Startling figures warn that one-third of the planet’s soil is spent, unable to produce the food we rely on it to grow. And with warnings that Britain’s soil fertility is set to run out completely, the future is looking bleak. But a handful of farmers are providing a solution with clever farming techniques that might just reverse the trend. Can they make a difference? Hugh Thomas finds out.
Stats warn that Britain is 30 to 40 years away from complete loss of soil fertility
The soil issue
Let’s talk for a minute about soil. You know, that brown stuff under the turf under our feet, most commonly found in the countryside. We need soil to grow all the things that feed us. But the problem is that soils are losing fertility at an alarming rate. Based on the last count, a third of all the planet’s soil is spent, unable to produce the arable crops we need it to grow. Who’s to blame? Intensive farming, mostly, where routine tilling, heavy machinery, relentless harvests and the liberal use of agrochemicals occurs.
The soil issue is worrying the farming industry. And, by extension, the rest of us. Warnings that Britain is 30 to 40 years away from complete loss of soil fertility have been issued. Governments have suggested solutions to the crisis, like providing farmers with incentives for healthy soil management. Though in practice, little has been done about it. For the time being, it remains in the hands of a few farmers to show the world better alternatives to the usual methods.
A new wave of farmers reversing the trend
The most promising alternative is a collection of new farming practices called regenerative agriculture. Which does what it says on the tin – an approach that chiefly aims to regenerate soil. It’s where soil disturbance is kept to a minimum, biodiversity is encouraged, and carbon emissions are trapped within the soil to offset what’s released into the atmosphere. As a result, farms watch their yields increase year on year, while their carbon footprints recede. The ultimate aim is for these farms to sequester more carbon than they emit, thereby helping to prevent climate change.
Duchess Farms are working hard to nurture crop diversification, conservation and eliminate the need for insecticides.
If it sounds farfetched, it’s only because we’re used to decades of industrial farming practices, and the convenience they afford. ‘We’ve lost touch with what the land is capable of doing,’ Matt Chatfield says over the phone. Matt connects London chefs with Cornish farmers – producers who are making great strides in regenerative agriculture. ‘Because we’ve been destroying it, throwing chemicals and pesticides on it. Lobbing a load of nitrogen onto land doesn’t make sense when you can help and encourage what’s happening underneath. It’s pretty geared up down there.’
Those Matt works with include the Warrens, Gothelney Farm, and Duchess Farms, who are among the farms and producers raising a few eyebrows. ‘I’ve seen what regenerative farming can do and how much it can produce,’ says Matt. ‘I think the [the powers that be] are in for a shock, and a lot of farmers are too. There are so many super intelligent farmers and I don’t think our government realises how clever our farming system can be.’
Mob grazing: how rearing livestock can help improve our soil
These farms are led by clever heads like Fidelity Weston at Romshed Farm in Kent, or Jonny and Rachael Rider of Horton House Farm in Wiltshire. Both champion techniques such as mob grazing as part of their wider strategy. Sara Gregson, a director at Pasture For Life (PFLA), a setup that advocates farms with cattle and sheep on a diet of 100% grass, tells me why mob grazing’s such a big deal.
‘It’s amazing for building soil health, because a lot of animals come in to a small area of a field, eat the top third, trample the middle third, and the last third is left in the field to recover and they move to the next section. That way of taking vegetation down and letting organisms pull the organic matter into the soil is the best way to improve soil health.’
Horton House Farm is one of few dairy farms practising mob grazing
Mob grazing is becoming more popular among savvy beef farmers, but remains extremely rare for dairy farms like Horton House. ‘To produce milk without any grain is a really big thing. Most of the dairy farmers in the country think they’re absolutely mad,’ says Sara at the PFLA. This new regenerative farming movement, led by Pasture For Life, is encouraging farmers to take on and manage livestock in this innovative way because it mimics the synergies found in nature.
Like moving chickens to follow cows so they spread manure and condition pasture. Or planting trees to increase biodiversity and soil quality. Or working with heritage grains, which reach further into the soil, thus trapping carbon more effectively. Or opting to grow crops without tilling the soil – thus increasing water and organic matter retention – first. It’s a stark contrast to the conventional systems that work against nature, destroying soils and reducing biodiversity.
Regenerative farming: “We just need to do it”
Though we’re inundated with arguments to the contrary (especially now in the middle of Veganuary), animals are an integral part of the agricultural system. Helping maintain the quality of the soil under them, well-managed livestock have the potential to assist in saving the planet rather than what the general consensus suggests they’re doing – destroying it. As the knowledge is there, and farmers are showing it works, the future of farming is looking at least bright. Or, as Matt says: ‘it’s looking really exciting, the changes we can make to British agriculture. We just need to do it.’
Farmdrop is proud to support the small, local farmers who not only care about the quality of their food, but the land it comes from, too. For the food and farming heroes to watch in 2019, read on.