Thursday morning’s debate in the venerable Oxford Examination Halls was an Oxford Farming Conference classic and one of the most challenging for years.
It set left wing Guardian journalist George Monbiot against almost everyone in the hall and specifically against David Caffall, chief executive of supply trade body the Agricultural Industries Confederation.
Asking Mr Monbiot to speak was akin to inviting the fox into the hen house.
He had spent the previous day across the street at what is billed as the Real Oxford Farming Conference where various organic and small farmer groups hold court.
To say Mr Monbiot is against the farming support mechanism is a real understatement.
He detests it and likened it to the vassal tax of medieval times where the bigger the landholding the more the landowner could extract from the system regardless of what they put in.
No sector escaped his rage.
Hill farming in Wales was ruining the countryside and producing insignificant amounts of food. Rich farmers were splashing their bloated subsidies on race horses and private jets and arable contract farmers were practising “smash and grab farming” leading to the rape of the countryside and massive soil erosion.
Britain’s soils were being so depleted that they could only sustain another 100 harvests.
Claiming to represent the 99% of the population who do not receive farm subsidies, he said the poorest consumers had a raw deal.
Farm subsidies cost every family £245 per year when they were already paying 45% of their total income in taxation through various routes, he said.
“Meanwhile some very rich people receive a lot of money,” added Mr Monbiot.
“In the same month that the Government put a cap of £26,000 on the income of families receiving benefits, Farm Minister George Eustice successfully argued against a £260,000 cap on EU farm subsidies.”
Scottish farming received only collateral damage from Mr Monbiot’s onslaught with a comment about paying farmers who only had a few deer on their hills, but Welsh hill farmers received the full blast.
“People argue that without subsidies there would be less food but I wonder about that,” he said.
“The hill lands of Wales are so bare and denuded from grazing that they produce very little.
“Three quarters of Wales is grazed but the country still imports seven times more meat than it exports.”
Furthermore the downstream water damage to better lands from not having enough trees in the uplands meant upland sheep production was causing a net loss of agricultural production.
“The second justification is that farm subsidies to hill areas keep people on the land,” he added.
“The fact is that only 1.4% of rural dwellers have their own farms. Consolidation has been massive.
“Over the road at the Real Oxford Farming Conference there are people who only want a few hectares to farm.”
Mr Monbiot contended that the hill farmers in Wales would find alternative employment looking after the forests and woodlands which would replace their sheep.
NFU opposition to such a strategy was “deeply hypocritical,” he said.
There was much more, including the assertion that George Eustice spent much of his time “slashing” cross-compliance measures to the benefit of farming and the detriment of the environment.
It would be fair to say the applause for Mr Monbiot’s speech was polite but lacked much enthusiasm.
Most of the 450 delegates would be wondering how they would respond if they were in David Caffall’s shoes.
They didn’t have to worry too much. Mr Caffall may be quietly spoken but he is methodical and not easily flustered.
“I am proud of the way British farmers go about their business. It deserves to meet public approval not grudging acceptance. I think farmers have been highly proactive and should be encouraged rather than ridiculed.”
“What about the 1.1m acres which farmers have put into unpaid environmental schemes and the 50,000kms of new hedges which have been planted?”
There were now 5,030 registered agronomists in the UK advising on responsible pesticide use.
NFU president Meurig Raymond also rose to Mr Monbiot’s challenge. Speaking from the heart of the hall, he said that his approach to running his family farming business in Pembrokeshire was shared by 99.9% of farmers.
“It is simply to pass on the farm in better condition. If we are to keep investing we need the support. Remember too that the payments are as much a consumer payment as a farming subsidy.”
Mr Monbiot claimed not to understand that line of argument.
“It is simple. It keeps food prices down and that is recognised across the EU,” retorted Mr Raymond.
Devon farmer and NFU deputy president Minette Batters said she was shocked at Mr Monbiot’s approach. “When are you going to challenge the supermarkets?” she asked.
He had “railed against them for years”, he said. “It is hard to know where to start with the NFU they are against forestry, against small farmers and they are in bed with supermarkets.”
It was quite a war of words.