It is a weighty responsibility to take the reins of an institution as long-established and beloved as the OFC. It has been running in the same location for around 80 years or, if you look at it a different way, for four generations of farming delegates.
New Brand and New Directors
For any institution to survive this long it has to evolve. It has to make changes. If it doesn’t make little changes every year, eventually it will have to make very big ones. An example of this is the new brand identity which we are giving the OFC from this year.
One of the healthiest things about the governance of the OFC is that he council also changes annually. Each director serves a three year term and we appoint three new directors each year. The primary job of the OFC council is to deliver stimulating content - the best speakers from around the world, the decision makers, the influencers, the challenging thinkers and, most of all, a few suprises. Changing the board so frequently makes sure that this happens.
The problem with having such a frequent churn of directors and a chairman who only serves for one year is that it is difficult to drive through big changes; big changes usually take while to bed-in. That is why the conference has always stuck to a tried and tested formula.
I am currently occupying the OFC chair for a year and, with a very talented and imaginative council, we have been doing as much as I can to leave the conference facing in the right direction at the end of our stint. This is why the conference has been trying new things, not all of them have been popular but there has been a logic driving them.
When the conference began in the 1930s, the best and easiest way to get the latest information about agriculture was to physically take your body to Oxford in January.
It is hard to argue that this is still the case. If you own a mobile telephone, the world is at your fingertips. This has had two major impacts on the conference.
Firstly, we have had to embrace the digital age. Our booking system is completely paperless, most of our content is available online and we have created an app to make the conference fully interactive. We are “digital first.” This has been a remarkable transition, it doesn’t seem very long ago that I was posting off a booking form and a cheque to buy my ticket. This has been a positive step but, behind the scenes, there has been a lot of hard work and expense aligning databases, sorting out secure payment systems and doing all the other unfathomable tasks necessary to make the process work. We still have work to do, particularly with accommodation bookings, and we keep battling away to sort them, steered more by criticism that praise.
Cost and Time
The second impact has been justifying the cost and time of attending the conference in person. Now that you can see the conference online, we have to to make sure that the live experience is better. And it is. We make sure that the venues, the food and the social experience all justify the energy needed to come. It remains stimulating, enlivening even, but we have been working hard to make it fun as well. Doing this on budget is hard.
The council’s great challenge is almost certainly delivering the conference that we want to at an affordable cost. We want to make sure that the conference is accessible to everyday farmers. We also want to provide a high-quality social event in a city not known for offering great value. The conference isn’t run for profit and the directors give their time for free but the ticket prices still seem expensive to many farmers.
This is why we welcome sponsorship from large farming companies – it helps us to keep ticket prices lower and to attract a balance of delegates for all farming sectors.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need sponsorship. Farming would be sufficiently profitable for all farmers to pay willingly for their own personal development. This isn’t the case so we make the best of it and the conference creates an opportunity for the supply industry to mix with everyday farmers in a creative environment to look at the big issues with an open mind.
The Venue Challenge
The subject on which OFC get challenged the most is the conference venue, the Examination Schools. Delegates love the location, they love the history. They hate the wi-fi. We all hate the layout. During my time on the council, I have made it my mission to crack this particular nut.
There are lots of venues in Oxford; we have looked at them all exhaustively. We and the ORFC already use the two largest suitable venues in town and we both sell to capacity. The only larger building is the Sheldonian and we moved there in 2018 as a trial. It is unarguably impressive but, as anyone who attended will attest, Christopher Wren was still developing his knowledge on heating and acoustics when he designed it.
Unless we wish to downsize the conference, move out of Oxford or split the event over multiple venues - all options which we have considered – the Examination Schools remains the best venue. We will try again in 2020 to use the building to best effect; we intend to move between plenary lectures and issue-focused breakout sessions as a trial next year.
No one takes a voluntary role because they love praise. The joy from my experience on the OFC board has come from trying new ideas while protecting the spirit of the OFC. We visibly attract younger and more progressive delegates than we used to: unless they just seem that way to me as I age. We also continue to welcome delegates who have been coming for 40 years and remain as committed to new ideas as ever. This is the balance that we want to strike – a warm social atmosphere but constructive debate and genuine insight built on facts and objective thinking.
I can wholeheartedly recommend the role of director to anyone thinking of applying. It is hard work - if you apply thinking the role is an honorary one, the committee will smell you a mile off – but it is also very fulfilling. The experience that you gain from collective endeavour with intelligent people is enormous. The social aspect of the job is joyful. The council needs new directors with the courage to keep making the changes that we have started. Ideally, we want people with different experiences from the norm to keep the conference fresh and relevant to modern society.
Anyone who loves OFC as much as I do knows that, not only can the conference withstand tweaks and changes (even major ones), it needs them. The delegates will always tell the council when it has gone too far. This balance of imagination tempered by tradition is what keeps OFC one of the leading agricultural events in the world
OFC Director Applications are now open for the term 2021 - 2023, to find out more click HERE.