Oxford Union Debate votes big is best

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As ever the Oxford Union Debate at the Oxford Farming Conference was going to merit a full house and, from the moment that Amelia Hamer, Somerville College, President of the Oxford Union, was ushered into the Chamber by her two bow-tied, tail-coated acolytes, a sense of drama was on the cards. Dick Playfair was there…

The motion, ‘This House believes economies of scale in agriculture are overstated – size is not important’, was in itself confusing, and could have become an argument on semantics. For the ‘Ayes’, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, businessman and self styled ‘Black Farmer’, opened the batting. In opposition, steely Scot John Cameron fired the first salvoes.

Does size matter, or doesn’t it (in farming that is)? Inevitably there was some innuendo and boyish banter. Were we talking acres or inches?

Wilfred put the boot into mega-farms. Bad, bad, bad he said. Concentration- camp style farming, high fences, high stock numbers, no grass, poor husbandry, poor public perception, poor all round basically. Or animals indoors, on concrete, never seeing the light of day. “An affront to nature, and an affront for humanity,” he said. Vote for me.

Eyewash, said John Cameron, or words to that effect. Having messed with our brains a little over the meaning of the motion, he rattled off a string of reasons why big is best – not least because there is a world to feed – better management, better animal health, better technology, not necessarily one business (think co-operatives, machinery rings and so on). Big John told little Wilf in no uncertain terms that he was “effectively disputing the course of history”. And then he sat down.

There was wit from the floor – My Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, stable boys, unstable boys …” You could only hear that in the Union. There was gravitas – terms like concentration-camp farming not fitting for such an occasion. And there was even some seasonal reference in support of the motion. “Jack had one cow, sold it, bought some beans …” and so on.

Two very able supporters spoke for and against the motion: Jake Pickering (England); Scott Somerville (Scotland), who sported a tartan tie just in case his Limmy’s Show accent didn’t betray his provenance.

“In a couple of years this will be an international debate” quipped Jake, who had the nous to pitch for job offers in his closing remarks to an assembled House full of prospective employers.

Mr President again invited contributions supporting either side. Performance is more important than size (more rugby humour), too posh to push (female humour), and a bit of a swipe at Essex farmers (mine’s bigger, mine’s better, mine’s more expensive).

There was yet more serious contention. No to corporate farming; sustainability defined tidily as the capacity to endure the test of time both economically, environmentally and socially; the days of the small family farm are numbered; a patchwork of big and small farms – let’s celebrate that; big farms mean fewer farmers (oh no they don’t!). Another panto moment!

And so it went on in that style of political point-scoring that we all know and love. The quality of delivery of those proposing and opposing the motion and their support acts was excellent. The quality of the speakers from the floor, particularly the enthusiastic younger ‘members’ (size again) was arguably better, at times. Well scripted, well rehearsed or, true to the theme, off a frayed Viyella cuff!

Rutland farmer Andrew Brown won the Perrier Champagne Magnum from Farmers Weekly for the most iconoclastic contribution from the floor, in the form of an elaborate ‘an Italian farmer has two cows …’ tale. Too long to repeat here, but definitely one for another day, in full.

My pat (no pun intended) on the head went to the Guernsey farmer, who has asked to remain anonymous incidentally. He spoke in support of the motion, while effectively opposing it in everything he said. “In Guernsey we have the smallest fields, average 1.4 acres, and that’s uneconomic; we have the smallest cows, and that’s uneconomic; we have the smallest herds, and that’s unbelievably inefficient … oh to hell with it!”

Ultimately, at the vote, the Noes scored a resounding victory over the Ayes by 225 to 122 – and a rare Scottish triumph over the auld enemy.

But for me it’s simple. It all boils down to the fact that you can’t succeed as a small farmer if your feet don’t reach the pedals.

The Oxford Union Oxford Farming Conference Debate 2013 and Post Debate Dinner at Christchurch College were sponsored by Smiths Gore, Saffery Champness and Birketts