-founder and CEO of First Love Foundation, and Roger Whiteside, CEO of Greggs