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OFC 2021: Thomas' experience

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11 January 2021

Thomas Oatey, 23, attended the Oxford Farming Conference as a scholar on behalf of Harper Adams. The university graduate is now the President of Harper Adams Students’ Union; with his degree knowledge and own background on a mixed livestock, arable and vegetable farm in south east Cornwall, Thomas shared his insights from the event:

The Nextgen Scholars programme runs parallel to the main Oxford Farming Conference every year. The university kindly sponsored my position for me to attend. The scholars programme is sponsored by McDonald’s and ahead of the first scholars insight day back in December I received a travel mug made from recycled materials and a notepad and pen which has allowed me to take a host of notes during the main conference.

At the December event we had a presentation from McCains where we heard all about their history, what products they produce, and how McCain works with their farmers, producers and their customers such as McDonald’s. Also at the scholars insight event we took part in an EDI workshop looking at barriers to diversity and micro behaviours.

Ahead of the main conference the scholars also met to discuss ‘How can the agricultural industry recruit and retain quality talent from multidisciplinary backgrounds’. This was a very interesting discussion point and we all agreed that more needs to be done to increase the levels of diversity within the agricultural industry and how it can be very difficult for people outside of farming to enter into the industry.

The main conference took place on Thursday 7th January via an online platform. There was a range of speakers throughout the day, starting with the politics session in the morning where we heard from Rt Hon George Eustice MP, Fergus Ewing MSP, Lesley Griffiths MWA, and Edwin Poots MLA. This was the first time the conference welcomed politicians from all of the major parties and it was very interesting to hear their thoughts about 2021 and the future of agriculture, food and farming.

The trade session welcomed the Waitrose CEO, James Bailey; Tim Smith, the chair of the Ag & Trade commission; a member from the Department for International Trade, and Ash Amirahmadi from Arla Foods UK.

Then there was a very interesting session exploring mental health in agriculture which is an ever growing and important topic that sometimes gets forgotten about.

Towards the end of the day there was a message from HRH The Princess Royal in her role as Honorary President of the Oxford Farming Conference.

The final part of the evening saw the ever popular and traditional debate take place. The motion that was put to the house was ‘This house believes that first generation farmers are better than first’. The evening came to a close after the debate which consisted of some lively discussions on both sides of the house. Some excellent thoughts were put to the floor relating to the environment, community relations and family knowledge.

Throughout the day there were also networking opportunities where I was able to speak to other scholars and delegates who were attending the conference. This was a great opportunity to find out why other people wanted to attend the event and their motivations behind it.

I found the conference to be very relevant to me as someone who is interested in the future of British agriculture, especially since we so very recently left the EU trade deal. It is a chance for people all across the agricultural industry to come together and discuss their thoughts and views on how they can see the industry developing in the coming years. It is a chance to get the most up to date information from politicians, industry experts and follow farmers which allows you to shape your own business and views going into the new year.

While the conference is typically held in the examination schools in Oxford, this year the conference took itself online using a platform called REMO. This was a fantastic platform which allowed for networking to take place on the virtual tables where you could switch on your camera and microphone and chat to other delegates. The conference organisers would then broadcast messages to let you know when the next session was about to begin and then the livestream would appear for you to watch and listen to. Throughout the sessions you could ask questions using the Q&A box or you could raise your hand to ask them verbally using your camera and microphone. It was a great piece of software which I had not used before but it was easy to use and understand. There was also an accompanying app for the day which contained information on all of the delegates; you could access their contact details to keep in touch following the conference if you wished. The app also contained the timetable and you could set reminders about which sessions you wanted to attend and so much more.

I would very much like to attend again. I first attended the conference as a delegate in 2016 and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was very excited to be going back. This year was a very different conference in terms of style, but it was still very informative and interesting. I would love an opportunity to return in the future.

If you ever get the opportunity to attend, I would strongly recommend you do - it might not seem like your cup of tea on paper but the people you meet and the things you learn during the experience are fantastic. There are many companies who offer placement jobs such as McDonald’s and part of the placement is the opportunity to attend the conference. Young Farmers also help people to attend and you can always speak to your local agricultural society to see if they can support you.

I will look back on my experience of attending the Oxford Farming Conference with fond memories. I have met some very interesting and fantastic people and learnt a lot along the way which will shape my thoughts going forward.

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